He received several writing awards from the West Virginia Press Association, and even more of his stories were “picked up” by the Associated Press during the course of his 18-year career as a newspaper journalist in Wheeling, but for more than two years Mark Bell has been spreading his humor throughout the Upper Ohio Valley with his “Good As News” Facebook timeline.
Bell began his career at the Wheeling newspapers when he was in his early 20s and he was one of the “city editors” for the final five years with the outfit. But once his daughter was born, he decided it was time to seek out a position that provided him and his new family with increased compensation.
But Bell didn’t completely, vanish and he’s never quit writing. Initially he launched a website called “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” a platform that featured more than 10 local writers and journalists who composed fairly serious pieces on local government and local issues.
“I spent a lot of years sitting in three-hour council meetings when I was a city reporter for the local newspapers, and I always dreaded having to go back to the office and write three stories in one hour,” Bell explained. “This makes up for all of the daydreaming I was doing during those council meetings about what I would like to report as opposed to what I knew I would have to report.
“I worked at the newspapers for 18 years until the time when the Nuttings took over the Pirates, and after that happened I was immediately scared that they would trade me to a Japanese newspaper,” he said with a smile. “‘Good As News’ is my way of being a little sarcastic like I wanted to be back in those days, and I believe people really appreciate satire, and I think a lot of people want to put that kind of spin on a lot of the news stories they see these days.”
That is why Bell usually publishes three times per week, but that also depends on what news material is available from around the Upper Ohio Valley.
“It also depends if the spark plugs in my brain are working,” he said. “There are times when you can look at a story, and it just writes itself, and then there are other days when you struggle. I look at the paper, at the local TV stations, and I listen to talk radio to see what they are all reporting so I can find something that I can put a humorous twist to, but at times it just doesn’t work.
“One of the things that turned me toward satire while I was a newspaper reporter was the first story I covered. It was about a runaway monkey named ‘Alphie’ from the Pittsburgh Zoo, and there I was, sitting in a police cruiser with the chief of police form Bellaire, and we are driving out into the country to chase the monkey. We ended up in the middle of a cemetery, and we saw the monkey and tried to pursue it. But then he just looked at us and took off and was gone,” Bell explained. “That’s how I spent a couple of months in my early reporting career, chasing a monkey around Bellaire.”
Oh, it was news all right. Huge news.
“There were a lot of people there for it, and the monkey was actually taken back to the WPXI helicopter,” Bell remembered. “That ceremony was like it was the grand opening of a new highway or something like that.”
He also expects Wheeling City Council and Mayor Glenn Elliott to provide fodder for the Facebook page because of a change of approach to municipal issues and larger crowds at the regular meetings.
“It is a very interesting city council we have in Wheeling now because they seem to be a pretty progressive group, so now the city is in the midst of a change from a conservative approach,” Bell said. “So, I am looking for some pretty interesting battles if they continue this way.
“Especially when people start throwing garbage cans at them,” he said with a laugh. “They definitely have the people’s attention right now because they are addressing some issues that I don’t recall ever being addressed by the city council, and attendance at the meetings is bigger than when I was covering the city. Back then, there may have been three or four people there.”
His intentions fly far from a nefarious nature, and Bell is not attempting to spoof his work as “fake news” either. It’s all for a laugh and is not aimed as an attack on any single person mentioned in the ever-evolving news cycle in the Wheeling area.
“When you satirize a story, I think it speaks to a lot of people, and people see stories all of the time that they can’t believe were written the way they were,” Bell said. “Now with ‘Good As News,’ I get to use satire when I am having fun with some of those stories. It’s not personal, and I hope people understand that. It’s meant to be fun.
“For example, when I saw the recent story about Matt Coffland wearing the cowboy hat and taking his cooler to the commission meeting in opposition to the proposed changes to Jamboree in the Hills,” he continued, “I thought it would be funny to write something about Coffland starting a Jambo Tiger Pub at his business in Shadyside. When I heard from his son that he thought it was pretty funny; it was good to hear because I’m always happy when folks appreciate the humor involved with it.
“Now, I was threatened one time. Someone threatened to have my legs broken, but hey, I have bad knees, so it really wouldn’t have mattered to me,” Bell joked. “But seriously, no one has expressed any outrage or anything, and that’s good because it really is all in fun and humor.”
The name of the page on Facebook is simple and near to Bell’s heart, obviously, and the content is so sarcastic most of the time there’s zero chance a local resident could confuse it with an actual report for tri-state media outlets.
“I just tried to come up with something that was as simple as possible like what the people at ‘The Onion’ did, and to me, ‘Good As News’ sort of sounds like a children’s TV show. It’s really easy for people to remember the name when they see it in their Facebook newsfeed,” he explained. “When I was doing ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ I was working with a lot of different writers, and there was a lot of serious editorial content, so I think ‘Good As News’ has a much different audience from that first website I created.
“’Good AS News’ is not pretending to be anything it isn’t. It’s simply satire, and at times there are an incredible number of people seeing these stories. It’s kind of mind blowing at times, and because a lot of people don’t know that it’s me writing them, I have heard them talking about it before,” Bell reported. “No one is untouchable, but I do think you need to know your audience,” Bell said. “When I started it, I was doing a lot of national satire, and I didn’t think that really got people’s attention, but when I started delving into local satire, people really ate it up. There was one satirical piece that I did on the promotion of Jamboree in the Hills last year, and it’s still out there getting attention and notifications. It’s from a year-and-a-half ago, so that amazes me because it was really a stupid story. But sometimes those are the types of stories people really enjoy.”
It’s not about provoking action against a person or a business as the country has witnessed take place in Washington, D.C., when a 28-year-old male from North Carolina insisted he was self-investigating a story about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton allegedly operating a child sex ring out of the Comet Ping Pong. During the incident on Dec. 5, the man pointed an assault rifle at an employee and fired a shot into a door once the staff member scampered from the front of the eatery.
“In no way would I want someone to believe what I am doing is even close to real news, but I do want people to have a good time with it, share it on Facebook if they really like it, and have fun with the comments, too. Some of the comments that have been left on the ‘Good As News’ page have made me a laugh really, really hard,” Bell said. “A perfect example is the Jamboree story because it’s probably the one that’s been most read and most shared on Facebook. If I could write a headline about my transition from real journalism to satire, this would be the headline: ‘Journalist with Multiple W.Va. Press Association Awards Writes Satire Piece about 60,000 Women Filing Missing Underwear Reports after Jamboree in the Hills.’
“That would be kind of eye-catching, I think. People might pay attention to that one,” he added. “I do think people enjoy it, and that’s the big thing to me. If I was getting a bunch of nasty comments, it wouldn’t be worth it to me, but it certainly seems as if people enjoy it, and that’s the key.”
Bell hopes “Good As News” has a lengthy shelf life and, in fact, becomes one day “Good As News: The Next Generation” when he turns it over to his 11-year-old daughter, Alaina, a fifth-grader at Wheeling County Day School. She recently was a finalist in a creative writing awards program sponsored by the Ohio County Public Library.
“A couple years ago she wrote a play for school called ‘The Fractured Fairy Tale of the Big, Bad Wolf,’ and I offered her some suggestions,” said Bell. “She politely declined and said, ‘Dad, I think it will be a lot funnier my way,’ and it was. She’s a diva in training.”
(Images provided Mark Bell and ‘Good As News’)