The Ohio Valley’s (Fake) News Leader

[Note: This semester, an Honors College writing course at West Liberty University, taught by Dr. Steve Criniti, has adopted the City of Wheeling as the course focus. The course, entitled “Writing Wheeling,” includes a series of projects designed to explore Wheeling’s past, present, and future. This article was originally created as an assignment for the course.]

Things happen in the Ohio Valley. Too often though, we are too absorbed in our daily routine to notice. Most locals may not yet know that a local University is creating a new program or that the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation is organizing a new event. What people do know is that a heavy rainstorm is moving into the area this afternoon, and that traffic is bad on I-70. All this information, which we casually discuss at the dinner table, comes from the most underestimated news source: Ohio Valley local media. For some, it might be disappointing that WTRF 7 cannot report on celebrities gone wild at the waterfront; therefore, we grow indifferent to the everyday news, turning the volume up only during the weather reports. This general lack of attention to local media might have seemed unfortunate if it had not led to the creation of a new—and unique for this area—information source: Ohio Valley News (OVN). Behind this most unpretentious name, readers face a challenge which is changing the whole perception of local media.

OVN was a risky project. The idea was to create nontraditional content in a very traditional place. It started with an ambitious college student who wanted to attract more attention to the problems of the local area. He needed to reach out to the public, and mass media seemed to be the place to start . . . if only the media could truly impact the audience. Unfortunately, such a medium did not yet exist. Austin Verde (his alias for the website), who is now a senior at the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, saw the community’s indifference toward traditional local media. It led to the idea of creating a blog with content that would be full of satire and, at moments, eye-rolling sarcasm so edgy that no reader could stay indifferent anymore; thus Ohio Valley News was born.

Starting in summer 2011, this news blog provided people with some shocking titles: “Snowbird Arrested on Child Molestation Charges” or “Local Children Transformed into Legos” were a few. “Unbelievable” is the word that suits such headlines best and the creator of this blog expects nothing less. As stated on the website’s own masthead, “OVN is the valley’s best fake news source.” However, the amount of work put into the blog’s content suggests that OVN, though funny and fake, is something we should take seriously.

Right from the start, the blog supplied readers with several articles per month, all based on the events happening in the Ohio Valley. Surprisingly, stories that used to seem so boring, after being distorted and mocked, raised the interest of people living in the Upper Ohio Valley. One of the stories, titled “Steubenville Police Getting Bored of Shootings,” posted in October 2014, gave people all sorts of emotions. Readers got very passionate commenting on the article: “If the Steubenville police was out doing the job that they should be doing, this kind of stuff wouldn’t be happening in Steubenville,” wrote one of the viewers, who mistook OVN for an actual news source.

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So what made a difference and drove people to actually care about what local media say? We all, as viewers and readers, become rather tired of listening to the serious people with the sympathetic voices trying to tell us that everything is going to be better someday. News reporters day after day talk about our life, and it is their job to seem objective and unfazed no matter what kind of news they are delivering. Unfortunately, this kind of delivery does not provoke readers’ emotion. So readers can easily skip the story about an unfortunate neighbor whose house caught on fire, but as soon as they see a stranger making fun of such an accident, they become highly emotionally invested.

Being a “stranger” is another way to make people see the news in a different way. In an interview, the author of OVN said that his anonymity was a calculated decision: “I write anonymously because it allows my audience to read the blog without bias. By writing anonymously, people don’t read me; they read Ohio Valley News.” Events are happening so close to home, but when told by somebody “faceless,” it makes people feel everything in a more personal way; the audience instantly wants to stand up for things happening in its backyard. Such interest and involvement are what makes OVN work, because even the fake news needs real readers.

OVN gets several thousand visits per month, and Verde is hoping to improve these statistics by the end of the year, so the work goes on. From writing about the Wheeling mayor drowning to providing dear loyal readers with five best blue-green algae recipes, OVN keeps challenging us to think and read between the lines. Causing readers to understand what is true and what is false, and to discern the actual meaning rather than blindly consuming the information, makes OVN an information source of a new breed. It is not always easy to find the intended meaning and avoid misinterpretation. Verde himself is rather concerned with public’s perception of his content. When asked about the goal of his project he says that he has “never seen OVN as a satire of local news; rather, it’s a satire of people’s perception of the news.”

Reading the blog does make people change their opinions toward local media at least in one way. It does not matter if the reader starts criticizing local journalists or, on the contrary, realizes how hard it is to report news in a small town; after reading OVN the reader, if nothing else, acknowledges the existence of the local media. This is what makes people start to care about the place they call home.

When we think of the local media, our minds immediately picture The Intelligencer and that country music radio station we listen to on our way home from work. We might not have noticed yet that the concept of our local media is changing toward fresh and risky projects. Yet, OVN’s goal is not to undermine the reputation of the traditional media, but rather to involve us in the creation, discussion, and analysis of what we see and hear. As British sociologist Meryl Aldridge eloquently stated, “Local media may lack glamour, but their importance is beyond doubt.” But in order to realize that, we often need to take a good, hard look at it, and OVN is happy to provide us that impetus.

OVN has yet a lot to say, and there is a hope that this source will stay with us for a while. About the future of the blog, Verde said, “I imagine that I’ll keep writing for a long time. I don’t have any deadlines or bosses demanding that I write, so I do it at my own leisure.” So four years and 140 articles later, OVN keeps delivering high-quality (fake) news.