'Tobacco Avenue' provides Richmond award-winning fake news

By Phil Riggan - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Jeff Kelley is the comedic brain behind the award-winning satirical website "Tobacco Avenue,"  which bills itself as "Richmond's most accurate source of misinformation."

"I think Richmond needs to be able to just laugh at itself a little bit," Kelley said. "It might be a little too conservative sometimes for the content of the site but hopefully most people embrace that."

The spoof site has referred to itself as "the cheaply-done, localized rip-off of The Onion that thinks it is just sooooo darn funny." It was voted by Richmond Magazine's readers as the Best Local Blog for 2009.

"These are subjects that everyone can laugh at no matter if you're white, black, gay, straight -- whatever. This is something for everyone," Kelley said.

He was born in Richmond and was graduated from Randolph-Macon College in 2004. He spent the next four years working as a business and technology reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"I spent all college, I was editor of the newspaper," he said. "At the Times-Dispatch I worked on deadlines and learned about leads and bodies and kicker closing paragraphs and learned how to put together a tight news story."

He started Tobacco Avenue two years ago after leaving the Times-Dispatch for a local public relations firm.

"I still wanted that creative outlet. So I kind of matched my knowledge of journalism with my love of writing comedy," he said.

Tobacco Avenue updates three or four times a week and the articles are written as news stories in the traditional Associated Press style.

"It has to be so believable that it just pushes the line between believable and completely goofy," he said.

He writes and publishes most of the stories himself, but he does have humor help.

"I've had people submit articles and the ideas are there, but if it doesn't have that newspaper sound to it, it doesn't really work," Kelley admitted. "If you enjoy satire and you enjoy that type of thing, you're going to get it right away."

Kelley says he reads and watches the news often to get his inspiration and tries to stay in touch with what people are doing and talking about in Richmond.

"Any story about a bar or a restaurant is going to be popular because people eat." So Tobacco Avenue spoofed the Fan District's "Verbena."

"We wrote about how they are opening a second location called 'Nounena' and it was just about a restaurant focused on people, places and things."

Another spoof involved a patron being executed by a waiter for mispronouncing the name of an entrée at Oregon Hill's grouchy eatery Mamma Zu. Of course, the  police sided with the waiter because the patron should have known better.

"Anytime you write about something that resonates with people who live here, it's going to be popular and get around and have that viral effect throughout Richmond," Kelley said.

The site has touched on subjects such as Richmond's nightlife, gay Monument Avenue statues, city council members twittering and -- most recently -- the Richmond SPCA, but nothing tops a superhero with protractible metal claws.

"One of my favorite stories has to be, honestly, the Gene Cox turning into Wolverine -- having a surgery that creates Wolverine."

On Tobacco Avenue, Kelley bills NBC12's own Gene Cox as "Richmond's most prominent local celebrity," and he has made the veteran journalist the focal point of several spoofs.

"People know who Gene Cox is, people know who Wolverine is and the idea of and older, elder newscaster becoming this super hero, I just loved -- and people ate it up."

Meanwhile, back in the NBC12 newsroom, the mild-mannered Gene Cox replied....

"I've been doing my thing since probably before he was born, so he's got some catching up to do."

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