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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes 

A local satirical news Web site is slowly being assimilated by mainstream media outlets

Don't fret, folks: Nothing you read on page 30 of the Dec. 10 Trib PM is true. Staph infections are not caused by staff meetings. The Pittsburgh Pirates are not replacing their first- and third-base coaches with cardboard cutouts.

The headlines represent Carbolic Smoke Ball's latest incursion into the mainstream media.

"We're looking to take over the world one joke at a time," quips Carbolic contributing editor Chad Hermann. If that's true, 2008 may mark a pivotal era in that campaign.

The brainchild of editor-in-chief Tim Murray, Carbolic Smoke Ball (carbolicsmokeblog.blogspot.com) began in early 2005 as a faux-news blog much like The Onion, an online newspaper that lampoons the day's news. As with The Onion, Carbolic is composed largely of satiric news stories, tabloid headlines and doctored pictures -- all of which poke fun at public figures and current events, as well as the media itself.

Originally, says Murray, the Pittsburgh site was merely used "to entertain ourselves." But it's reaching a much larger audience now.

Shortly after the blog's launch, Carbolic teamed up with local radio station WDVE, airing spoof-news items on Friday mornings. Radio was a "whole different" format, according to Murray, requiring a more conventional "set-up/punchline" approach to jokes.

This December, Carbolic added another medium to its repertoire: the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's afternoon edition, the Trib PM. The tabloid newspaper will allot an entire page to Carbolic every Monday, mixing its real news with its made-up counterpart.

And next February, Carbolic plans to self-publish a "greatest hits" book of more than 200 pages, commemorating the site's first three years.

That's a lot of work for an outlet that features four main staffers and a dozen contributors. "We're writing jokes that can appear in all three formats," Hermann says -- online, in print, and on the air.

But although writing for the different mediums has its difficulties, Hermann says one question trumps all the others: "Is it funny?" he says. Crafting the material is "about package and delivery."

Trib PM editors Josie Roberts and Chris Pastrick did not return calls for comment on the story. But one stipulation of Carbolic's arrangement with the paper -- which Murray says involves no money -- is that all the material published will be original.

"The Trib asked for first run, so they don't get reruns from the Web site," Hermann says.

But according to Murray, while Trib staff were the ones to propose the idea, the decision to print real and fake news together wasn't easy for the Trib.

"They were afraid somebody picking it up will mistake it for real news," he says. "They contemplated putting the page upside down."

But with a couple installments published already, Carbolic editors don't see a problem appearing in the Trib PM's pages. Unlike the paper's morning edition, the Trib PM highlights celebrity news on its cover, and the overall mix of stories is typically lighter.

"It doesn't feel weird being in the Trib," Hermann says. "It's not like we're next to the front page. We're at page 30, near the celebrity news."

"Being in print made it look funnier," Murray adds.

Part of Carbolic's broader agenda in 2008 is to reduce its coverage of local events, such as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's antics, and focus more on national news. "We're proud of how popular [Carbolic] has become locally," Hermann says, "but we want to become more popular nationally, take our act on the road and open up for Van Halen."

The group plans to launch a sister site, focused exclusively on topics of nationwide interest, next year.

"Let's face it: The mayor is a goldmine," Hermann says. "He is available for material every day." Still, he says, "We're tired of Luke jokes," and national audiences visiting the site don't get them.

"We have to keep the Pittsburgh stuff," Murray says. "But we want a separate entity to see if we can take a run at The Onion."

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