By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Somewhere in Kalamazoo, Elvis weeps: The Weekly World News is folding.
The Weekly World News was not one of those sleazy tabloids that cover tawdry celebrity scandals. It was a sleazy tabloid that covered events that seemed to occur in a parallel universe, a fevered dream world where pop culture mixed with urban legends, conspiracy theories and hallucinations. Maybe WWN played fast and loose with the facts, but somehow it captured the spirit of the age -- and did it in headlines as perfect as haiku:
"DEAD ROCK STARS RETURN ON GHOST PLANE!"
"BLIND MAN REGAINS SIGHT AND DUMPS UGLY WIFE!"
The most creative newspaper in American history, the Weekly World News broke the story that Elvis faked his death and was living in Kalamazoo, Mich. It also broke the story that the lost continent of Atlantis was found near Buffalo. And the story that Hillary Clinton was having a love affair with P'lod, an alien with a foot-long tongue. And countless other incredible scoops.
None of these stories was, in a strictly technical sense, true, which explains why the Weekly World News never won a Pulitzer Prize. But in its glorious heyday in the late 1980s, the supermarket tabloid amazed and amused a million readers a week.
But that was then. Now, with circulation plunging below 90,000, American Media, which owns WWN, has pulled the plug. The Aug. 27 issue will be the last. After that, the Weekly World News will be as dead as Elvis, maybe deader.
WWN's cult followers are mad. How mad? Almost as mad as Ed Anger, WWN's perpetually enraged right-wing nut-job columnist. Anger started every column by announcing exactly how angry he was. "I'm madder than Batman with a run in his tights." Or: "I'm madder than a gay football hero on a date with the homecoming queen." Or his favorite: "I'm pig-biting mad."
"I'm pig-biting mad at the demise of Weekly World News," says Joe Garden, features editor of the Onion, a satirical newspaper much influenced by WWN. "They really knew how to take hold of a premise and go as far as humanly possible with it. It was beautiful."
"12 U.S. SENATORS ARE SPACE ALIENS!"
In 1999, somebody taped that WWN story to a wall in the Senate press gallery, where it amused the press corps, although some scribes griped that the paper had underestimated the number of aliens in the Senate by at least three or four. Reporters loved the Weekly World News. Many fantasized about working for it and casting aside the tired old conventions of journalism, such as printing facts.
"Mainstream journalists read WWN and dreamed about killing the county sewer-system story they were working on and writing about a swamp monster or a 65-pound grasshopper," says Derek Clontz, who was a Weekly World News editor for 15 years.
In fact, most of WWN's writers really had escaped from mainstream newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times. They figured life at the Weekly World News would be more fun -- and they were right.
"It was electrifying," says Sal Ivone, who worked at the New York Daily News before jumping to WWN. "Every day you'd go into the office and somebody would make you scream with laughter."
"It was just a hoot," says Joe Berger, who covered Congress for the Oregon Journal before escaping to WWN in 1981.
"We were the Beatles of fake journalism," says Clontz.
* * *
The story of the Weekly World News is as bizarre as any of the articles it printed. Well, maybe not quite as bizarre as "PLANE MISSING SINCE 1939 LANDS WITH SKELETON AT THE CONTROLS," but pretty bizarre.
It all began in Lantana, Fla., in 1979, when the National Enquirer, America's premier tabloid, bought new color presses to replace its old black-and-white presses. The Enquirer's owner, a former CIA agent named Generoso Pope, couldn't bear to leave the old presses idle, so he founded Weekly World News as a sort of poor man's Enquirer, running celebrity gossip and UFO sightings that didn't quite meet the Enquirer's high standards.
"Early covers tended to be dominated by a gigantic celebrity head -- not headline, head -- like sitcom king John Ritter's head the size of a beach ball," Clontz recalls in an e-mail. "Circulation didn't top 200,000 until then-editor Joe West named my brother Eddie managing editor and gave him sweeping powers over content and presentation. From that point on, it was Katy bar the door."
Eddie Clontz was the mad genius behind WWN. A 10th-grade dropout from North Carolina and former copy editor at small newspapers, he imbued the WWN newsroom with his unique philosophy of journalism: Don't fact-check your way out of a good story.
"If we get a story about a guy who thinks he's a vampire, we will take him at his word," Clontz told the Philadelphia Inquirer before he died in 2004.
Clontz's philosophy of creative credulity led to wonderful stories that excessive fact-checking would have ruined. For instance, WWN ran more Elvis and Bigfoot sightings than the more finicky newspapers did.
"If a guy calls and says Bigfoot ran away with his wife," Ivone says, "we wrote it as straight as an AP story."
"In the '80s, WWN was 85 percent true," says Derek Clontz. "We simply revved up and played big the wild, odd and strange stories that mainstream media overlooked or were too persnickety to run."
One day, Eddie Clontz spotted a tiny newspaper story about a Florida undertaker who was arrested for selling body parts to research scientists. With a little reporting and a little creativity, it became a WWN classic: "FLORIDA MAN SCREAMS FROM THE GRAVE, MY BRAIN IS MISSING!"
In those days -- they could be termed WWN's semi-factual period -- the tabloid employed a squad of "clippers," who read scores of local newspapers and clipped out the weirder stories.
"They would give me a stack of clips and I'd get on the phone and call people," Berger recalls. "If a guy in Omaha got hit by 30,000 volts of lightning and lived to tell the tale, I'd call the poor sucker and get his version of the story and run it. It was all factual."
But too many facts can ruin a good yarn, so Pope and Clontz encouraged their reporters to embellish a bit. The reporters complied and started spicing up stories with lovely details that came straight from their imaginations. Gradually, true stories became half-true stories, then quarter-true stories, then . . .
"It wasn't like overnight we decided to start running fiction," Berger says. "We just added a few facts to a story and got away with it, and it went on from there."
WWN's writers had stepped out onto that proverbial "slippery slope" you hear so much about, and they gleefully slid down it, riding right to the bottom, giggling all the way. Soon they were producing "FAMED PSYCHIC'S HEAD EXPLODES" and "ELVIS TOMB IS EMPTY" and "HEAVEN PHOTOGRAPHED BY HUBBLE TELESCOPE," which was illustrated by an actual photo from the Hubble, enhanced just a wee bit to show a shining city so lovely it made dying seem like a small price to pay for admission.
As the stories got more creative, circulation soared, reaching nearly a million copies a week by the end of the '80s. Staffers debated how many of the readers actually believed the stories and how many were hipsters reading it for laughs.
"It is my belief that in the '80s and into the '90s, most people believed most of the material most of the time," says Derek Clontz.
Eddie Clontz kept telling writers: You've got to give people a reason to believe. To do that, Berger says, they would write their weirdest stories in a very straight, just-the-facts-ma'am style. And they'd quote experts explaining how this strange event could occur. Sometimes the experts actually existed.
"I remember a story about a guy who went on a diet, and he got so hungry that he chased a dwarf down the street with a hatchet because he mistook the dwarf for a chicken," Berger recalls. "I'm pretty sure I wrote that story."
He's also pretty sure it was totally fictitious. But it had to seem true.
"We would explain to people how it was possible that a guy could get so hungry that he'd mistake a dwarf for a chicken," Berger says. "We'd interview a psychiatrist about it and quote him. And if we couldn't find one, we'd 'find' one."
WWN writers quoted sources identified as "a baffled scientist" so often they started joking about a institution called the Academy of Baffled Scientists.
In their quest to make fake news seem real, WWN's writers found an unexpected ally -- reality. The real news reported in real newspapers in those days frequently rivaled anything that WWN writers could concoct. For instance:
Americans elected a president who'd once co-starred in a movie with a chimpanzee. Rich women hired "surrogate mothers" to bear their children. The Soviet Union suddenly dropped dead. Scientists invented a magic pill that gave men erections. California cultists committed suicide, believing that the Hale-Bopp comet would carry them to heaven. Lurid details of a president's sex life were released in an official government document. Religious fanatics hijacked airplanes and flew them into buildings. Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California. Scientists studying DNA revealed that humans were 98.6 percent genetically identical to chimpanzees.
And on and on. Reality was getting so weird, it was tough for the folks at WWN to keep up. But they gave it their best shot.
* * *
"I have no shame," says Bob Lind, talking about his decade as a writer for the Weekly World News. "I make no apologies. It's not something I try to hide."
Bob Lind. Bob Lind. The name sounds familiar. Isn't he the guy who . . .
Yes. He's the guy wrote and sang "Elusive Butterfly," an achingly romantic folk-rock ballad. Across my dreams, with nets of wonder, / I chase the bright elusive butterfly of love. It was a huge hit in 1966.
By 1991, though, Lind was out of the music business and working as an Everglades guide, giving airboat rides to tourists. He also wrote short stories and screenplays but he couldn't sell them. A friend suggested he write for the tabloids. Lind hated celebrity gossip but he figured writing about aliens and Bigfoot might be fun. For months, he pestered Eddie Clontz for a job and finally Eddie gave him a two-week tryout. He passed the test and went on to write some WWN classics, including "SPACE ALIENS ATE MY LAUNDRY."
"I loved it," Lind says. "The music business is accountant dull compared to the creative fun we had."
They worked in an office in the back of the National Enquirer newsroom, behind a partition installed because Eddie Clontz's yelling disturbed the serious journalists at the Enquirer. Actually, everybody yelled. First, somebody would yell out an idea for a headline, then everybody else would yell out better ideas. The yelling was exceeded only by the laughing.
"There were days when I would leave work," Lind says, "with my stomach and my face hurting from laughing all day at the ideas being kicked around."
Lind witnessed the birth of Bat Boy, who became the tabloid's most beloved character and the subject of an off-Broadway musical. It happened in 1992, when Dick Kulpa, WWN's graphics genius, was playing around with Photoshop, trying to turn a picture of a baby into a picture of an alien baby. He gave the kid pointy Spocklike ears, big wide eyes and fangs. Ivone looked at it and said, "Bat Boy!" and Eddie Clontz turned to his brother Derek and said, "Do it!"
Derek concocted the story of a creature, half bat and half boy, captured in a cave in West Virginia. "BAT CHILD FOUND IN CAVE!" was the headline on the first story. But there were more, many more as the little tyke escaped and was recaptured again and again, constantly fleeing from the FBI and a brutal bounty hunter named Jim "Deadeye" Slubbard, who vowed to stuff him and hang him over his fireplace.
"Eddie fell in love with Bat Boy," Lind says. "He was one of the most in-depth characters we dealt with. He could be mean, he could be spiteful, but he could also be kind. And every once in while, he would be captured by the FBI and held in an undisclosed location near Lexington, Kentucky."
One day -- Lind swears this is true -- Eddie Clontz got a call from an irate FBI agent complaining that the bureau's switchboard was swamped with calls demanding that they free Bat Boy.
"Eddie said, 'I'll never do it again,' " Lind says, "then he hung up the phone and went on to the next Bat Boy story."
In the spirit of Eddie Clontz, we won't risk ruining that story by fact-checking it with the FBI.
Lind was constantly amazed at the letters that came in from readers. "You can't believe what people will believe -- and what they won't," he says.
Back in the '90s, for example, WWN published "HILLARY CLINTON ADOPTS ALIEN BABY" and illustrated it with a Photoshop picture of a smiling Hillary cradling a hideous but cute alien baby.
"We got a letter," recalls Lind, "and it said: 'Do you think we're so stupid that we believe that's Hillary holding that alien baby? Hillary's too cold to adopt an alien baby. You put her face on somebody else's picture.' "
Lind pauses to let that sink in. "So you realize that this person accepted the idea of an alien baby being found, and that somebody was holding it," he says, "but she couldn't believe it was Hillary."
* * *
DEAD AT 28:
It sure was fun while it lasted. But then something happened.
"It turned to [bleep]," says Lind. "The guy who took over didn't understand what it was."
The guy who took over bears the delightfully Dickensian name of David Pecker. In 1999, Pecker bought American Media, which owned the National Enquirer, the Star and the Weekly World News. Changes were made and soon a lot of WWN's old-timers were gone -- Eddie Clontz, Ivone, Berger, Lind, Kulpa -- replaced by young comedy writers.
"He wanted to hire comedy writers," Ivone says. "But it's not just comedy. It's a different skill set."
Gradually, WWN changed. Bat Boy became a comic strip, one of several strips in the new WWN, none of them very comic. The new editors also added lame advice columns by "Lester the Typing Horse" and "Sammy the Chatting Chimp." Ed Anger remained and he was still "pig-biting mad" but he wasn't so funny anymore. Circulation plummeted.
"It was like seeing someone you love wither up and die," says Berger.
The old-timers say Pecker ruined the Weekly World News. What does Pecker say?
Nothing. He's not talking. Neither is anybody else at WWN. On July 24, the company issued a brief statement announcing that WWN was folding "due to the challenges in the retail and wholesale magazine marketplace."
"Unfortunately, we are not doing any interviews," says Richard Valvo, a PR man for the company. He says he knows of no plans for a party or a wake or even a greatest hits album.
Weekly World News, a tabloid that screamed in joyous horror for 28 years, is dying with barely a whimper.
The old-timers grumbled, but not for long. They were too busy telling old stories of old glories.
Derek Clontz remembered the time WWN ran a picture of a gorgeous British model -- "Top Model Jilly, we called her" -- who was desperately seeking a "regular guy" to be her boyfriend. Needless to say, plenty of WWN readers eagerly volunteered to help.
"A guy by the name of Norman sent a photograph of himself and asked us to forward it to Jilly," Clontz recalls. "It was a Polaroid and it showed him backed against a wall between hanging tragedy and comedy masks. There was a model of a '57 Chevy on the table beside him and three encyclopedias of the type you buy one a week from the supermarket for $1. He said he had a 'nerve problem' and was unemployed, but he would treat Jilly right if she would be his girl, to which he added, 'I don't smoke, drink or do drugs, either, Jilly, but I will if you want me to.' "
When WWN dies, what will Norman read? For that matter, what will Elvis read as he passes the long, lonely nights up there in Kalamazoo?