All the News That Seemed Unfit to Print

All the News That Seemed Unfit to Print
All the News That Seemed Unfit to Print

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[A tear is being shed as I write this note, no longer will I have the 
Weekly World News as a resource for InfoSec News on whats REALLY going 
in the computer underground or finding those classic nuggets of intelligence... :) - WK] 

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007; C01

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:



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."


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 

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 
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 

He's also pretty sure it was totally fictitious. But it had to seem 

"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 

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 

"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 

"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 

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 

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."

* * *




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 

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 

"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?

=C2=A9 2007 The Washington Post Company

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