Well, an era has passed. An era filled with bat-boys, aliens, Elvises and the wacky adventures of Bigfoot. In August 2007, the Weekly World News ceased publication. Sure, none of you actually bought it (or admitted to it) but you all followed the exploits of the World’s Fattest Man, the World’s Skinniest Woman and Osama Bin Laden’s Clone as you stood in line at Pathmark. With the demise of the paper, I think now my vow of silence can be broken. I wrote for the Weekly World News (or World Weekly News, I was never sure) for a couple of years. I was ace investigative reporter Jerome Howard. I was the guy who exposed the genetically mutated talking pig. I was Dear Dottie.
At its peak in the 1980s, the paper had 1.2 million readers. Not bad for an after thought; the paper was born in 1979 when The National Enquirer switched over to full color presses in an effort to gain some respectability (no more “boy eats family” stories for them). Rather than junk the old black and white presses, they decided to print out-right junk. The Weekly World News became the home of all the news that didn’t fit.
Now, oddly, the same company who owned WWN (American Media, their motto: “Still checking all our mail for anthrax.”) came to own the humor magazine I was a writer on. That was Cracked (R.I.P.). The editor of WWN was a huge fan of Cracked and managed to get installed as editor, just in time to oversee the magazine’s plunging readership and budget cutbacks. So while Cracked stumbled along with months growing into many months between issues, the editor figured out a way to try and keep the writing staff together. He offered us writing gigs at WWN.
Always up for a gig (especially since I had just gotten comfortable using the word “gig”), I submitted some stuff. None of it quite met their standards. And they did have them. They followed AP prose style. All their articles had to be reported as fact. No obvious jokes. The more outrageous the subject, the more detailed the facts had to be. And if the story sounded that unbelievable, then, by all means, have a named expert quoted as saying “this is unbelievable.” That was one of the keys to their success. The stories always lurked on the outskirts of doubt at the intersection of plausible and fiction. Also, to eliminate the chance of someone actually having first-hand knowledge to refute a story, they told us to dateline the article in an obscure region of the country or overseas (“Remember,” our editor told us, “It’s the Weekly World News”).
Anyway, my attempts at plausible fiction were—what’s the term?—lame. In the end I was offered the gig of their advice columnist, Dottie Primrose. It was much like “Dear Abby” if Abby were a snotty harpy who despised her readers and only answered made-up questions that she wrote herself. So with only a word processor and my twisted wits, I got in touch with my inner-bitch and began pounding out “Dear Dottie” columns. I tackled questions concerning fat people on airplanes, crude dudes who couldn’t get dates, despondent telemarketers and witch wedding protocol. No matter the topic, every column had one common theme; people are really quite stupid. I managed to vent a lot of anger through that column (but not as much as Ed Anger).
Not long after, there were some management changes. The old Cracked-centric crew was out and some new editors were named. I was taken off active Dottie duty but now had gotten a handle on the WWN news style and was able to launch the career of my nom-de-tabloid, ace reporter Jerome Howard. I uncovered the outsourcing of jobs to outer space, the final hiding place of the Holy Grail (a bus locker in Mexico City) and exposed the dangers of secondhand cholesterol. I reported on rouge icebergs bent on maritime revenge, outbreaks of Spontaneous Human Combustion due to global warning and low-carb communion wafers for the weight-watching Catholic. Man, you can’t make this stuff up. Well, actually, you can.
The paper’s readership straddled the trailer parks and the college campuses, each getting what they needed from it. When college kids found out I wrote for the paper (no mean feat as I didn’t make a habit of telling anyone. Ever.), they were impressed (go figure). When real letters started coming in for “Dear Dottie” they were very serious. They took offense to my rude answers to poor souls seeking help, they asked for real advice, they sent recipes and even a marriage proposal. He wasn’t my type. I wonder if my replacement took him up on it?
The Weekly World News became a pop-culture icon, giving us the award-winning off-Broadway play, Bat Boy: The Musical, the plot device of Mike Myers’ “So I Married an Axe Murderer” and showing up in “Men in Black,” as being the home to the “best damn investigative reporting on the planet.” In 1992, WWN’s alien-in-resident, P’Lod, was photoshopped shaking hands with Bill Clinton and then George Bush. And each acknowledged the tribute to the Main Stream Media on the campaign trail.
WWN had long presented itself as covering the stories nobody else thought to. Its slogan was “Nothing but the Truth.” But as readership dropped, a new regime was brought it. The offices were moved from Florida to New York and suddenly there were subtle changes. For starters, they now ran a disclaimer, “The reader should suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoyment.” Who puts a disclaimer on the truth? The tone changed. Stories had to have consistency from issue to issue. I had a story about oil companies discovering living dinosaurs in the Amazon with plans to kill them all to make more oil. It got spiked because the editor’s brother had been doing a series of articles about an explorer’s adventures in the Amazon and in one episode he found dinosaurs. Apparently, the two concepts conflicted. The paper formed a clique of writers and the opportunities for freelancers like myself dried up. I got one or two further articles in the paper, but my time had passed. And now the WWN’s time has passed. Ha!*
Why is it gone? Maybe people can get their fake news on the Internet (VastRightWingConspiracy.com). Maybe people who were in on the joke didn’t like that fact that the paper was now letting everyone in on the joke. And maybe the people who believed it didn’t like that it was just a joke. Maybe people just don’t want their news in black & white anymore.
Good-bye Bat-Boy, P’Lod, and Bigfoot. Farewell Jerome and Dottie and the hussy they brought in to replace her. And mostly, good-by supplemental income. You’ll all be missed.
*Bitter? Who me?