Next time you're pushing a shopping cart through the checkout line at the supermarket, you might notice an old friend is missing. Remember the Weekly World News with its screaming headlines that brought a wry smile to your face?
"SANTA FOUND FROZEN IN CHUNKS OF ICE"
"100'S OF FISH WITH HUMAN LEGS WASH UP ON FRENCH RIVIERA"
"ELVIS IS ALIVE!"
For 28 years the nation turned to the pages of the Weekly World News for titillating tales of the bizarre and the wondrously wacky. Now the publication, headquartered in Florida, is closing its doors.
'A Reporter's Dream Job'
We brought together three veteran staffers who worked at WWN during the best of those years. Sal Ivone gave up writing news for the New York Daily News to write from an alternate universe at the Weekly World News.
"It was a creative cauldron," said Ivone. "Being part of a team that … basically reinvented the universe every week."
Joe Berger abandoned a career as a reporter in Washington, spending 20 doing fake news.
"It was one of the greatest work experiences of my life," he said. "It was every reporter's dream job. It was a fun job. It was a kind of job where you could go and relax, and you were working with people who were smart and bright. … There were days we would go to work and laugh and laugh and laugh."
The third member of the publication team was musician-turned-writer Bob Lind.
"I wrote, made up stories and had a wonderful time," he said with a wry smile. "There were days when I'd leave that newsroom and my face hurt and my stomach would hurt because I was around funny people."
The paper was brought to you by the same company that publishes the all-knowing National Enquirer.
It wasn't printed in color, but it never lacked it. And at its peak in the 1990s it had a large and loyal readership, selling more than 1 million copies a week.
"When we thought about our audience," said Ivone, "it was a woman. … She's doing her laundry in the laundromat. She's got a little bit of time to kill. She has 50 cents in her pocket. She just bought her kids a snack and she's bought herself a treat. And she wants a few laughs and she wants to be delighted. She wants to be transported."
"There was a whole cult in college who would buy the paper," said Lind. "One person would buy the paper. He would bring it to the dorm. Everybody would read it."
Finding an Expert
WWN may have looked like a publication assembled by crazed amateurs, but talk to these guys and it's clear that nothing in its zany pages was mere accident or buffoonery. There was method in their madness as they reported on the wanderings of Bigfoot and the latest sighting of Elvis.
"We wanted to make sure that … we didn't push it so far that the reader couldn't possibly believe it," Berger said.
But with headlines speculating on vampire sightings or the existence of two-headed zebras — who could possibly believe that?
"We had a zoologist saying that, that it was possible," said Berger with a blank face that conceals a mischievous smile. "He would explain how this was possible. We'd 'find' a scientist somewhere who would explain that it was a mutation and — and, of course, there could be a two-headed zebra."
Berger says the publication made efforts to "find" a scientist or an expert to support its stories. His playful tone makes it very clear that in the WWN newsroom there was no difference between "finding" and "fabricating." And no apologies either.
"Yeah. We would find one," said Berger. "There was somebody out there who … would tell us it was true, and so … we would back it up. And so if they wanted to believe it, that's fine."
Aliens on Capitol Hill
It wasn't a big leap from two-headed zebras to a Weekly World News mainstay — aliens.
"It's a theme that fascinates everybody. Are they here? If they are here, what are they like, what are they doing, you know? Is my neighbor a space alien? My laundry disappeared. Did a space alien eat it?"
Throughout the years, according to the Weekly World News, aliens have taken refuge in San Francisco and even formed special relationships with presidential nominees.
"They loved it. They embraced it," said Berger of the politicians, some of whom were endorsed by aliens.
But in the pages of the WWN those aliens went beyond mere endorsement. In a shocking exclusive, Weekly World News was the first to reveal that aliens were actually sitting as U.S. senators.
"That story hung in the Senate press gallery for weeks," said Berger proudly. "And the senators came by and looked at it, and none of them denied it. I mean they were — they were all surprised that it took us that long to find out."
The Rise and Fall of Bat Boy
Of all of the characters created by the Weekly World News, nothing quite matched Bat Boy, a creature who sprung from the crazed minds of the staffers and seized its front pages for years.
"He's little, but very sturdy," said Ivone. And Bat Boy's favorite meal? "Insects. Well, because he's a bat boy. … He's scary until you get to know him."
Bat Boy became such a cultural icon that he even got his own Broadway musical. And there is talk of a Bat Boy movie.
"Once we created Bat Boy, we had a saga on our hands, because it sold well and … he had to have adventures. He had to interact with the surface world."
And Bat Boy did have adventures. After being discovered in a West Virginia cave, he escaped, was hunted by the FBI, knighted by the queen — "Arise, Sir Bat Boy," the queen is reported to have uttered — and finally ended up on Broadway, where he tried and failed to fit into society.
Much like Bat Boy, in recent years the Weekly World News has been having trouble finding its place. When new owners revamped the paper, readers abandoned it. Ivone also placed some blame on the current obsession with celebrity news.
"They become much larger than life," he said. "They need to be fed and they take up almost all the resources and all the attention and all the energy away from anything else."
Berger believes television also plays a role in slipping sales.
"I think that it's a reflection of television. I think that people can get the same thing off television now. They can get the same thing off the Internet. I think it's a reflection of competition."
"If they're unhappy with Weekly World News, if they want to find out about space aliens, they can go to the Internet. They can go to TV shows. So, it's a reflection of the competition more than a reflection of the changing times. I think people are still interested in two-headed zebras and baby space."
'Goodbye to a Legend'
And so it is farewell to Bat Boy, Elvis, Bigfoot and all their friends. As a slice — OK a little quirky slice — of Americana fades into history.
So what do these three reporters believe would be a fitting Weekly World News headline for its own obituary?
Ivone: "I think it would be sent directly at our readers … and it would say 'FOR NOW, DEAR READERS, OUR STORY IS OVER.'"
Lind: "I don't know. 'ENJOYABLE NEWSPAPER CHOKES TO DEATH CASS-ELLIOT STYLE IN ITS OWN EXCESSES.'"
Berger: "I think would put something like 'WEEKLY WORLD NEWS LIVES.' 'WEEKLY WORLD NEWS IS STILL ALIVE.' Take it back to Elvis and give people the idea that we're not really dead."
"I don't know," Berger said. "It would be a very sad headline to write and I don't think there's any fitting goodbye to Weekly World News, possibly just 'goodbye to a legend' or 'the greatest newspaper ever goes out of business.'"