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
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
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
"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
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
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
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,"
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
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?