If you’ve ever waited in line at a grocery store, you’ve likely seen or read the Weekly World News. When a magazine adopts screaming headlines like “I was Bigfoot’s Love Slave,” “Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby,” and “Bat Child Found in Cave” it’s hard to miss it.
Founded in 1979, the Weekly World News represented the extremes of checkout-counter attention-grabbing tactics for nearly 30 years. It highlighted tabloid journalism’s thin line between fiction and nonfiction: Though it was fiction from top to bottom, the paper nevertheless added an intriguing could it possibly be true? appeal. But after 28 years with a peak circulation of 1.2 million prints per issue, the paper edition ended in 2007, leaving only a website to keep the Bat Child’s flame burning.
In 2009 the online version was taken over by Neil McGinness, who serves as its current editor-in-chief and as the editor of the book Weekly World News! (Roads Publishing), a retrospective on the paper’s legacy out this November. McGinness, a fan of the paper since his college days, once read it on late-night visits to Safeway to race lobsters in deserted aisles. If the lobsters went too slowly, WWN provided the night’s entertainment.
When WWN began, it was an unlikely success: Launched at time when the so-called “blood and guts” tabloid genre was on the decline, its publisher, American Media, initially took enough care to distinguish it editorially from its competitors. In his introduction to Weekly World News!, McGinness calls WWN an outgrowth of The National Enquirer that amped up that magazine’s innuendo and sensationalist appeal, thus making it the ultimate in tabloid eccentricity, the Saturn to the National Enquirer’s Chevy. The strategy worked brilliantly for several decades, until it didn’t. In the end, McGinness says, “I wound up bailing out Weekly World News.”
Despite the challenges posed by the fickle media landscape, WWN has preserved its distinct editorial tone—a synthesis of comedy, hard news, and old maid’s tales. McGinness is loathe to categorize the paper at all, saying that despite the ludicrous front-page stories (“Severed Leg Hops to Hospital” came to mind), it’s not comedy. Nor does it skew very serious. “We publish news of suspect credibility,” he says. There are three three types of WWN reader, according to the editor—those who believe, those who don’t believe, and “those who want to believe but aren’t sure.”
Though credibility is not a concern for WWN, certain editorial needs must be met. Namely, stories must be written and photos must be Photoshopped. The former is harder to wrangle than it sounds: For McGinness a typical day involves “listening to various excuses people come up with for not writing,” including their West Bureau Chief, who he claims has not written in three years. McGinness once attempted to implement a stylistic standard inspired by Wolcott Gibbs’s “The Theory and Practice to New Yorker Article Editing,” but ceased his efforts after being blown off by his writing staff. Today he’s endeavoring to instill more rigorous attention to detail. For example: “When a housewife spots Elvis at a Burger King in Kalamazoo that’s not necessarily news. The larger question is, ‘what exactly did he order?’”
McGinness notes that in the past, WWN has made some major editorial mistakes: “There have been times where we didn’t have our facts all lined up. We were clearly premature when we predicted that the world would end on 12/12/12.” They’ve learned: “We now know with a clearer degree of certainty that it will actually end on 02/18/2018.”
Photoshop didn’t exist when WWN began, so the paper has never fully depended on the image-editing software to produce its sensational stories. But its invention was undeniably a boon, if only for its authenticity-giving purposes. “If you need to add hair to a balding prince, trim the belly of an aging actress, or give a ghost a touch more transparency to make him seem more ethereal, it’s a must-have app,” McGinness says. And how did WWN render Bat Boy, the paper’s famous half-human, half-bat creation? On this point, McGinness plays it straight: “Bat Boy was discovered in a cave in southern West Virginia,” he says. “If you’ve never been there it’s a beautiful part of the country. Strange to think it harbored that dark subterranean secret as long as it did.”
Beyond publicizing Bat Boy and Elvis returned to life, Weekly World News had an indelible impact on the media landscape. McGinness asserts that the paper’s former editor, Ed Anger, was a predecessor to right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck. During his nearly three-decade career with Weekly World News, Anger wrote more than 1,000 editorials. “To this day, he remains the one, the only, the original right-wing narrow-minded conservative commentator,” McGinness says. Next to Ed Anger, he cites Ginzo the Dolphin, Clem The Ostrich, and the Lake Erie Monster as close seconds in culturally important products of his publication.
As for WWN’s own cultural importance, McGinness says that the paper’s goal is to reveal the inherent ridiculousness in the more subdued, yet also-sensationalist tactics of hard news: “The lines between real/unreal, sense/nonsense and belief/disbelief happen to be razor thin. We exist to make that line thinner."