Friday, May 21, 2004

Debbie Gibson is Pregnant With My Two Headed Love Child
Shenzhen Zen takes a break from its irregularly scheduled format to give readers an advance look at a column that will presumably be printed next week in the pages of my soon-to-be employer, The Standard.
It's about my past employment at Weekly World News. One thing that I loved about interviewing at The Standard was that my confession that I'd worked for the equivalent of a journalistic syphilis outreach clinic seemed to be a plus. They wanted this account before I'd even been officially hired.
Here 'tis. Enjoy, please.

Admit it. Odds are you've seen my work, been momentarily fascinated with it and probably furtively perused it while simultaneously making sure that no one sees you reading it.
It's at virtually every supermarket checkout stand in the United States, distributed widely in Canada and the United Kingdom, and I've heard rumors there are copies in Hong Kong. It's one creaky, crooked step above pornography and about 49 flights down from the likes of the New York Times . The low budget black and white layout resembles a ransom note and its headlines scream: I KEEP MOM'S ASHES IN THE VACUUM CLEANER, LIVE MERMAID FOUND IN TUNA CANand BIBLE PROPHECIES: SATANIC TERROR THE GOVT. DOESN'T WANT YOU TO SEE!
It's the Weekly World News.
“Who writes this stuff?” you may have asked. Well, I did for about a year and a half following an otherwise respectable career in “straight” journalism. You may have seen my double opus: SADDAM STATUE SHEDS MYSTERY TEARS and SADDAM'S DOUBLES LOOKING FOR NEW JOBS. Or perhaps the mermaid in the tuna can exclusive and several similar fishy follow-ups until the editor at the time declared in a memo to the staff entitled “The Last Mermaid” that “In this week's issue of WWN, you will see a mermaid on page three. This will be the last mermaid you see in the pages of WWN for a while. We will also be banning vampires, zombies, elves, leprechauns, genies,witches, werewolves, and most other FANTASY FIGURES.”

You see, even the Weekly World News has standards, something that would come as a surprise to many of its fans. It even fact checks, albeit not to verify the existence of Elvis on Mars but to prevent libel suits. The newsroom itself looks and operates just like a “real” newsroom with the exception of editors hollering things like “Where is that talking french fry story?” I sometimes poked into chat rooms inhabited by WWN readers in order to see what the masses were thinking and found that remarks like “I'd love to work there! What a sweet gig – do nothing but smoke weed and think up Elvis and alien stories all day” were typical.

Au contraire, dear reader. Put down that bong for a minute and let me tell you it ain't easy cranking out world beaters like JESUS'S SANDALS FOUND, DISCOUNT BODY PARTS BUSINESS BOOMING and (my personal favorite) WISCONSIN BOWLING TEAM WORSHIPPED AS GODS BY SOUTH AMERICAN TRIBE five days a week, 8 hours a day.

And, just like its legitimate journalism counterparts, it was always groping for a way to boost circulation. Hence excited, upper case-littered memos like this with the subject line: THINGS YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT WWN!:
“HEY GUYS & GALS: I just wanted to educate you folks with a few things you NEVER knew about WWN. About 10 years ago, when WWN was at its sales peak, the mag was a combination of HALF-FICTION and HALF TRUE STORIES.
“The TRUE stories were a mix of TRUE CRIME, LIFESTYLE STORIES, and useful HOW TO'S. The TRUE stories were a way for us to BALANCE out the GOOFY stuff. And the GOOFY stuff never got TOO GOOFY.
“The more TRUE stories we put in, the more it made the other stories seem true.
“Somewhere along the line, WWN got away from the true stuff and went
ALL-GOOFY...and chased a away a sizable portion of its readership.
“Now we are working to get those readers back. The way we are doing this is by bringing the TRUE stuff back, and scaling down the goofy stuff.
“We want more BELIEVABLE stuff. Will we still run BIG FOOT & ALIEN stories? “YES, but not as frequently, and they won't be as WACKY. You will be seeing a LOT more TRUE stuff in WWN, starting immediately.
“Readers have to feel they are geting something USEFUL out of WWN. We CANNOT survive on just GOOFY stories any more.
“Sales show that NOBODY wants a newspaper full of nothing but useless, goofy stories. People want a newspaper that ENTERTAINS them, but also EDUCATES them and gives them something they can really USE.
“Our readers are also big believers in PREDICTIONS & HOROSCOPES, so we'll be doing a lot more of that stuff. The idea here is to win back those old ladies at the supermarket who pick us up because they believe we give them something that will make a difference in their lives, not just a JOKEBOOK.”
After several weeks of readjustment and running a lot of Biblical diet miracle weight loss and educational prophecy stories the “no GOOFY” edict was followed by another memo from the same editor:
“You knew this day was coming - it's finally here! WWN is going ALL WACKY, ALL THE TIME!!!
“Put on your FUNNY hats and let's get WILD!!!
“I want you guys to submit a list of story ideas, and they can be the most freaky, far-out, fantastic stories you've ever thought up.
“Elvis on the moon? Mermaids in space? Vampires on Broadway?
“Not wild enough!!! We want to get REALLLLLLLY WILD!!!!!!!!!”

As one might expect, these frequent whip-lash style reversals took their toll on writers and editors alike and many suddenly vanished into some kind of journalistic Devil's Triangle. I stuck it out, though and at one time it seemed as if I was almost the whole paper. Despite Weekly World News’global datelines – obscure European and Asian cities are popular – it's a very small staff based in Boca Raton, Florida.

For a stint of almost eight months I was not only churning out international exclusives, I was also a headshrinker's dream; a multiple personality, tri-polar combo of columnists Ed Anger (think rabid conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly on meth), Dotti Primrose, (advice shrew Dr. Laura on paint thinner) and Serena Sabak (“America's Sexiest Psychic”) and, for a brief period of time while Serena was “in a coma” (she may have been psychic, but she didn’t foresee her tragic car accident), her twin sister Sonya. I also wrote the horoscopes until one astute editor noted that many of them were laced with snatches of oldies lyrics from the likes of the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Moody Blues and Pink Floyd. “Scorpio: Oct. 23-Nov. 21: “If there's a bustle in your hedgerow on Tuesday afternoon consider breaking on through to the other side and breathe, breathe in the air. Look around choose your own ground.”

Dotti's and Serena's advice columns were similar fiction. As directed, I made up the letters and the answers until I was flaming out and asked to see if they really got mail. I was hoping to kick-start some ideas. Bad idea. It was like asking to watch an autopsy or to see how sausage is made. It turned out that Dotti and Serena got lots and lots of mail from lots and lots of people who had no business grasping sharp, pointed objects like pens and pencils. Here's an example, printed verbatim:

“Dear Serena, Please cast a spell for me to win the lottera repeated lottera repeated (sic) so I can do things and to have my husband dead (sic). I also want his mother dead so more money for me. God Bless You. From Sunny California.”

I bowed out of the advice business shortly thereafter but I can still write a mean horoscope. Just go ask Alice. I think she'll know.

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