August 10, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston


The Weekly World News is going under. Not devoured by space aliens or dinosaurs but killed by its parent company because of low circulation (PARENTS KILL; BLAME FAILING PAPER ROUTE!).

Supermarket tabloids nowadays are all celebrity gossip. But back in the day (the day being the 1950s and 60s), that prince of tabloids, the National Enquirer, specialized in stories of the weird, especially blood and gore. I CUT OUT HER HEART AND STOMPED ON IT! is one of its more famous headlines.

In late 1979, the Enquirer’s publisher, Generoso Pope switched it to color. (Legit newspapers didn’t go color until USA Today came along in 1982 and started cutting into tabloid circulation.) With color came the almost exclusive focus on celebrities, diets, and other more timid stories. But Pope apparently had a soft spot in his heart for the old black-and-white presses and the stories of the bizarre, so he created Weekly World News (POPE GIVES BIRTH TO BLACK AND WHITE OFFSPRING – WITHOUT SEX!) to continue the tradition.

In the early days of the Enquirer and even the Weekly World News, the stories had to have at least some basis in reality. Some of them were actually true. Reporters at local newspapers who came upon an incident that was just too gory or gross for their own paper to run would, for a fee, send it on the National Enquirer. Later, the tabloids would require only that someone claimed to have seen or done something. If someone said that he’d seen Elvis in the Dairy Queen or that Bigfoot ran off with his wife, that was good enough. The editor’s motto was “Don't fact-check your way out of a good story.”

Writers embellished stories, adding facts, quotes, and sources, and over time the connection with reality became more and more tenuous and eventually disappeared. Photoshop probably also helped, though faked photographs had long been a staple of the tabloids. By the 1990s, stories were born via parthenogenesis, springing fully-formed directly from the heads of the journalists in the office. As the Washington Post’s obit for Weekly World News, puts it
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 around.”
(Lind, by the way, is Bob Lind, for all those of you unfortunate enough to remember his 1966 hit “Elusive Butterfly.”)

What does any of this have to do with sociology and thus merit inclusion in a sociology blog? For one thing, we might ask why Weekly World News’s circulation tanked. The Washington Post article blames it on a change in staff. With the news writers acting more like a team of comedy writers, management figured it would do even better by replacing them with real comedy writers. But as one of the ex-writers said, “It’s not just comedy. It’s a different skill set.” (I wonder if he said “skill set” with a straight face.)

On the data analysis front, Weekly World News stories are a data set crying out for content analysis. I recall a contest in New York Magazine long ago (like the Washington Post’s Sunday Style Invitational) that asked for parody tabloid headlines. The winner was BABY BORN WITH WINNING LOTTO TICKET! which gets at two hugely popular themes in tabloid stories – birth anomalies and luck. (HUMAN JELLYFISH BRINGS GOOD FORTUNE AND BIG BUCKS TO OUR READERS: These lucky readers rubbed his belly and won—and so can you!) That’s an actual headline from September 1993. I know because Chip Rowe, among the many funny and inventive things in his career, collected and catalogued a year’s worth of Weekly World News headlines. Space aliens, miracle cures, medical anomalies, marriage, sex, and dieting. A really good story combines at least two of these (GAL WAS SO SHOCKED BY PROPOSAL OF MARRIAGE —HER HAIR FELL OUT!).

We know how these stories got produced. But who was consuming them, and why? What did they get from them? As Kevin Walker, in one sociological article found online put it, “The pleasure from reading any text comes from the interaction of the reader and the text, situated in social and historic context.” Which means that if we are to do this correctly, we have to identify the readers and their social and historical context. Or as the Weekly World News might have put it SOCIOLOGISTS TAKE FUN OUT OF READING TABLOIDS!
(Superfluous note: in this post, italicized sans-serif headlines are my own invention. The others are actual World Weekly News headlines, not that it matters, at least not by tabloid criteria.)

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