Giant black hole gobbles tabloid

Abraham Lincoln was a woman, Elvis is alive and running for President, and a 150m statue of Jesus visited the United Nations.

Headlines like these, I am sorry to say, will never again be read in check-out lines across America because the Weekly World News, the supermarket tabloid that bills itself as "The World's Only Reliable Newspaper", is to cease publication on August 27.

The paper first appeared in 1979 when the National Enquirer, another supermarket tabloid owned by the same company, American Media, but which supposedly reports "real" stories, started printing in fullcolour.

The publisher needed something to print on its old monochrome presses and couldn't afford to hire all the things you need to make a real newspaper work - things like journalists, photographers, editors and lawyers.

Instead, they hired a couple of out-of-work writers and told them to fill the pages with whatever they felt like, but to stick within the confines of the tabloid tradition. That is, make every headline a screamer.

In its early years the editorial staff clearly never intended to tell the truth about anything but never openly admitted they were only joking either. So a new breed of satire was born - nine years before The Onion and 20 years before Jon Stewart even thought of The Daily Show.

The stories weren't all just silly tales of Elvis sightings or domestic pets gone mental such as "Pitbull Eats Mobile Home" or "Flying Cat Terrorises Arkansas" either.

The beauty of a real WWN story lay in its ability to expose the absurd and the ridiculous in the real headlines. When the world was agonising over the ethics of cloning sheep, WWN splashed with "Soviets clone 10,000 Hitlers".

More recently the paper lampooned the absurdity of US foreign policy in a brilliant piece under the banner "US Paying Space Aliens to find and kill bin Laden".

And who could deny the essential truths hidden in the expose entitled "Dick Cheney is a robot"?

Despite the silliness of the stories and the clearly doctored pictures of long-fingered aliens greeting prominent politicians, there was a sense that there were some people out there, way out there, who believed the stories in WWN were true.

Presidents Bush and Clinton played along with the myth in election campaigns when the paper declared each of them had been endorsed by "space aliens".

Strangely, the paper did not acknowledge that its stories were largely made up until 2004, when it began running a disclaimer suggesting one should "suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoyment".

And, just to keep the readers on their toes, a smattering of stories each week were true.

One report of a World War II submariner removing a crewman's appendix using spoons and a tea strainer was not only true but won the journalist who originally wrote the piece a Pulitzer Prize - in 1942.

WWN has also had its fair share of real scoops.

In 1989 the paper sent shockwaves around the world when it printed pictures of Ted Bundy, the American serial killer, after he had been executed in the electric chair.

In the end, though, it was not an "Attack of the world's fattest cat" that led to the WWN's demise, or indeed "Vegan vampires on the loose", but old-fashioned economics.

The company reported a US$160 million net loss for 2006 and is struggling with US$1 billion of debt and plummeting circulation. In March American Media revealed that sales had dropped to 83,000 compared with a peak of 1.2 million in the 1980s.

But, it is only fitting to leave it to the WWN to sum up the demise of the newspaper industry with two final headlines from the archives - "Gravy train derails" and "Hot cakes no longer selling well".

- Observer

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