Stephen King notes without shame that to make ends meet before his first big break he wrote fiction for porno mags that were trying to skirt obscenity laws by running articles. For the budding novelist, it was the perfect venue: a place to hone his craft where relatively few readers would read and criticize his work and, most importantly, a much needed paycheck.
Opportunities to sell to girlie mags declined as obscenity laws eased and pages once devoted to short stories and articles about muscle cars were replaced by the photos that drove sales.
Budding writers took another hit this week when Weekly World News said it would suspend publication.
You know Weekly World News and have probably even read it, although you’d never admit it to your college-educated friends. Most of us will only concede that headlines about a Japanese woman’s seventh anniversary to a space alien or the latest doings of Bat Boy provided us with a chuckle as we waited patiently in a supermarket check out line. But for many nonfiction writers — particularly those just out of college and making $18,500 a year in their first newspaper job — Weekly World News offered something more.
From its 1979 inception up until about 10 years ago, Weekly World News would occasionally work with imaginative freelancers who could string together an inverted pyramid news story and populate it with aliens, gargantuan babies and talking toasters. The pay was modest but came without hassling them for months on end, and, let’s face it: the work was fun. From the Wikipedia entry on WWN:
Sal Ivon, former managing editor, says, “If someone calls me up and says their toaster is talking to them, I don’t refer them to professional help, I say, ‘Put the toaster on the phone’.” Derrik Lang, a former stringer for the paper, said, “That fat guy with the sunburned belly and that kid abused by his own shadow were living, breathing people with wilder-than-wild stories to tell – in my head. I can’t attest to the entire publication, but everything in my stories was fake – you know, depending on how you define fake.”
But, like a lot of newspapers, declining margins forced WWN to bring most of the tasks that had been farmed out to stringers in house and by 2000 freelancers were seeing a noticeable uptick in rejections from WWN. By 2005, most of us who had denied reading it for years had indeed stopped reading it, or at least buying it, our curiosity about the latest doings of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster apparently quelled. By last Fall, regular readers (there were still more than a few) noticed that regular features were being discontinued, including the ever popular page five girl. Last week’s announcement wasn’t entirely unexpected, and yet lots of people – former writers and even people who just got a laugh the latest “Holy shit!” headline about the latest alien abduction — couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness.
There’s a broader message here: print is dying. It’s an oft-repeated message and one a lot of people seem to be in denial about, and some of the dead tree proponents will scoff at comparing the economic health of WWN to something to more respectable publications (like Hustler). We can laugh when WWN goes under, but you have to keep in mind this was a remarkably cheap publication to produce with rather massive penetration. The stroies were made up, so no expensive travel budgets to send reporters to Scotland to confirm that the Loch ness Monster did indeed reemerge from the murky depths. I wouldn;t be surprised if they were using the same layout and production system they purchased when they started publication in 1979 and the printing quality was awful, leaving ounces of black ink on your fingers after a cursory glance (or so I’m told by people who actually admit to reading it).