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Now-defunct tabloid reported Duluth 'mugging by snowman'

The attacker was a "weirdo dressed in a white ski suit" who "looked like a mound of snow suddenly popping up from the ground." He "looked like a snowman," according to the news report about a Frosty-like mugger in an unnamed Duluth suburb.

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The attacker was a "weirdo dressed in a white ski suit" who "looked like a mound of snow suddenly popping up from the ground." He "looked like a snowman," according to the news report about a Frosty-like mugger in an unnamed Duluth suburb.

Proctor? Hermantown? No matter. The article -- "I WAS ROBBED BY A SNOWMAN," the headline screamed in snow-capped letters some 15 or so years ago -- was so far-fetched, so laughably made up, and yet so Duluth, I had to hold onto it. I thought about the clipping just the other day and actually managed to find it after scrounging through forgotten desk drawers. The search started when I learned that the Weekly World News would be publishing its final print edition this month. No more tales of Bat Boy. No more columns by Ed Anger about why he's so dern angry.

The only newspaper daring enough -- and imaginative enough -- to report shamelessly and ceaselessly about aliens, Bigfoot, Elvis sightings, ghosts and scientific discoveries was done in by "challenges in the retail and wholesale magazine marketplace." That was the explanation offered by its owners, American Media Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla., the same publishers responsible for the National Enquirer.

Their challenges-in-the-retail-blah-blah-blah line can be translated into two words: plummeting circulation. During its heyday in the late 1980s, the Weekly World News sold more than a million copies a week. Fewer than 90,000 are crawling through checkout lines now. The supermarket tabloid's owners reported a $160 million net loss in 2006 and are struggling with $1 billion in debt, according to Reuters.

American Media does promise that the Weekly World News will live on in cyberspace. But an online version just won't be the same. I know I'll miss thumbing through the latest stories of fly-eyed babies, "manigators" and ghosts that come out in the daytime while waiting in line at Cub. I never did feel right about picking up those other tabloids with their latest Lindsay Rumors and Britney Bulletins. Didn't want the ladies in line behind me to figure me for a pervert.

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So Weekly World News it was. And why? Because "the Weekly World News was not one of those sleazy tabloids that cover tawdry celebrity scandals," as the Washington Post's Peter Carlson wrote this month. "It was a sleazy tabloid that covered events that seemed to occur in a parallel universe, a fevered dream world where pop culture mixed with urban legends, conspiracy theories and hallucinations. Maybe [the newspaper] played fast and loose with the facts, but somehow it captured the spirit of the age -- and did it in headlines as perfect as haiku."

The last-ever Weekly World News, in checkout lines now, includes these gems: "Baby delivered inside avocado"; "Eleven-year-old foils aliens" (there's a picture of him with tinfoil on his head); "Bad weather grounds UFO" (in Kansas); and "God speaks to tourist through burning bush." There's also "Hell's scrapbook," complete with a map pointing the way to the Isle of Lucifer and with cleverly Photoshopped black-and-white images of people swimming in a lake of fire.

Yes, black and white, just like the images have been since 1979 when Weekly World News was launched from a rear office at the National Enquirer in Lantana, Fla. The Enquirer had gotten new color presses, but its owner, a former CIA agent (I did not make that up), hated the idea of the old black-and-white presses going to waste. So he created Weekly World News, appointing as its leader a 10th-grade dropout (really) who had been working as a copy editor for small-town weeklies and who had a "unique philosophy of journalism," according to the Washington Post: "Don't fact-check your way out of a good story."

In the beginning, the stories were mostly true, however. They were gleaned and embellished from the oddities published every week in local newspapers all over the country. The tales grew taller as the imaginations of the Weekly World News' reporters took over. Writing as straight as the Associated Press, they broke story after story: Hillary Clinton adopted an alien baby. Elvis faked his death and was living in Kalamazoo, Mich. Twelve U.S. senators were space aliens (a report not all of them denied).

"They'd quote experts explaining how [strange events] could occur. Sometimes the experts actually existed," Carlson wrote. The writers quoted unnamed "baffled scientists" so many times they started joking among themselves that there must be an Academy of Baffled Scientists somewhere.

The undoing of the untrue started when new owners made changes and many of the original writers left. They were replaced with comedy writers who failed to grasp the importance of the "maybe" element, that the stories had to seem possibly true. Who would ever believe, for example, that lost hikers ate each other to survive until all that was left of them were their smiling heads, as was reported in the most recent issue?

But a weirdo in suburban Duluth, dressed to look like a snowman so he could rob six women and three men of $673? Maybe. An officer named Vic Norton was the main source for that classic tale. But don't bother looking him up in the phone book. He ain't there. At the risk of fact-checking myself out of a good story, I already looked.

Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune's deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached at 723-5316 or cfrederick@duluthnews.com .

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