TABLOID EDITOR GIVES BIRTH WEEKLY TO 3 oz. FEATURE CREATURE WACKY WORLD NEWS The tabloid was the first publication to claim Elvis was alive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Eddie Clontz knows what people like to read about.

1) UFOs.

2) Monsters.

3) Things found in jungles.

4) Biggest things in the world, littlest things in the world (tongues, babies, etc.).

Like the circus sideshows of P. T. Barnum, the 48-page Weekly World News, published from Lantana, Fla., has clearly rediscovered the American fascination with the grotesque, the outrageous and the bizarre.

For 85 cents an issue, available at the grocery checkout line each Monday, readers get a glimpse of the space aliens, live dinosaurs and other miracles that fail to landscape their own dreary lives.

The paper snares potential readers with catchy front-page headlines and outlandish photographs. Although many embarrassed shoppers grab the paper and try to hide it, most of the 700,000 weekly readers are avid fans who wouldn't dare miss out on an Elvis or UFO scoop.

The News is also available in Canada and Great Britain, where it competes with the British tabloids. The News' unabashed editor, Eddie (everybody simply calls him Eddie), says the tab, concentrating not on celebrities but unusual occurrences, is one-of-a-kind stateside.

Sex is a no-no in this newspaper; so are potentially controversial subjects such as abortion and religion.

Drawing attention to the News' owner is also a no-no. The News will not name its owners, and spokesmen say the News is trying to create an identity apart from its corporate parent.

Eddie believes a Weekly World News television show is the first step. The paper has negotiated a deal with CBS executive Brandon Tartikoff for a Weekly World News special, scheduled to air in January.

The 14-year-old News used to be just another tabloid competing for checkout-line space with other celebrity-oriented magazines.

But around 1985, editors decided to create a more outrageous product: a gritty, black-and-white, sock-it-to-'em newspaper obsessed with the world's strange phenome- na and bizarre human interest stories.

The increasingly crazed covers (a space-alien baby, presidential candidates with extraterrestrials) have mesmerized the mainstream press. The tabloid has been the focus of recent columns by the New York Times' Russell Baker and the Chicago Tribune's Mike Royko.

Eddie says it's about time.

The 46-year-old editor, a sandy-haired North Carolina native, married for 21 years and father of a grown son, loves to say, "Brandon's on the phone."

It's a far cry from his anonymous journalistic roots. He edited wire stories for eight years at Florida's St. Petersburg Evening Independent before realizing he was bored with traditional journalism.

"I always loved sensationalism," he says. "I believed in Santa Claus until I was 10."

A bit of that little boy still manages the newsroom, squirting reporters with water guns when they appear to daydream. But a bout with colon cancer in 1988, followed by a year of chemotherapy, forced Eddie to look at life from a new perspective.

"When you come that close to death, you try to have more fun," he says. "I used to be more self-centered. I don't get as upset about things as I used to."

Eddie has calmed his temper, but he still loves being the center of attention. Not one to isolate himself in a plush office, he sits in the middle of a cramped, bustling, 19-person newsroom, bellowing instructions to employees and schmoozing on the phone.

Tucked in the corner of his desk are Colgate mouthwash, ginseng, chromium, calcium and a myriad of other nutritional supplements that he says he takes religiously since beating cancer.

But he still smokes, as does more than half the staff, who vacate the office periodically to puff in the tropical fauna off U.S. 1.

Although his top position requires dealing with the News' owners and other bureaucrats, Eddie relishes the razzle-dazzle of the tabloid biz: photos and headlines. He makes final selections on photographs, which often are sent in by enthusiastic readers. Other photos are created or retouched to illustrate a story.

The tabloid 'god'

Writing headlines is one of Eddie's talents. When a copy editor asked for his help in writing a headline about a groom who married the maid of honor because his fiancee was 22 minutes late for the wedding, the boss offered immediate direction. "Obviously, these people were having an affair before the wedding," Eddie said. "But the twist is the 22 minutes as the excuse."

To the writers and editors, Eddie is worthy of worship as the god of tabloid journalism. They savor his quips and revere his smart-aleck sense of which stories will attract readers.

The writers, who produce at least two stories a day, rely on Eddie's news sense, hundreds of daily newspapers and a network of sources for story ideas. They rarely leave the office, even to investigate out-of-town phenomena like UFOs or dinosaurs.

These men and women have had varied careers as mainstream journalists, authors, politicians and copywriters. But they dress as though they're headed for the beach. Gossip columnist John Hannon wears gym shorts and a ratty T-shirt. Eddie sports boat shoes and khaki pants.

You'd never guess the writers earn an average salary of $79,500, thanks to their wide-ranging experience and the paper's incredible profits.

"The money made me look into the job," admits writer Susan Jimison, a 51-year-old former arts coordinator for a state prison system. "But now I'm in it for the sheer delight of it. I now believe anything is possible. I have suspended disbelief."

Let nothing get in the way

Ms. Jimison recites the Weekly World News mantra, created by Eddie and chanted solemnly by the staff:

Never question yourself out of a good story.

"We don't feel ethically obligated to check out every detail," Eddie says. "I don't want to know if a psychiatrist treated the woman who saw the UFO."

So when an excavator from Nevada called a few months ago and said he found five dinosaur eggs (two hatched before his eyes into dinosaurettes), the News believed him, and interviewed him by phone.

The story landed Ms. Jimison and News writer/cartoonist Dick Kulpa on "Entertainment Tonight" Oct. 20.

"Whoever we called didn't believe us," excavator Frank Scharo told the hosts. "The Weekly World News was our only hope, and they came through for us."

"It is our obligation to present things that come to us and let the reader decide," says managing editor Sal Ivone, 44, who worked for seven years for the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

Blue-collar readers

Although the Weekly World News has not done many marketing studies, Mr. Ivone calls its core readership "blue collar." Those readers seem to have a fondness for "Ed Anger," author of the paper's "My America" feature, a sexist, politically incorrect column that yearns for a right-wing U.S. of A. A recent column opened with "I'm madder than a tomcat with his tail in a light socket over this latest bleeding heart campaign to outlaw capital punishment."

"Anger" was created in 1979 by former News editor Rafe Klinger. The News continued the popular column after Mr. Klinger left in 1989. Mr. Klinger sued shortly after, claiming that he is the one and only Ed. The suit is supposed to reach federal court next year.

The usually gregarious Eddie Clontz has little to share when asked about the other Ed.

"We own that column and it continues to be published," is all he will say.

Although working-class readers cherish Ed Anger, the paper has a substantial, reverse snob-appeal following among college students, cutting-edge artists and talk-radio hosts. And for some unfathomable reason, the News circulates extremely well in the Southwest.

In 1988, the News became the first publication to claim Elvis was alive. The story unleashed a nationwide craze of Elvis sightings.

Stories on Bat Boy, a space-alien-like toddler supposedly discovered by a zoologist near Wheeling, W.Va., also instigated a frenzy of sightings across the country.

Eddie trots out a box filled with more than 600 letters from readers who have spotted Bat Boy since his escape from the hospital.

"I seriously doubt we've heard the last of Bat Boy," says Derek Clontz, assistant managing editor and Eddie's brother. "It's like John F. Kennedy or Elvis. People will never let them die."

Are these readers nuts? Or just bored and lonely? Here are excerpts from four readers' letters opened one recent day by Derek:

* Baltimore: "I'm not 100 percent convinced that John F. Kennedy is alive -- in spite of [your] pictures!! How could everybody keep this secret all these years? Please answer this question for me."

* Tucson, Ariz.: "Enclosed is a detailed list of the news agencies, networks and newspapers that I have tried to contact in the past year with the indisputable evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the assassin of John F. Kennedy."

* Portland, Tenn.: "It's been 13 years and I still cannot accept my baby's death . . ."

* Warwick, R.I.: "Please let me start by saying that I feel there have been many strong coincidences in my life that may link me to John Wilkes Booth."

"People don't care about Bosnia or Somalia," Mr. Ivone says. "They want myths, wonderment. When they call, they say: 'Please don't think I'm crazy.' They want to know someone believes them."

The Weekly World News believes them.

"We give voice to the voiceless," writer Bob Lind intones.

The News' television show will offer an additional voice to the powerless masses. Although Eddie isn't sure which stories will pTC air, the brain behind the tab made a solemn vow.

"We won't be the Chevy Chase of tabloid television."

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