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Forging My Own Path

What Would You Include as significant milestones in the “history” of weird news? I really had to roll my eyes this weekend when a reader sent me the URL to an article from the July/August issue of the in-print (and, obviously, online) Pacific Standard magazine: “Who, What, Where, When, Weird — How oddball items came to dominate the news business, and became normal in the process.” — billed as a history of “weird news” and where it’s going, what with that newfangled Internet thing and all.

As you may already be predicting, here’s what made me roll my eyes: Someone can talk about the history of weird news, especially as how the Internet impacted it, without any mention whatever of This is True?! And the article came out just a few days after True completed its 21st year online!

The author spends a lot of time talking about the modern grandfather of weird news (cue the celestial choir!), Chuck Shepherd, a long-time (but now former) Premium subscriber and author of News of the Weird, who (according to the reporter) complains that so much is “no longer weird” that his “syndication deals began to wither” and so, the reporter says, “it now appears that he is at the end of his career.” Wait, what? “I don’t know exactly when I’ll retire,” Chuck told PSMag (“from his home in (where else?) Florida”), but (continuing Chuck’s quote) “it probably won’t be that much longer.”

TRUE: As seen in many publicationsWell, it’s hardly surprising that News of the Weird isn’t doing well in newspapers anymore because newspapers themselves have been dying at an alarming rate for so long that mention of the fact is …well… no longer weird. Not to mention that since Shepherd started NOTW in 1988 (according to Wikipedia), he naturally concentrated on newspapers in his marketing. For some time, he certainly succeeded brilliantly there; when I was being offered syndication contracts for True, I read in Editor & Publisher that NOTW was in more than 500 newspapers; clearly, the syndicates courting me wanted to compete for that audience. NOTW can’t be in anywhere near that many papers anymore, with the rate that they’re dying, and it’s because I saw that sea change coming that I turned down the syndication offers, preferring to chart an unproven path on the Internet. And why are newspapers dying? The Internet, of course. Ah yes, the Internet! So what’s the number-one weird news column online? This one, of course. But it’s not even mentioned in the so-called “history of weird news” article. On the Internet, they call that a “Massive FAIL!”

But Is It Really Dead?

Naturally, there’s a lot of competition for weird news aficionados, PSMag notes. For instance, “At least a dozen staffers contribute to the ‘Weird’ section of the Huffington Post” — that’s a lot of money and effort being put forth to satisfy a lot of demand. So is it really the case that poor Chuck has to retire because weird news just “isn’t weird anymore”? Or is it because he hasn’t kept up with the online culture and the business models required to succeed here? News of the Weird still runs, but his wildly outdated web site bio notes both that “News of the Weird was born one day in the 1970s” and that Chuck “has been collecting peculiar stories for almost 20 years” — on the same page! So… it’s the early 90s?! (The page copyright shows “1999-2010” — apparently, the site hasn’t been updated whatever in at least five years.) The site’s link to the “complete, word-searchable News of the Weird archive of stories back to the year 2000” goes to another web site …that has no mention of NOTW.

Now, I’m not dissing Chuck; according to the footer, his site is maintained by his apparently clueless newspaper syndicate. Rather, I’m perplexed as to how a “history” article purporting to be about the collision of weird news and the Internet completely ignored what specific publication precipitated the move of weird news from ink on paper to the online realm. The publication written by a guy who turned down contract offers from syndicates so that he could address his audience directly online, because he predicted the very shift the article purports to reveal!

I did, certainly, sell True to newspapers myself (what they call self-syndication) if they inquired, and it was lucrative for awhile, but that dwindled so much that I didn’t want to be bothered anymore, and canceled out the last contract several years ago.

To be sure, PSMag talks about other game changers in the biz. They plug (and link to) the Darwin Awards web site (which went defunct in 2014), and make a nod to the National Lampoon’s “True Facts” column, launched in 1972, which is what originally got me interested in the genre. They also give good play to Drew Curtis’s Fark, a weird news community site launched in 1999 where users post and share links to weird news articles — 1,200-1,800 of such links are posted to the paid portion of the site every day, according to Wikipedia. Every day! So now you know the main reason why I don’t visit Fark. Who has time? Well, enough Farkers do that subscriptions bring in $120,000/year as of 2007 (the latest figure noted in Wikipedia).

Early Publicity: September 1994

Omission: Purposeful

The reporter, Daniel Engber, certainly knows about This is True — he wrote me in December: “I’m researching a story for Pacific Standard Magazine on the history and evolution of ‘weird news,’” he said, “so naturally I’d love to talk to you.” I spent an hour or two with him. I just didn’t know he meant he needed me as an unpaid researcher. He promised he’d send me the URL of the article when it was published; he didn’t.

You may dismiss this as sour grapes, but I just want to keep the record straight. Other authors over the years have been more generous, such as Paul Lemberg, who noted in his 2007 book Be Unreasonable that “This is True may have been the first viral marketing success.” Or Jim Kukral, who in 2012 reported on Huffington Post that True “might be the first example of an online ‘fremium’ business model.” (And, while he was at it, that my pulling my books away from traditional publishers to publish them myself is “truly the start of a new model of mainstream book publishing.”)

Yep, forging my own path means that those who follow often ignore who it was that made it easier for them — even when the pioneer is still successful. But you know what? I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way.

If, after all that, you want to read the article, I’ll do what Engber didn’t have the courtesy to do: give you the URL. It’s here.

- - -

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10 Responses to Forging My Own Path

  1. Miladyblue, Renton, WA July 6, 2015 at 9:56 pm #

    News is “no longer weird”? He is either jaded, retreated to another planet, or is not reading the same things the rest of us are reading.

    On the other hand, we may have to give Chuck a bit of a break. He DOES live in Florida, and he may think that things around the rest of the country (or the world) for that matter couldn’t POSSIBLY match any of the oddities going on in Florida.

  2. David, Colorado July 7, 2015 at 3:49 am #

    I’m going to go with, “Engber’s editor doesn’t like Randy.” Shepherd got more space than was reasonable in that article; I think that’s where True used to be. A pro journalist doesn’t burn a source like this, and he doesn’t point the finger at his bread-and-butter when a source gets burned. He just takes one for the team.

  3. Brent from Minneapolis July 7, 2015 at 6:41 am #

    At one job I had in the early 90’s, I used to read NOTW with the woman in the cubicle next to me; quite a few laughs. Some time after I stopped getting a paper at all, I found This is True, which I like better. For one thing, there’s a sense of “community” around it. Also, I have no idea who Chuck Shepherd is (other than a name), but over the years we’ve learned a bit about you Randy (and Kit). I appreciate your paramedic and other personal blog stories as much as This is True.

    I think you’ve diagnosed this correctly; NOTW is one of many that didn’t intentionally and successfully transition from the print era to the Internet era. Given its market share, I’m sure it could have, but it didn’t. Perhaps Shepherd only wanted to provide a syndicated product, and not have contact with his readers, but I’m glad you do.

    Heck, I consider that interaction part of my “pay”. I don’t want my readers to be faceless numbers! -rc

  4. Linda, Maryland July 7, 2015 at 10:00 am #

    I didn’t bother to click the link to the article. It wouldn’t have been relevant without mention of you, and therefore a waste of my time.

  5. Jean - Idaho July 7, 2015 at 10:37 am #

    Obviously, Chuck Shepherd is not finding weird news because he lives in Florida. Everyone who reads This Is True knows that weird is the new normal in Florida. So glad I spent 26 years there when I was younger — it meant I didn’t HAVE to retire there!

  6. Bob, New York July 7, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

    Congrats on your longevity in the publishing business! As you said, it requires keeping up with the times, but not imitating The Times. 🙂

    Heh! Yes, a good way to put it. -rc

  7. Bonnie, Florida July 7, 2015 at 9:21 pm #

    Brent from Minn wrote the post I was going to write. Is that reverse plagarism? Well, I AM from Florida!

  8. Daniella, Israel July 11, 2015 at 2:55 am #

    Being a born odd-news junkie and a journalist, I’ve been reading your columns for years. You’re a true pathmaker and inspiration for others. Moroever, your column was, in part, the reason I founded Chelm-on-the-Med Online (www.chelm-on-the-med.com) in 2009. A print journalist since 1986, I followed in your steps into digital journalism, albeit dragged kicking and screaming, after I discovered ALL the odd news sites online — from “This is True” and NOTW to Reuters’ “Oddly Enough” rarely mention my country — Israel.

    How could you?! Almost all the wildest and wackiest news stories were ‘safely’ hidden in the Hebrew press, rarely mentioned in the “Jerusalem Post”…not to mention the “Washington Post.” So I’ve been ‘liberating’ these gems since 2009 to underscore that Israelis are as nutty (i.e. human) as the next guy, though there are a lot of tidbits that are ‘only-in-Israel’ items, such as the raw IDF recruit who called his mom to sneak into boot camp and accompany him on night patrol because he was afraid of the dark.

    Suffice it to say, “This is True” continues to serve as a benchmark and ‘industry standard’ for judging the newsworthiness of my own brethrens’ antics.

    Please keep us laughing, Randy. You are a boon to humanity!

    Daniella Ashkenazy
    Kfar Warburg, Israel
    Founder of The Chelm Project

    FYI: Chelm??? It’s a real town in pre-World War II Poland which was the butt of Yiddish folk humor, purported to populated by nutty life-embracing fools; Chelm-like-but-TRUE stories about Israel suggest if there is a Chelm, it is at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

    I would indeed prefer to have more foreign stories in TRUE, but I can only read English with enough accuracy to get the subtleties. As you say, many more gems are “hidden” in other languages. -rc

  9. John, Michigan July 11, 2015 at 5:38 am #

    There are some short-sighted dim bulb media idiots out there who dismiss services like yours as ‘not legitimate’, because it’s not ‘published’ by a ‘respected traditional media outlet’. But not to worry, the 5 or 10 people who may have actually read the article in that magazine probably never heard of NOTW either.

  10. Matt, Hatfield MA July 11, 2015 at 7:15 am #

    What’s additionally interesting to me, personally, is that other than NOTW (which I haven’t seen in many years, somehow), I didn’t know about the other ‘weird news’ outlets until reading your article — because This is True is and has been genuinely sufficient (even ‘overly sufficient’ given the incredible number of obliviots recorded here-on) for me. So thanks, Randy, for True, and congratulations on your continued success!

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