The Weird Decade
C-VILLE (Charlottesville, Va.) and several alternative newsweeklies in the Northeast
December 1999 and January 2000
by Bella Stander
If you're anything like me, you probably picture the progenitor of "News of the Weird" as a shaggy hippie holdover who spends most of each day at the beach lolling under a palm tree, with a cool drink in one hand and a joint--or at least a Cuban cigar--in the other. After all, it can't take much work to put together a bunch of press clippings about the bizarre things that people do, right?
Imagine my surprise, then, when I phone Chuck Shepherd and he sounds like just a regular working stiff, though a bit more reluctant than most to share any personal details. "I live a pretty boring life," he claims. "I read and write. I am a high school basketball referee. We're coming into basketball season so I'm excited." He does divulge his age, however--54, and height--6'2". He admits to one long-ago marriage; with no kids, he says facetiously, "that I know of." His "female primary love unit" joined him in 1995; his 80-year-old father lives in the Tampa area. No dog for People to picture him walking with on the beach, Shepherd points out; no cat, either. And the rest of his private life is, well, private.
Shepherd does acknowledge having been "a counterculture guy." "Unfortunately," he writes in an e-mail, "I had to spend four years of that time in the Air Force, including a year in Vietnam in 1968-69 (actually, not a year, just 362 days, 4 hours, and 19 minutes, but who counted?). But one year to the day after landing in the US of A from Vietnam, I was tear-gassed at a demonstration over the bombing of Cambodia" (in Austin, where he received a BS in communications from the Univ. of Texas in 1971). "I wasn't a major activist or anything. But when I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1972, I worked for the next eight years in lefty-Democrat jobs, capped by a run in the White House during Carter's last days." During those years he also earned a law degree from American University and an MBA from George Washington University. From 1982 to 1992 he was an assistant professor in the latter's business school, "teaching law, regulation and corporate social policy." In the late '70s he started exchanging offbeat press clippings with friends; and in 1980, when he was in the White House as director of the U. S. Consumer Affairs Council, he began publishing the clippings and his mordant commentaries as "View from the Ledge."
Jack Shafer, a former editor of the Washington City Paper who's now a deputy editor of Slate, recalls that Shepherd approached him about running VFTL in 1985. "I said, 'No thanks, I'm not running any columns.'" But after VFTL had received nationwide media coverage a couple of years later, Shafer assigned someone to do a story about Shepherd. "He sent me a letter, "'What, you can run an article about me but you can't run the stuff that I've put together? I'm a story but this isn't a column?'" Shafer relented. He claims to have come up with the title "News of the Weird," but is "100% sure" that Shepherd came up with the format. "From that," he chuckles, "Chuck has conquered the world. It was a brilliant idea of Chuck's and I was just lucky to be there. What Chuck and I joke about constantly is that I could have been a brilliant editor two years earlier."
Two weeks after appearing in the City Paper, says Shepherd, NOTW "was running in all these other weeklies," then was distributed by the Alternet service. In 1989 it was picked up by Universal Press Syndicate, which, according to the Web site newsoftheweird.com, sends NOTW to "more than 300 mainstream daily newspapers and alternative publications."
Once Shepherd's income from syndication approached his salary as a professor, he quit his day job and returned to his native Florida, or as he terms it, "the F State." "People said I was taking a professional risk by moving away from D.C., because that's where everything weird happens, but I didn't lose anything in the translation by moving to Florida," he points out. Jim Mullin, editor of New Times in Miami and a native of Southern California, which itself spawns no small amount of strangeness, says, "It's not surprising that Chuck has settled here because Florida is the home of the weird."
Forget about the beach-and-palm-tree fantasy, though. "I lounged on the beach when I first came down here in 1992," confesses Shepherd, "but I can't do that anymore." Now he resides in a high-rise condominium overlooking Tampa Bay. "It's hard work doing News of the Weird," he says. "If it was as easy to do today as it was in 1989, I could pull off living in Key West." He describes himself as "very Nineties: I'm working harder to stay in the same place."
What's the big difference between now and 10 years ago? One is that in 1989 NOTW was the only game in town. "There were many editors who didn't think it was dignified to run these stories," Shepherd recalls. "I'd just pick the first 15 that came in as News of the Weird because there was no other place to get them. The only competition was National Lampoon, which ran two pages of 'True Facts' once a month." Back then there were no tabloid TV shows either, but "'Dateline' and '20-20' run the exact same stories as News of the Weird does now, so I have to look harder and for different things."
The other big difference is the Internet, which Shepherd terms both a blessing and a curse. "The curse is there are so many easy ways for people to find out weird news now: You can go on the Internet and sign up for AP stories delivered to your computer'weird' or 'odd' or whatever buzzword they put in. The blessing is that almost all large newspapers put out searchable databases on the Internet, so it's easier for me to track down stories."
"People say, 'Gee, Shepherd, you take news stories that have originally been in someone's newsroom, were swept up and thrown out, and you package them and sell them back to them.'" With ghoulish relish that belies his "regular guy" interview persona, Shepherd likens his job to that of Brad Pitt's character in "Fight Club": "He takes rich women's fat, turns it into soap and sells it back to them at an enormous price."
Though it may seem easy to the outsider, rendering others' news stories into News of the Weird is a time-consuming job, which Shepherd usually squeezes into three days a week. Tuesday through Thursday, he gets up at 5 a.m. (3:30 a.m. on the day of our interview, to make up for lost time) and works in his home office till around 9 p.m. On Tuesday, for the first three hours he reads e-mail and sorts through piles of mail, clippings he's taken from the four newspapers he has delivered daily and copies of stories he's picked up from the Internet. Every week his longtime cadre of correspondents sends him "probably about 150 envelopes, which may contain 500 to 600 stories"; e-mail messages, some 250 per week, typically have one story each. He also gets leads from various magazines and newsletters, then goes to newspaper databases to get the "'money fact' the fact that's a good lead that really makes the story." For example, "if there's a bank robbery it's not till the thirteenth paragraph that you find out the guy was a transsexual who this time dressed as a man to throw people off."
During the rest of the day, he "orchestrates," plotting out about six columns in advance. On Wednesday, he conducts NOTW business and correspondence. He spends all day Thursday writing and editing. "I write as many columns as I can two or so, then spend the next five weeks tinkering with them." He e-mails his completed column to Universal Press Syndicate at the end of the day Thursday or first thing Friday morning.
When asked to sum up the cultural Zeitgeist, Shepherd initially demurs: "I'm just here to enjoy the ride," he says. But later he writes, "My only conclusion about human nature is that society is filled with people who need to measure themselves against others, to be reassured that they're not so bad off, and News of the Weird does that for them. Like, sometimes I'm a little klutzy, but if I were going to rob a bank, I would remember to put my mask on before I walked inside."
However, the editors I speak to are willing (as they usually are) to offer their summary judgment. Each one, while appreciative of NOTW's abiding popularity, echoes almost verbatim the rueful comments of Michael Lenehan, executive editor of Chicago Reader: "We have a lot of very serious, dedicated and talented writers and editors churning out high-level articles that don't draw the readers that Chuck Shepherd does. It must say something about what kind of stuff people want to read these days, but I don't know if I want to depress myself too much by thinking about that." On the other hand, he adds, "We feel lucky that we have him. So, God bless Chuck."
Says Mullin of New Times, "Part of the column's popularity derives from the fact that these are actual newspaper stories, which lend them at least a modicum of credibility. You've got life being stranger than fiction and that's always fascinating. Chuck Shepherd tapped into some deep, dark psychic recess in our social fabric and cashed in on it! Our world is permeated with this kind of oddball news and beyond that it baffles me why it's so appealing to people. That being said, I read it every week. After all these years I still have an appetite for it."
Shafer of Slate views NOTW as "the psychic entrails of American culture. I think we divine the past, present and future from looking at these." And what do they portend for the future? "I think they say that we'll have a pestilence-ridden, crime-permeated, drugged-out delightful culture, forever and always. These are the vital signs of a culture that's alive. You couldn't have a News of the Weird in a totalitarian society. While it may horrify people, it gives us a positive vision that there is such awesome stupidity."
© 1999 Bella Stander