Where news of the weird is king: AOL is serious about U.F.O.s, magic trees, Vicki Lawrence statues
When Buck Wolf, the senior correspondent in charge of AOL’s Weird News Desk, caught wind of a story about a suggestively shaped tamarind tree with the numbers 008 carved into it, growing outside of a police station in sPhayao, Thailand, he sensed something was amiss.
Locals had played ‘008’ in the lottery and won, according to a story in a Thai newspaper, which was picked up by an English language Thai paper, and then by Tabloid Prodigy, which, in turn, was picked up by Jezebel and The Frisky.
“I looked at the picture and said, ‘This is bullshit. We’re not going to run this story,’" Wolf said in a recent interview.
Instead, he and his colleague and "weird news" contributor David Moye found a writer living in Bangkok who agreed to investigate the matter.
“We sent him down there, and the tree just wasn’t there,” said Wolf. “It was all concocted.”
On August 30, they ran their story, a 650-word investigation into the viral sexy-tree boomlet.
Buck Wolf is a 46-year-old reporter who’s specialized in weird news for the last 13 years and believes stories of the abnormal, the oddball and the freakish should be reported with the same vigor as more traditional news, an approach that has won his desk attention from more mainstream publications, like the Daily News, NPR, and Time, all of whom have picked up AOL Weird News stories since the desk’s creation in 2009 but would never pick up stories on similar topics from dodgy supermarket tabloids.
His approach also puts the desk on equal footing with AOL’s more traditional areas of coverage, like politics and world news. It’s one of just 10 verticals (not counting the main landing page) featured on the AOL News web site, alongside Entertainment, Sports and World.
And every morning at 8:30, Wolf, along with colleagues like Politics Daily executive editor Carl Cannon and senior Washington Correspondent Andrea Stone, joins an AOL chat group meeting run by executive news editor Marty Steinberg to pitch stories for the AOL welcome screen, the site’s most trafficked page.
“Everyone goes around and says what the most important stories of the day is on their desk and I do it for weird,” said Wolf.
WEIRD IS A NEBULOUS TERM. A LOT OF NEWS BY DEFINITION contains some element of the weird. That’s often what makes it newsworthy: Man bites dog. Publications have traded in stories of the peculiar since there have been publications. Even normally stentorian institutions like The Wall Street Journal and Reuters have sites or series like The A-Hed and Oddly Enough to give readers a pressure-valve to pull on while they're getting their daily dose of Libyan civil war and stock-market setbacks.
Until it closed over the summer, a wire service called Wireless Flash News—where both Moye and his colleague Monica Garske once worked—provided weird reporting to late-night shows and morning radio stations.
Wolf’s star reporters include Marc Hartzman, 36, who covers sideshows (recent headline: “Exclusive: Wheel of Death Made Deadlier”); David Moye, who reports on weird pop culture (“Kansas City Residents Lobby for Vicki Lawrence ‘Mama’ Statue”); and Chris Epting, who covers strange Americana, among other topics (“Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Found: The Great Pyramid of Massachusetts.”)
But perhaps none has as ample or storied a career in weird news as Wolf’s star science and U.F.O. correspondent, Lee Speigel.
Since moving to New York City from New Hampshire as a folk singer in the mid 1970s—a boomtime for U.F.O. sightings—Speigel, now 61, has spent his career reporting on U.F.O.s and the paranormal.
Around the same time Steven Spielberg released Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Columbia House released a documentary album produced by Speigel called UFOs: The Credibility Factor, for which he traveled around the country interviewing various U.F.O. believers. (The album can now be downloaded for $.99 at the theufostore.com.)
The defining moment of his career came in 1978, when Speigel said he brought tgether important scientific and military speakers to testify at the United Nations on U.F.O.s. Grenada Prime Minister Eric Gairy was requesting U.N. support for a commission to investigate U.F.O. sightings. During his 1979 visit to New York, Gairy’s regime was overthrown in a coup. The motion never came to pass.
Soon, Siegel was hosting a show about the paranormal on NBC radio called "Edge of Reality." “But I always come back to UFOs,” said Speigel. “It’s the one thing I know the most about, I think, and it also didn’t hurt that i had a close encounter myself.” (The year was 1975, the location was a field in Lumberton, North Carolina.)
And though he believes in U.F.O.'s, he's struck a tone with his writing that makes it accessible to the nonbeliever. As in the recent article, “Former Canadian Defense Official Blasts US on UFO Cover-Up.”
“I try to present it so that I’m being neither skeptical nor a true believer and let people decide for themselves,” Speigel said.
“I worked with him at ABC, and what always impressed me was that he had credibility as a science reporter and as a U.F.O. guy,” said Wolf. “He has the ability to write about these people in a way that’s not insulting.”
LOTS OF 'TALES OF THE WEIRD' ARE TOLD FOR SPORT; the straight news report of the Virgin Mary's face in the brown marks on a tortilla, including interviews with true-believers, can feel dirty and exploitive even when it makes you laugh, when it's in the hands of mean or crude editors. There's no guilt in the pleasure Wolf's team brings to the stories, partly because he's drawn his staff from among a fairly weird bunch to begin with.
“I think you have to have a certain love of humanity and people being individualists,” said Moye of working the weird news beat.
“Even though it’s tagged weird, there’s always a lot of heart and soul in these stories,” said Epting, 49, a Huntington Beach, Calif. resident who’s published 18 books on the offbeat, including James Dean Died Here: The Locations of America’s Pop Culture Landmarks. “Whether U.F.O.s or bearded ladies, we take it seriously. We think these are compelling stories. We’re not spoofing it.”
Buck Wolf spent 10 years at ABC publishing the Wolf Files, about all manner of oddities, has participated in a Guinness World Records-qualifying blockhead event (blockheading is when large objects are stuck into the head’s inner cavities by way of the nostrils), and rides his bike to work wearing a helmet covered in spikes made out of zip ties.
David Moye, 46, the pop culture reporter, professes to have psychic abilities.
Marc Hartzman, who writes about sideshows, counts many performers as his friends.
Ben Muessig, the 25-year-old crime reporter, who says he’s “probably the least weird, or most traditional news writer that we have,” says that, “For a journalist, it’s like running away and joining the circus.”
“When weird is your commonality you want to hang onto that person,” said Moye. “ The weird people need to stick together. It’s a valuable commodity that’s under-appreciated.”
That's not to say that weird news must be humorless—or even that a certain element of weird news doesn't creep into important mainstream storylines.
“The birthers are just two steps away from the people who believe in U.F.O.S,” says Moye. “So it becomes almost a satirical kind of commentary on what’s happening.”
Like all news, it also occasionally has an impact on actual lives. When asked about their favorite stories, the reporters almost invariably pointed to those that brought attention and financial support to someone in need, be it the former Storm character from television's "American Gladiator," who was found to be living on the street, or the long-lost son of a bearded woman who was reunited with his mother with Hartzman’s help.
The Weird News desk owes its existence to the arrival of Tim Armstrong, the AOL C.E.O. who has decided to make content the centerpiece of his strategy to rescue AOL from obsolescence. Wolf was brought on by Mike Porath in 2009 to start a weird news desk, and soon began amassing a team that included many of his old contacts from his years as a weird news reporter at ABC.
The amount of traffic at AOL Weird News remain a closely guarded secret, but Wolf maintains that it’s “huge.”