The topic for this In Focus article has been rolling around in my mind for a few months now. Since October, when I started this blog, I’ve read several reports (usually around end of financial quarters) that bemoan the dropping circulations and overall readership of the newspaper. How was this trend affecting the big six syndicates who sell editorial cartoons and comic strips? Because their business is so closely dependent on the health of the newspaper industry what were syndicates doing to grow their business in this climate and ultimately, how would these trends affect the current or future syndicated cartoonist?
For the last two weeks I interviewed editors and/or executives with King Features Syndicate (KFS), Tribune Media Services (TMS), United Media (UM), Universal Press Syndicate (UPS), and Washington Post Writers Group (WPWG) about the state of their syndicate and how they would forecast the coming years in the syndication business. The only major syndicate not represented in this report is Creators Syndicate (CS), who never returned my calls.
Newspaper in decline?
There probably isn’t an editor, publisher, or analyst that can argue with the facts that newspaper circulations are seeing a drop in regular subscribers. According to a story from the Financial Times News reprinted on MSNBC, newspapers saw a 2.5% decrease in circulation during October 1, 2005 through March 31, 2006. The greatest decline was reported from the San Francisco Chronicle whose daily paid subscriptions dropped 15.6% during that same reporting period. The following chart, taken from Journalism.org shows the steady decline in circulations of U.S. newspapers from 1990 through 2003.
Despite the negative press the print media has heaped upon itself, the syndicates assert that they are doing well due to strong sales and increased licensing opportunities. All the syndicates, while appearing to watch the market closely are very optimistic about the future. The gloom and doom of reduced newspaper staff is actually a positive thing for a syndicate – as newspapers become more centered on providing local content and arranging their staff reporters accordingly, there is greater tendency to buy comparatively less expensive syndicated material according to Mary Elson, Managing Editor at Tribune Media Services.
But while the syndicate, with a diverse offering of products are doing well, how does that translate to the cartoonist who produces only one type of content? All of the syndicates agreed that a newly launched strip today would have a more difficult time reaching its potential than if it had been launched 10-20 years earlier. Despite this, they were all confident that the right comic could come along and exceed all expectations. Jay Kennedy, Editor in Chief of King Features, used Zits as an example that within its first four years, Zits had surpassed the 500-subscriber level, and just this week, it was announced that Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott’s feature had reached 1500-subscribers in its 9th year of syndication.
Additionally, Alan Shearer, Editorial Director at WPWG, believes cartoonists have good reason to smile. “Comics are looking at the best opportunities it’s seen in 30 years. There are more opportunities and channels to reach more readers than ever before,” says Shearer. Lee Salem, Editor and President of Universal Press agrees and mentions with book, calendar and movie deals, there is still great potential for an inspiring cartoonist.
Out of print, into e-something
As more and more emphasis is being placed on the web and its future (and for some demographics the current) dominance in news and entertainment many syndicates are already gearing up in to take advantage of new outlets. King Features, Universal Press, and United Media already have paid subscription services for the comic enthusiasts and many syndicates have deals distributing their creator’s features through mobile phones or PDAs.
One of the frustrations that syndicates voiced was the impatience in newspapers to build their online presence and put more focus on attracting more readers to the web. Clearly the web will be an important medium and Shearer is convinced that if newspapers will place more emphasis on their web offerings, syndicates can then provide the comic entertainment that will attract readers as well as advertisers.
Traditional family comics are dead, long live niche features
Because of the expanding marketing channels and distribution methods, the comic strip selection is changing. All syndicates said that they’d never pass up any comics that are well drawn and written, but according to Lisa Wilson, General Manager at United Media, narrowly defined niche comics are becoming more desirable than a traditional family strip. “We tend to judge traditional family strips more harshly. It’s easier to see on a demographic basis that the newspapers are responding to more edgier, minority features,” says Wilson. On that last point, Shearer agreed almost verbatim and probably more than any syndicate this year has backed it up by launching Watch Your Head featuring an African American cast and S.O.S. a Spanish only feature.
Looking ahead to the next 10 years, no one would venture a guess as to what the industry might look like, but most agree that as newspapers evolve, syndicates will do likewise.