Ted Rall’s Future Imperfect

Editorial cartoonist Ted Rall has recently written a three-part column on  the future of the newspaper industry.

Part I
Part II
Part III

Both Ted Rall’s editorial cartoons and columns are distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.

9 thoughts on “Ted Rall’s Future Imperfect

  1. Leave it to Ted Rall to paint a portrait so grim that you can’t help but believe it.

    A choice quote: “None of this will improve the quality of journalism.”

    When professionals are being laid off or essentially run out of journalism due to low pay, and when online “agencies” refuse to pay content providers (I, too, have heard the phrase “you’ll get plenty of exposure for your work!” far too often), the trends are not looking good for people like us.

    I do agree with his point about payment online. If there is a simple, all-encompassing way to pay for services on the internet, people will do it. $1 for a Sunday edition of your favorite newspaper? I would gladly pay it, and I think many others would, too. But when I’ve got to fill out endless forms just to read that one article from last week, my patience usually runs out before I get to the finish line.

    I’m an eternal optimist, and since it’s Friday, I’m going to say that, because the internet is still so new to so many, and because many of us are still trying to figure out its full potential, there is plenty of opportunity left for content providers to make an honest living doing what they love. It’s still open-ended.

  2. Ted’s a little late to the debate we’ve been having for years regarding freeloaders who want cartoons in exchange for promised “exposure”.
    However, someone as high profile and successful a editorialist as Ted no doubt gets pestered umpteen times more than I would, therefore his sense of annoyance is more acute.

    There are SO many underlying issues here, it’s hard to know where to start, but stick with me right to the end, won’t you?

    For a start, giving away cartoons in exchange for “exposure” isn’t the no-no on the internet that it would be off it.
    Many cartoonists can benefit, if it results in increased traffic to their own site, where they sell swag. In fact it’s commercial good sense.
    The same applies to guest bloggers or contributing columnists. IF your articles command a reader’s attention and IF your stuff is exciting or unbelievably funny, you WILL get the referrals to your site via your hyperlink, that is a fact.

    However, what will those visitors encounter when they click on your link? More free articles on your own site? If so, don’t complain that you’re getting hits but not any money from them.

    Even if you have a deal with an advertiser, you need THOUSANDS of hits a day to see any money. You’d make more as a part-time barman, plus you’d meet chicks.

    Far better to set your own site up as another hub, i.e. brand your site (is it a political/satire site, a cartoon parody/swag site, a porn site?) and perhaps arrange your own “exposure” deals with other entertaining contributors to take your hits into the stratosphere bracket.

    Better still, charge for entrance to a members section of your site too.

    There are lots of different ways to go, but essentially the secrets to success on the internet are the same as Henry Ford encountered when he set up, or even the guys who ran the gladiator fights in ancient rome.
    Give the public what they want, make it affordable and they will come (and pay).

    These are the basics of entertainment commerce. The only people making money from crap the public doesn’t actually want are the syndicates who maintain ancient strips in newspapers, some papers still paying through the nose for characters who haven’t moved out of 1945 or even 1926.

    They’re also the ones offering “exposure” to cartoonists.

    I quote Comics Sherpa:
    “The Comics Sherpa service from GoComics.com lets aspiring cartoonists (or established cartoonists with a new idea) tap into the huge and loyal readership on GoComics.com for feedback and exposure.
    Thousands of comics fans visit our sites daily to read the icons of the comics pages — like “Doonesbury,” “Garfield,” “Bloom County,” “Ziggy” and “Calvin & Hobbes.”

    Now your work can be featured in the same forum as these comics page classics.”

    Comics Sherpa is owned by Universal (Andrews McMeel)

    I told you the underlying issues were many.

    Doesn’t Ted Rall work for a syndicate?

  3. “Government and business will face even less accountability than they do today. Democracy will lie in ruins. The print newspaper business, however, will be going gangbusters.”

    The first two of these assertions are absurd. Everything points to the opposite.

    Print newspaper COULD be going gangbusters, if they uphold traditional professional standards and allow people to customize their own printed paper.

  4. Mr. Rall does make some very good points. However, I do not share his pessimism regarding the future of journalism. Since Guttenburg in the 15th century, people have expressed themselves via the printed word. The Reformation, English Civil War, American Revolution, French Revolution and the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century all came about in large part due to people being able to express themselves through the written word. This is still a largely recent phenomenon. Classical journalism as it developed in the 20th century is an even more recent event. The internet is simply another manifestation of people expressing their opinion. Of course everything on the net is not top quality. (As a doctor, I deal with medical misinformation from the web on a nearly daily basis. Sometimes with unfortunate results.) How does one separate the wheat from the chaff? It all comes back to having an educated reading population. Top quality news sources will maintain their credibility, and will ultimately need top quality journalists. Of course, anyone can put a spin on any event. That’s why their is such a debate over “the liberal controlled media” vs “conservative hack journalism”. But the cream will ultimately rise to the top.

    The other point is the future of cartoonists. I agree that your content should not be free. Why your syndicates allow this is beyond me. I can only assume they have not yet reached the conclusion that this doesn’t make economic sense. Seeing as money talks, and the syndicates like to make money, I have to believe that free comics are only a transient thing. (We’ll see if I’m right in ten years!)

  5. Dave,
    I’m sure the syndicates will tell you that only the OLDer stuff is free, i.e. the archived cartoons from a month or 2 weeks ago.

    If you want to see the very latest, you have to subscribe to the site or buy a newspaper.

    Problem is, that doesn’t sell newspapers at all, because in the case of the few people who are nuts about a feature, they’ll subscribe to the web, and the vast majority will simply say “meh, I’ll wait until it becomes free”.

    Therefore we are now seeing a diversion of paths between newspaper comics and newspapers themselves. I have rarely seen such an explosion of newspaper surveys pertaining to which comics they carry, and I think it may well be evidence of the newspaper industry waking up to the content of the funnies pages, initially asking themselves “what strips should we carry?” but graduating to “should we carry strips at all?”.

    The bottom line (as far as newspapers is concerned) is, with so few comics actually being read and appreciated by our readers, what’s actually in this for us?

  6. Malc,
    Both UComics.com and comics.com give you access to today’s strips. (Both have several pop-up ads.) King Features has a delay. The Houston Chronicle and Seattle Times will both give access to most of the King Features strips that same day. I subscribe to UComics and King Features, but I’m a comic fanatic and I believe they are an incredible bargain (less than $30 for the two services combined!). I subscribe because I believe cartoonists should be paid for their work (that way they can keep entertaining me!).
    I agree that many newspapers are evaluating if they should carry comics. Comics may ultimately be only available online and in book form. That would be sad, but it hasn’t seemed to hurt DC or Marvel Comics.

  7. “Comics may ultimately be only available online and in book form. That would be sad, but it hasnâ??t seemed to hurt DC or Marvel Comics.”

    True, but DC and Marvel are not in the same business as King Features. Spiderman is one of the least readable newspaper strips, and I am a Spiderman fan – but only of the comic books, not the newspaper feature.

  8. I found Ted’s analysis pretty interesting despite the liberal digs and analogies – a budding capitalist when it comes to his own profession (which I view as generally a good thing, with some caveats). I found the part about types of newspaper (A,B,C) particularly interesting. I’m not sure if I agree with his overall skepticism but there is certainly cause for concern based on the current trends. I think things tend to cycle, and the quality might hit a low point – but when it does the competitive advantages swings back to quality over quantity. The yin and yang of the marketplace. Hopefully some of the trends that will inevitably emerge (as Ted cited about the other “doomed” medias that have survived and sometimes thrived) will be in our favor as creators.

    A universal approach to buying online could initially be as simple as a defacto standard for the data entry form by providers (sellers) with all the personal information residing at each user’s computer. When you hit the “buy” button it would transfer all that to the standard form much like being a repeat customer at a site today. Keeping the information secure is more difficult, but it’s basically done now … but always needs improvement. If I have to add any more anti-virus and anti-ad/spyware filters on my PC, it won’t be surfing anymore … more like paddling upstream in an inner-tube (with one paddle). Maybe a harder part is being able to set up the web site with the private and public sides and managing all the technology while trying to produce content. This too will probably get easier.

    It’s hard not to be critical of giving content/cartoons away, but it’s understandable too. When you have no market it’s a way to get out there and most of us have done it (or do it) as we see the need.

  9. We’re already halfway to a universal checkout system. It’s called PayPal.

    All we need is for someone to take that model, make it more user friendly and more secure, so more people use it, and you have your universal checkout.

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