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How do comics fit in the future of newspapers?

A couple of years ago, I posted a summary of an article that predicted the collapse of the print newspaper within a decade. We’ve had this conversation on this blog since then and the opinions vary. This last summer has been horrific for those in the business. Massive lay-offs, slumping stock values, unpaid debt. For those of us who like the smudgy ink on newsprint paper, it is indeed a sad affair. If the current trajectory is maintained, author Philip Meyer calculates that the last newspaper dies in April of 2043. Certainly that represents a trajectory void of any change in course or adaptation to the new media world.

But Meyer does advocate a much different future in which newspapers survive and grow, but they change from a daily “buffet” model of information and to a more narrow, focused offering. In dealing with the disruptive (or substitutive) internet, papers need to focus more on their community.

One of the rules of thumb for coping with substitute technology is to narrow your focus to the area that is the least vulnerable to substitution. Michael Porter included it in his list of six strategies in his book “Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance.” The railroads survived the threat from trucks on Interstate highways and airlines by focusing on the one thing they could still do better: moving bulk cargo across long distances.

What service supplied by newspapers is the least vulnerable?

I still believe that a newspaper’s most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution, is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting about public affairs. This influence makes it more attractive to advertisers.

By news, I don’t mean stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts. The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don’t need new information so much as help in processing what’s already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.

He also recognizes that the paper may no longer be a daily product at this point.

I’ve lamented the loss of the daily local comic strip, but perhaps a regular local feature is set for a return. I certainly would like to see that happen. Unfortunately, in this scenario, what might be well for the local feature would be awful for the syndicated one.

Community Comments

#1 Joe Forrest
@ 2:06 pm

Hmm I don’t know. People predict these things but they are wrong sometimes.

Well let’s hope their wrong anyway. Alot of things have been predicted in the past but they have not happened so why should this happen?

Well I don’t think it will.

#2 Beth Cravens
@ 2:46 pm

When space becomes like oil cartoons get the boot. Which is a shame, not only for me as a cartoonist, but for me as a reader. I hate picking up a paper that is toonless. In fact I don’t waste my time with boring rag unless I’m shredding it for kitty litter.

#3 Wes Rand
@ 4:48 pm

That’s an interesting idea. I think in isolation, printed newspapers would have to evolve into something that people would still find valuable. But I wonder if the split operation that most newspapers have become (web & print) will affect that calculation down the road. If web provides enough revenue I think a lot of papers will just end their printed version. I read an article a while back calculating what kind of revenue a news operation would need if it got rid of printing and delivery costs (about two thirds of current costs according to that author) and I can see a lot of publishers figuring that cutting those expenses entirely.

But where does that leave comics? Would these narrow-focus print products have a home for comic strips and other cartoons? Or will we see online news sites start to carry comics en mas?

#4 Dennis West
@ 5:04 pm

I challenge everyone not to let this turn into a Print VS Web debate.

#5 Chris Fournier
@ 8:12 pm

I’m not sure where the newspaper will end up but if today’s readers are any indicator for the future I’m not sure it wont’ be a positive end.

When I think of a typical newspaper readership their demographic seems to be anyone 35 and older.

Younger readers are reading info online and scarcely read the printed version.

2048 is a good barometer because by then the youngest of the demographic I just mentioned will be 85 or so and those younger than 35 who have only read their news online won’t be reading newspapers because they’ve never had to thus eliminating the need entirely to pay money for traditional print.

The key now is to get those younger readers hooked on newspapers and what will that take…comics and features they will take an interest in.

Comics that are edgy will get their attention. Keep some of those comic strips that appeal to the older generation but introduce the edgier comics so younger people will be enticed to read the paper.

That’s really the only way we can keep this medium going.

#6 Mike Peterson
@ 4:12 am

One of the biggest problems facing newspapers right now is a lack of focus by the people in charge. The ones who should understand marketing — publishers, mostly — are fixated on short-term numbers rather than the paper’s function in the community. They don’t see the benefits of beefing up appeal through investment in that local coverage he talks about. This is true in part because the big guys who lead the conversation are in metro areas where they can’t really provide hyperlocal service, and are wedded to huge numbers that a single paper can’t hope to maintain in the future market. If the owners and publishers in the small markets would ignore these lumbering dinosaurs, they’d prosper, but they don’t, in part because a lot of them are owned by the aforementioned dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, editors have the idea that it’s their responsibility to save the product, and they haven’t sold anything since they outgrew band candy and Girl Scout cookies. So they come up with these “Emperor’s New Clothes” responses to the market and then stand around applauding each other while their numbers drop.

For my part, I’ve used local editorial cartoons and they’ve been very, very popular. What does it mean for syndication? Well, the news isn’t so good. Something like Danziger’s “Teeds” would play well here — weekly, New England based droll humor. But I doubt local readers in Pennsylvania or Arizona would identify with it enough to justify the space commitment in a small, community paper. And it wouldn’t help me if it were available in every small New England weekly. I’d say a good regional cartoonist might be able to work with a half dozen papers.

If Teeds were all Danziger did, he wouldn’t make it without some other work. Chuck Asay was not just the cartoonist for the Colorado Springs Sun but also drew illustrations for their light features and designed column headers, etc. The Sun wasn’t so big that it couldn’t fulfill the role a newspaper, properly constituted, can represent in a community, and Chuck made a living working there.

For the tiny markets like mine, it could well be that cartooning for newspapers would be a way for working commercial artists to stretch their creative wings, have some fun and pick up a little extra scratch. Or maybe, instead of being a newspaper cartoonist who learns to also work on the web, you have to be a cartoonist who learns to also take photographs or lay out pages.

#7 Tom Wood
@ 5:36 am

There are already several newspapers following that model, they are called Alternative Weeklies.

#8 Jeff Stanson
@ 7:24 am

Meyer is far too steeped in the the self-important world of contemporary journalists to look at this topic impartially. If he weren’t, he’d recognize that newspapers’ influence on most communities is already a thing of the past. Even in his own back door, the once great News & Observer casts very little significance over an area known as the research triangle. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Oh, I can’t wait to see what the take of [insert local rag’s name here] has to say about [any subject]”? When the local Gannett bird-cage liner in my area recently endorsed a candidate for president, very few even noticed. Newspapers are no longer social currency, folks, and only the choir is still around to hear the sermon.

#9 Ted Rall
@ 7:50 am

As I wrote in my three-part “Future Imperfect” series linked above, I think the future will look like Europe–a cluster of large national newspapers like USA Today, WSJ, and NYT, lots and lots of small community papers. The midsize urban dailies will contract.

In the final analysis, newspapers will survive in print because:

1. Print provides a service other formats like the web cannot–portability and ease of use being paramount.

2. Web-based advertising rates will not rise much, certainly not high enough to make web-based news-gathering profitable. This is because web readers don’t pay enough attention to ads or buy the products advertised at high volume.

3. Businesses and individuals need raw news. Neither TV, nor radio, nor the web/bloggers are not set up to generate enough actual journalism to replace the work done by print newspaper journalists.

Without a doubt, print will look different–more national, more local, less regional. But it will not go away. I wish I had ten million dollars. If I did, I’d start a couple of newspapers now.

#10 Mike Sieber
@ 8:46 am

I think that Ted’s scenario is the most likely. There will be a few national papers like USA today and the rest will be small weeklies, or other community specific papers.

This doesn’t bode well for comics because there simply won’t be enough publications to sustain a career built solely on newspaper strips. And, if you look at papers like USA today, they don’t even offer comics. I think that as papers scramble for profitability and try to fit into the future, comics will likely begin to disappear.

Someone brought up the idea that by getting edgier comics in the papers, it will attract young readers. I disagree, because people who want edgy comics are already reading that kind of material online for free.

Kids today are used to getting the content they want for free, so I don’t see them growing up, and suddenly getting interested in paying for a newspaper just to follow a particular comic. Maybe newspapers are something they’ll pick up in their later years, but I think the young demographic is gone.

Anyway, it’s a good discussion. Being a newspaper guy I’m definitely intrigued by where the industry is headed.

#11 David Willson
@ 10:10 am

I couldn’t agree with the quote you picked by Meyer more … especially this part, “I still believe that a newspaperâ??s most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution, is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news…”

But more than that, a typical metropolitan newspaper has built a “community brand” that most companies would kill for, and they don’t seem to realize it. Of course they’ll have to develop a tansmedia business model for the future, but they have an almost captive market to do it with.

Mike Peterson nails the reasons why they are mostly clueless. If you’re looking for proof, look no further than my market, with COX owned Palm Beach Post. They recently let go almost every popular reporter, editor, artist, cartoonist and columnist they had. In doing so, they completely decimating their brand affinity with the community. Instead of focusing on the community editorially they seem to be trying to emulate USA Today, US and People in their content and delivery. Coupled with other alterations due to budget cuts, the change in the Post has been so shocking to the community that it is now a local joke.

On the other hand, COX owned Palm Beach Daily News, the little community paper for the town of Palm Beach is profitable and thriving. Sure, it’s a wealthy community. They get a break because advertisers will spend to reach its readers, but its real success is that the editors are focused on producing a community organ with laser-like intensity … and always have been. As their weekly freelance editorial cartoonist, I do less than a half-dozen cartoons a year that fall out of the local purview.

“Working commercial artist who is stretching his wings,” describes me perfectly. I believe that the Web is currently a good environment for individual cartoonists to potentially increase their audience and exposure, but not profitable as Ted Rall says. Going forward, it appears that successful cartoonists on the Web will probably have to work in more of a studio situation, similar to, to best leverage multi-media creatively. They’ll need to work in teams of concept artists, animators and programmers … or somehow learn to do it all themselves.

#12 anne hambrock
@ 12:11 pm

I agree with much that has been said above about local content and also with Ted’s assertion that print will not go away entirely. But I want to restate a point I have made before when this topic comes up in regard to the online market for newspapers.

I like convenience and one stop shopping. I could probably surf the web and find many of the news items about the comics business that appear on this site. I don’t want to. It’s a waste of my time. I come to this site because the news I want has been gathered for me. Not only that, I always know the site will work with my computer and my browser – something not always true of some of the other comics sites I have visited.

If a newspaper site existed where I could get all the content I was interested in one convenient location, I would visit it regularly. Also, with all the widget technology out there it is entirely possible for a newspaper website to know exactly how many views each part of the paper is getting rather than their rather sophisticated current philosophy of guessing.

Once it is clear how many eyeballs go to the comics section of the paper in ratio to other topics offered, the debate over whether comics are important or not becomes a non issue and ad rates can be easily determined. The idea of mixing ads with the comics has come up here before but always in the context of the print version of the paper where the case seems to come down to newsprint cost. Totally irrelevant on the web.

I know there are many people who read their comics through the various web services like gocomics and daily ink etc. But there also a huge number of folks that simply go read them at the Houston Chronicle every day instead. There really should be a simple way to turn a comic spot in the Houston Chronicle into more $ than is happening now.

#13 Rich Diesslin
@ 11:43 pm

Would more local papers mean an shrinking or growing market for cartoons? The USA Today model is humorless/cartoonless, so I was wondering if there would actually be more papers available to run comic strips (although perhaps paying less regional ones).

#14 Ted Dawson
@ 11:04 am

Newspapers and newspaper comics are alive and well in South America and Asia. What are they doing differently?

Things that have contributed to lower newspaper readership in the U.S.:

No competition

No local ownership

No newspaper machines

Dependence on AP reports and syndicated material.

The American newspaper business is one of the most profitable, regardless of what they say. The newspaper industry sported profits in the range of 17-18% in 2006, compared to, say, Exxon-Mobil, which reported record profits of 10% that year.

Personal responsibility among corporate newspaper ownership is the only thing that’s really hurting the newspaper industry.

Last year Reuters reported a study that said newspapers that spend money on their newsrooms actually make more money. I don’t think the corporate board members read the newspaper, though.

#15 Bob Gerhardt
@ 1:57 pm

In Canada, due to the significant distances between our larger cities, the bigger dailies seem somewhat immune to the diminishing market. I can’t quote circulation numbers, but the typical issue of the localy daily we subscribe to, the “Calgary Herald”, has grown in all aspects, including the comics page. Due to a time crunch during the week, most news is perused on the web, and newspapers are read on the weekend. The articles are more in depth, and the inclusion of weekly and monthly local arts/culture/human interest magazines with unique/off beat viewpoints and high photographic/artwork standards are included. Our two Toronto based national papers, “The Globe and Mail” and the “National Post” complement, rather than compete with our local papers.

#16 Ted Rall
@ 7:27 am

Canada’s newspaper market has long looked more like Europe’s than the United States’.

#17 John Moore
@ 7:39 am

Cartoons just need to be relevant. they need to inform and entertain. They need to tell a story. They ultimately need to be accessible. That means people have to “get them” content wise.

They also have to be part of the media. That mean they have to be “in people’s faces”. If you cover all those bases you will have success.

To cover these “bases” you will touch on style, content, and delivery. These are the core issues in cartooning.

#18 Ben Gordon
@ 6:29 pm

My local paper is family owned. Circulation has slipped from 60,000 to 47,000 in recent years.

Visible cost-cutting has mainly involved ad prices and page width.

Otherwise, the paper has gotten better, and without resorting to the McPaper look. No cartoons have been cut. A staff artist, undoubtedly part time or free lance, remains.

I cannot share their finances, which are private, but it seems likely they will be around for a while, despite being in one of the most competitive newspaper markets in the country.

A cartoonist effort to rank papers by stewardship would be a big undertaking, but would reveal who is being lost due to “cost cutting” as opposed to wise planning.

Mastering sound cost control techniques that are working at some papers would allow a more potent challenge to cost cuts that are possibly ill-advised and which have been conceived by accountants.

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