United Media turns over syndication management to Universal (UPDATED)

Universal Uclick has announced that it has taken over syndication management of United Media properties. According to the deal, Universal will manage all aspects of syndication for the Scripps’ subsidiary including sales, editorial, distribution, billing, collections, reporting and licensing fulfillment/management. The agreement also covers features in the Newspaper Enterprise Association. The transition of the services begins immediately and is expected to be completed by June 1, 2011.

From the press release from E.W. Scripps we learn that United will retain certain copyrights and control the licenses for their properties which include Pearls before Swine, Get Fuzzy, Marmaduke, Frank & Ernest, The Born Loser and Big Nate. They will also continue to manage the business relationships with their cartoonists.

Rich Boehne, Scripps president and CEO, said that the reason for the move was to focus their energies on core news and journalism enterprises. “We set out to construct the best operating model for the remaining syndicate, whose primary customers are newspapers across America. A review of our operations – and the marketplace we serve – made it clear that we should seek greater efficiency by teaming up with one of the other remaining players. In Andrews McMeel we found the scale and skills to carry forward the comic properties we have nurtured for many years.”

Scripps sold their licensing operations back in 2010 selling Peanuts and Dilbert (two of the industries top properties) to Iconix Brand Group.

Comics featured on Comics.com will be transitioned to gocomics.com in June creating the largest daily comic destination site on the web.

More information will be posted as it becomes available.

UPDATE #1: I spoke with John Glynn, Universal Uclick’s VP/Acquisitions and Rights, about today’s big announcement. Here are a few of the pertinent tidbits of information surrounding the deal – from a Universal perspective.

United Media and Andrews McMeel Publishing (parent company to Univeral) have had a long-standing positive relationship. Andrews McMeel regularly publishes book collections for United Media features. Even though they compete for newspaper space, the videos with Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis and John demonstrate a very positive relationship between UU and UM’s talent.

Discussions regarding UU taking over syndication management began late last year. United Media retains individual contacts with their cartoonist and vendors. Universal’s role is over distribution of the comic through newspapers, web and mobile channels.

One of the most public facing assets for United Media is the Comics.com domain. E.W. Scripps (parent compnay for United Media) will continue to own the domain but has licensed its use to Universal. It is still undecided which domain Universal will use once the transition is complete. Because Universal already hosts comics from Washington Post Writers Group, Tribune Media Syndicate and Creators – gocomics.com or comics.com (which ever will be used) will become the largest trove of comics on the web.

I asked if this new arrangement impacts Universal’s plans for launching new features. In a way, it doesn’t change much for Universal – at least in the short-term. Before the announcement they were already committed to a marketing/sales campaign for the newly acquired Peanuts (starting tomorrow) and Dilbert (starting in June) that they acquired from United Media in a separate arrangement. They have other comics in the development cycle which they anticipate launching in the future – but no date has been set.

UPDATE #2: I’ve received an email from former Editor of Acquisitions and Development at United Media – Ted Rall with his reaction to the announcement.

Landing at Universal is the best fate the cartoonists and columnists being transferred from United could have hoped for. Universal is financially viable and run by nice, honest people. Generally speaking, however, consolidation is always bad for media. It limits diversity and freedom of choice.

This morning President Doug Stern told soon-to-be-sacked UM employees that part of the failure of UM was directly attributable to the company’s inability to make money online, that they had tried their best but failed. This was untrue. United’s website Comics.com was the laughingstock of the industry, full of Javascript gone wild, 404 errors and broken widgets. When I was at United I and other employees repeatedly tried to fix it, only to be told our advice was unwelcome. They could have hired dozens of high-quality employees with the millions they wasted on a terrible website.

United did not fail because newspapers or newspaper syndication is unviable. It failed due to shitty management. Short-sighted executives not only didn’t have ideas; they shot them down when smart people spoke up. If there were any justice, they’d be thrown in jail and their assets would be redistributed to the scores of decent, hard-working workers who are about to wind up in the street due to their negligence and malfeasance.

UPDATE #3: I spoke with Lisa Klem Wilson, senior vice president and general manager at United Media. She stressed very strongly that this agreement wasn’t an indication that United Media was struggling financially and that this was a “fire sale.” She maintains that United Media, as a company within EW Scripps, has met all financial goals each quarter and was very profitable. The decision to outsource syndication to Universal was a strategic move for Scripps.

She also tells me that they’re very pleased with the work they’ve done for United Media. United Media has found and developed some of the top comic properties in the industry – and they’ve sold them all for a handsome profit.

63 thoughts on “United Media turns over syndication management to Universal (UPDATED)

  1. I’m happy for the comics that I enjoy from United, because I think they will do much better with Universal. This really isn’t shocking if you’ve been paying attention. It’s kind of a relief, like passing away after a long struggle with a terminal illness.

  2. “… creating the largest daily comic destination site on the web”

    What does that mean, exactly? Because a quick Alexa comparison of GoComics.com and Comics.com with Penny-Arcade.com and XKCD.com is revealing.

    Obviously the folks who write press releases are not going to say “this one stick-figure webcomic gets more traffic than both these major syndicated comics hubs combined,” but it’s worth noting among ourselves that this is, in fact, the case.

  3. I took “largest daily comic destination site on the web” to mean sheer number of comics all in one place.

    Do we really need to measure every industry news story against the success of Penny Arxade and XKCD?

  4. Darrin and I were obviously looking into the same crystal ball back in 2008:

    Li’l Nibs was, believe it or not, the most popular feature on The Timeless Funnies Network (TTFN)–the humorous hub of our solar system’s one (and only) Mixed Reality Media distributor, SolSyndicate.

    Of course, Ozwell (“The Nutty Nibble”) was the foundation of TTFN’s cartoon empire. His solid black silhouette appeared on a myriad of consumer-customized products, from holographic toys to fibre-optic illuminated evening gowns …


  5. “the reason for the move was to focus their energies on core news and journalism enterprises.”

    One again comics are thought of as the red-headed step child of the journalist set…this time by a syndicate. Nice.
    This just means one less option on the road to traditional syndication for cartoonists. Not a good sign.

  6. All this means is that I need to come up with a new excuse to not sit with Mark Tatulli at the Reubens.

  7. Guess my strip won’t be hearing from United Media then… Actually I bet I never hear back from any of them!!! I am so positive.

    I see this as a good thing. Yes, that means one less syndicate for us wannabes, but it also means that one syndicate is stepping up their distribution and hopefully will work harder for the lucky few who are syndicated now with Universal.

  8. @Steve Skelton,

    No offense, but if you can’t spell “cushy,” you should probably sit an editing job out.

  9. Alan, remember my comments last year about the “real” story coming out? This was what I meant. I didn’t have any inside information, but I suspected this might happen — as did many others, I’m sure.

  10. This seems similar to the conglomeration and acquisition of comic book distribution channels in the 90’s. I don’t think it’s the cause, but I do believe it’s a late-stage indicator of decline.

    That’s the elephant in the room. This might be a business opportunity for the acquirers, and possibly for some of their clients and partners, but it is not good news in general.

  11. Alan, maybe it would be beneficial to let the actual high-level employee of United Media you banned from commenting on this site weigh in on the discussion. Just a thought.

  12. R.I.P. United Media and Comics.com – all going to Universal Uclick and gocomics.com this Summer.

  13. Gosh, I just got over there and thought it was a bit crowded already…

    Universal is a good company, with a keen eye and John’s certainly very perceptive and funny in his own right, but It’s still a shame to lose another perspective for acquiring and developing new talents. It certainly is a whole new landscape, reminds me a bit of how all the old ghost towns started….

  14. “United did not fail because newspapers or newspaper syndication is unviable. It failed due to shitty management. Short-sighted executives not only didn?t have ideas; they shot them down when smart people spoke up.”

    So there ya have it, folks! Ted Rall’s explanation for why United Media failed: because they didn’t listen to Ted Rall.

  15. I guess I might finally give in and pay for a subscription to gocomics.com. Until now, I had gotten by with the free subscription to comics.com. Any word on when the switch is going to happen between those two feeds?

  16. “Wish List” item for Universal’s forthcoming website upgrade … Higher resolution graphics, please. King Features’ Comics Kingdom and United’s Comics.com already do this, so here’s hoping.

  17. I’m not surprised to hear this news due to the current climate of the industry. I do wish everyone I worked with at United well. They were always very gracious and kind to me, and I really enjoyed working with them during my time in syndication.

  18. Yeah, does this mean the strips are going to be crunched beyond recognition like they do on the newspapers? Are they going to be thrifty with pixels?

    Could we have a syndicate aiming for the next step, which is webcomics i.e. digital distribution for the papers?

  19. @Maritza … King Features’ Comics Kingdom is pretty darn close to what you’re describing.

    The only downfall to it is that not every comic strip fan wants to read ONLY King properties. I wouldn’t be surprised if, well … one can always hope!

  20. Could someone tell why they think this is positive? I heard the negatives – just curious.

  21. @MikeCope Sounds like a step in the right direction… but… maybe I’m spoiled by webcomics but the strips seem really too small to me πŸ™

    Was it ever considered by newspapers that the demography sector who mostly liked the funnies was middle aged or older?

    Why did they ever shrink things to a size that was impossible to read for the older crowd? Now that’s a depressing thought.

    Now pass me my bifocals.

  22. I’m hoping this is a good thing, too. While it gives cartoonist’s one less print distribution channel possibility for their work, Universal really is a good company full of people who do seem to care about comics and care about their creators, so here’s a hopeful look towards where things are headed.

  23. Will GoComics start using the Comics.com Adress now? It seems a sensible thing to do as they have all Universal’s, Washington Post’s. Creators’ and now United strips they should be the new home of the COMICS….

    1. United Media still owns that domain, but has licensed it to Universal. Both parties are unsure how it will be used at this point. Still working through it.

  24. if DailyINK.com and Gocomics want me to subscribe, they need to start accepting PAYPAL.

    no way am i trusting my cc# to unsecure websites.

  25. Charlie: Aside from not knowing how to spell your own name, you also don’t know how to tell when you’re on a secure site.

    Relax. Unclench your wallet, too.

  26. @Mike Peterson — with me, spelling is an art, not a science.

    non secure sites dont have paypal. i know some about how records are carelessly safeguarded. if it aint paypal, it aint secure.

  27. Whether a site uses Paypal as a payment service has nothing to do with transaction security. Paypal itself is flawed, but I won’t get into that at the moment.

    I checked out DailyINK’s subscription sign-up page just a few seconds ago, and their URL had the HTTPS:// protocol on it. Most webpages that use that use it for security reasons, namely for monetary transactions.

  28. @Tony Kinnard — i beg to differ, sir. PAYPAL has everything to do with transaction security. no body sees the cc info.

    we pause for a commercial message

    have i got a deal for you.

    i am selling the brooklyn bridge. thats right, the worlds famous brooklyn bridge. all the nuts, cable and cement. the entire bridge. all for the low price of $19.99. plus shipping. and we will throw in the water for free.

    but wait. whats more, if you act in the next 15 minutes, we will gladly include the george washington bridge. AT NO EXTRA COST. thats right. two bridges for one price.

    but thats not all. if you act right now, we will include the tourist attraction of the world — the Mackinac Bridge and mackinac island. YES THATS RIGHT. three entire suspension bridges and one island, all for the low low price of $19.99.

    just think of the parties you can throw with your friends on these bridges.

    WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR. just post your credit card number in an email on this forum, and DO NOT WORRY. this is a secure site. (honest)

    back to the email in progress

    your paragraph of https gobbywords is just an example of propaganda. the fact is you are just parroting (loosely repeating what the you have been told) by salesman.

    my mother always said, be very very careful where you use your cc#. listen to your mother.

  29. @tenneessee charlie Just to set things straight about DailyInk: I’m pretty sure you can pay with Paypal.

    Also, you can get all of it (not including the Brooklyn Bridge) for FREE at Comics Kingdom.

    DailyInk is 19.99 per year. A good price, I think.

  30. Rina (and others) can verify this too, but it’s my understanding that King cartoonists receive revenue from Comics Kingdom hits.

    In other words, enjoy your free comics knowing that you’re still supporting the creators.

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