Friday, May 09, 2014

On Strips: Goodbye New York Post

With no fanfare, or even any notice at all, the New York Post stopped running comics in their paper this Tuesday. Not that there was much of a comics section even left. The only ones they had been running were: Garfield, Wizard of Id, Rhymes with Orange, Mallard Fillmore, Heart of the City, Non-Sequitur, and Dennis the Menace. All in black and white, and taking up less than a full page. But the Post not only declined to alert readers, but they neglected to mention it to the syndicates as well. King Features editor Brendan Burford said he got zero notice, and Rhymes with Orange creator Hilary Price had to learn about it from a fan. (h/t to Jim Romenesko for both of those tidbits.) Tom Richmond, president of the National Cartoonists Society, wrote a long, public letter to the Post questioning their decision.

So far, there's been no official word about the decision from the Post but cost-cutting seems to be the most obivous answer. Newspapers have to pay syndicates in order to print the comics, after all, and there's no immediately obvious return on that expenditure. From a bean-counter's perspective, it's throwing money out the door with no hope of any of it coming back.

Richmond, though, brings up an excellent point in that newspapers simply cannot compete with the internet when it comes to the immediacy of news. Whereas newspapers used to be the ones breaking stories all the time, that rise of first the 24-hour news channels on television, and then the internet means that newspapers need to find another value proposition. (That's marketing speak for: "Why the hell should I, as a consumer, care about what you've got?") Richmond suggests that newspapers should pursue a depth that one doesn't see in Tweets and Facebook posts. They might not be able to get the news out first any more, but they could (in theory) provide more substance.

Which is a good direction that I think newspapers should head in, if they aren't already. (I don't read newspapers these days, but my impression is that most are actually getting less substantive, not more, and that's clearly not helping.)

However!

For that exact same reason, I think that's why the Post was right in dropping those comics. I still think they're wrong in eliminating their comics section, but those particular strips are worth jettisoning.

I'm not talking about the strips' quality here, though. Set aside whether you think any of those strips are funny or not. If you look at what the Post was running, they were all gag-a-day strips with little, if any, continuity. (Two of the seven don't even have recurring characters!) They are all, by design, short stand-alone jokes that take only a moment or two to read. That's exactly the bite-sized entertainment nuggets that Richmond himself says that newspapers should avoid! If readers want a quick joke about over-sleeping or watching television, there are thousands of places they can get those online.

Heck, I typically save reading newspaper comics for times when I only have access to my phone precisely because the strips are small and innocuous enough that they fit the phone's screen size very well. I'll go back to my desktop with a larger screen to read bigger pieces, or ones with lots of detail that bear close scrutiny. If I didn't know better, I'd say newspaper strips were specifically designed to be read on phones.

That said, I think Richmond is still right that newspaper readers do need to read and appreciate comics within the newspaper format. I think people do get a lot of enjoyment out of them, and they are popular for a reason. But, following Richmond's logic for newspapers' new value proposition, shouldn't the comics they run be deeper? Something that readers can sink their teeth into and follow day-in and day-out?

Historically, that might be something like Dick Tracy or The Phantom, but these days, I don't know those are the best choices in this situation. I'm thinking more along the lines of Girl Genius or Questionable Content, where you have a full page of comics that are advancing a drama, but with enough levity thrown in that readers can get a chuckle every day.

The other advantage is that, since these types of comics aren't currently syndicated in any way and in fact give their content away for free on their sites, they could conceivably charge considerably less than what King Features and Universal Press are.

I think Richmond has the right basic idea, but I also think he's too invested in historical precedence to step back and see alternate solutions to the broader issue of keeping comics in newspapers. Let's keep comics in newspapers, but let's do it in a way that aligns with the direction newspapers are/should be headed and not just propagate the old syndicate model because that's how it's always been done.

1 comment:

Rj Teich said...

Thank you for letting me know why I haven't seen any comics in The New York Post since Monday, May 5,2014. I subscribe to the Post, and if the carrier does decide to deliver it (along with the local papers [don't ask; that's another ongoing battle I have as a subscriber]), the first thing I did was turn to the comics section to check the answer to the Wonderword puzzle I did the day before. You can't image what I was feeling that Monday when not only I couldn't find the comics, but no puzzles either! At first I thought pages were missing (that's the second thing I check - I have to count the pages because not all pages are here in Maryland's copy. Sections are deliberately pulled out), and it wasn't until I started reading the paper, saw the Wonderword is still there (thank goodness!), but the page is now called the New York Post Puzzle Page. I was seriously going to drop my subscription (running around to three counties in Maryland looking for one gets old. Subscription delivery is no picnic either!), and/or stop reading the Post altogether (I just don't buy the paper for a puzzle, I would say I read a good chuck of it except for the business and sports sections). I thought I had missed the announcement that comics were dropped. Now I can stop looking for them. Again, thanks (also too for listing the comics that appeared so I can follow the ones now in the two other print papers I read daily or online).