Changing Contexts

By | Monday, October 04, 2021 Leave a Comment
The last time I think I read newspaper strips in newspapers on a regular basis would've probably been in the late 1980s. I was still in high school and living with my parents, who received the two(!) local papers. I don't recall religiously reading the comics at the same time every day or with any sort of ritualistic patterns, but I'd generally wait until after my folks had gone through the entire paper (thereby foregoing the need for me to keep it tidy and/or in order) before swiping the funny pages.

When I got to college, I stopped reading them largely because... well, I was going to say that I didn't have access to a local paper any longer, but I probably could've walked over to the school library to read them. I suppose the incentive to regularly hike to the far side of campus for a page of mostly just mildly amusing comics wasn't compelling enough. I would still read the comics when I went home periodically, but that would only give me a few weeks of strips at the most per year.

By the time I graduated college, the internet was becoming a known thing, although I don't believe most strips had migrated online in any capacity yet. I recall that even as late as 1997 that wasn't a thing yet because Universal's posting of their strips for the Great Comic Strip Switcheroo was a necessary exception for an associated contest they ran along with it, and seeing all those strips online the day they were published was unusual.

It was around that time that my primary means of reading comic strips was buying the book collections. Mostly, I just bought Foxtrot but I did look at a couple Dilbert books as well. I'd had collections before, so the idea wasn't new to me by any means, but they had not been my primary interaction with those strips.

Eventually, the syndicates came around and I read many of the newspaper strips online. Mostly via RSS feeds alongside the feeds of the variety of webcomics I read. I've noticed a difference, though, in how I approach newspaper strips versus most webcomics.

Most newspaper strips size fairly well to my phone when turned sideways. Compared to many of the webcomics I read, which fit much better on a larger montior. Furthermore, the lack of continuity in most newspaper strips means I don't have to read them in any sort of order. Whenever/wherever they show up in my news feed is irrelevant. So what I wind up doing most of the time is saving their reading for whenever I'm sitting around somewhere waiting by myself for a few minutes. Waiting for the train to show up. Waiting in a particularly long line at Starbucks. Waiting at the airport to board my flight. They're easy to fire up quickly, read through quickly, and put aside quickly. There's no trying to remember where you left off, or what happened before today's installment, or sorting through to make sure you read them in order, or notating the last strip you read as you close out. Fire up my app, read through Andy Capp, Herb & Jamal, Pardon My Planet, whoops-there's-the-train-throw-the-phone-in-my-pocket-and-go.

What's interesting, as I think about it, is that I've changed the context of how I read newspaper strips multiple times throughout my life, but it's only this last change that changes my relationship with them. In the earlier instances, I was making a dedicated and concerted effort to read those comics. I would sit down with the newspaper and read an entire page or two of them, or I would sit down with the collection and read a substantial chunk of (if not the entire) book. There was a necessary focus and dedication of some sort with each of those. Even if I didn't care much for The Born Loser, I would still read it because I had already set aside a block of time/energy to read the funnies and that happened to be on the same page as Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side.

But my current approach is decidedly more casual. I'm not setting aside time to read them, I'm using them as filler in a few spare moments I have here and there. They're no longer important or significant enough to devote "real" time to; I can better spend that time reading webcomics I'm actively interested in. No, the newspaper strips are there so I'm not sitting idle. If I don't get to them... eh?

Of course, a lot of that has to do with personal taste, right? I tend to connect more with webcomics because of the nature of their content. But think on this... newspaper comics, by their nature, appeal to a much broader audience. But because they're appealing to that wider audience, their readership tends to not be as devoted. They make money because they're able to reach such a wide number of people. Webcomics, by contrast, tend to make money more off "true fans." Rather than every newspaper strip reader who contributes a half-cent or less, a compartively small handful of webcomics readers contributes twenty bucks. The higher rate of return means you don't have to have as many readers to earn the same amount.

So if newspaper comics have relied on a large number of casual fans in the first place, how does their revenue model work when the online readership is even more casual? Honestly, I don't know, but I hope it's something that both the syndicate folks as well as the creators themselves are thinking about.
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