"The Phantom," available on the DailyINK app from King Features
Most people can’t pick up a major newspaper’s comics section today without stumbling across “Pearls Before Swine” (syndicated by Universal Uclick ). Appearing in more than 650 newspapers nationwide, Pearls has been able to succeed and gain widespread popularity in an era of shrinking comics sections and less opportunity for new strips.

However, “Pearls Before Swine” creator Stephan Pastis realized there was a problem when he began talking to younger readers across the country. It seemed 20-something readers, more inclined to read news on their iPhones or iPads, never picked up a newspaper to become exposed to Pastis’ work.

That got the lawyer-turned-cartoonist thinking about developing his own iPad app.

“Based on my informal conversations, maybe one out of 10 people in what would be my target demographic actually knew about Pearls,” Pastis said. “I figured I had to get in front of those kids; so if I could be exposed to two out of 10, I would double my audience.”

So, Pastis, along with Chronicle Books, set out to create an elaborate iPad app called Only the Pearls that features 250 of his favorite “Pearls Before Swine” comic strips, animations done by RingTales, audio commentaries, and more than 20 videos. The app is for sale in the iTunes store for $3.99.

Many syndicates have either rolled out a mobile strategy or have one in development. It’s a tricky spot for syndicates, which essentially hold the role of an agent connecting creators to avenues that are willing to pay for their talent. In the mobile world, they’re becoming more like publishers, attempting to monetize from readers themselves instead of being the middleman.

King Features launched its DailyINK app for iPhone more than a year ago and recently added versions for Android and iPad. The app features more than 90 comics strips, panels, and editorial cartoons, as well as vintage classics, games, and puzzles. It’s free to download, and a subscription unlocks everything for $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year.

The app mimics the DailyINK website, which attempts to mirror the traditional role of the comics page by bundling all of King Features’ strips and panels together and presenting them to readers. Mark Karlan, director of marketing for King Features, said that focusing on what users wanted led them to develop the subscription service.

“When we were developing DailyINK, we found that users were missing some of the variety they once had in the newspaper,” Karlan said. “Users like to have multiple things in one place, so we developed the website and our apps to make it simple and easy to use.”

The commitment to usability has paid off for King. The DailyINK app was voted the People’s Champ in the Funny category of the 2011 Pixel Awards, beating out tough competitors such as SoBe.

Another syndicate that has focused on the user side is Cagle Cartoons. Partnered with msnbc.com, Cagle Cartoons has launched an ambitious round of apps on all platforms, including iPad, iPhone, and Android.

Unlike other syndicates, Cagle Cartoons exclusively offers political cartoons, and its partnership with msnbc.com has allowed it to market the apps and generate significant traffic and exposure to its stable of cartoonists.

Cagle’s apps, which include the highly popular msnbc.com Cartoons, are free to download and use, and ads provide the revenue. However, owner Daryl Cagle cautioned that the money is peanuts compared to the traditional syndication business.

“Our experience is you get 100 people to download a free app vs. one to buy it,” Cagle said. “We’re in the same boat as the rest of journalism, trying to get people to pay for our content.”

Another syndicate betting on the individual app strategy is Creators. Currently in development on a number of apps, Creators hopes to leverage the popularity of its artists while exposing a new group of readers to its content.

“On the Web, it’s very clunky in terms of interface and design,” said Jack Newcombe, president and chief operating officer of Creators Syndicate. “So we’re focusing on making user experience a positive one, and keeping our app cool is very important.”

Unlike Cagle, Newcombe believes in charging for the app, presuming that a reader and fan of the content will be willing to pay for convenience and an easy-to-use interface. For instance, in terms of comics, Newcombe doesn’t want to re-create the comics page in his app.

“Think about looking at comics in a newspaper — what’s the chance you’ll like every strip?” Newcombe asked. “However, if we can group four or five comics together that are similar that we think you’d like, that’s what we’re focused on.”

Universal Uclick, which already leveraged the popularity of GoComics.com into a mobile version for iPhone and Android users, has some apps in the works but didn’t want to reveal too much until they’re closer to launch.

Everyone agrees that comics and cartoons are the perfect type of content for mobile devices: graphic, easy to read, and updated daily. But what is the best path to monetization — syndicate-backed apps that try to leverage a group of creators, or individuals such as Pastis who use their popularity to develop an online following of their own?

“I can only guess if mine were to be successful, it would be more lucrative then being one of many and getting a share of royalties,” Pastis said. “Then again, it was a lot of work and may make nothing, so who the hell knows.”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for
Editor & Publisher magazine, and edits the satirical humor magazine Delaware Punchline. He can be reached at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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