Digital Funnies

By: Rob Tornoe
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Digital Funnies

Without William Randolph Hearst, newspaper comics and the business of modern-day syndication might never have existed.

Back in 1895, Richard Outcault, a technical artist for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, began drawing “Hogan’s Alley,” featuring the Yellow Kid as its lead character. Gradually, the strip became more and more popular, and in 1896 Outcault was lured away to draw “Yellow Kid” for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

The “funnies” became serious business overnight, with both newspapers using their own versions of the Yellow Kid to get the upper hand in a battle over circulation (the often crude and vulgar comics caused readers to label the battle as “yellow journalism”).

Hearst, who introduced the idea of sequential art and recurring characters to newspaper readers with Jimmy Sinnerton’s feature “The Little Bears” in the San Francisco Examiner, began syndicating comics and other features. In 1914 he consolidated all his company’s syndication enterprises under one banner, thus launching King Features and creating an entirely new industry.

These days, the pressure of digital media and the growth of mobile have created challenges for syndicates to remain relevant and keep up with the demand from media companies as they adapt to a changing environment.

Should syndicates be worried?

Michael Cavna, the man behind the Washington Post’s Comic Riffs blog, is about as plugged in to the industry as anyone. So when he says syndicates should be worried that their slow approach to change will end up hurting their business, they should listen.

“With the decline of print, traditional comic strips aren’t as popular as they used to be, and this creates a big problem for syndicates,” said Cavna, noting that the best artists will choose to work at places like Pixar, where both the money and career path are better. “If syndicates had a problem selling a brilliant comic strip like ‘Cul de Sac,’ how are they going to sell features in the future if all the best talent has gone elsewhere?”

Certainly, the problems in the market weren’t caused by syndicates. Much of the blame can be placed at the feet of fearful editors who don’t care to learn how comics work online and are paralyzed by the thought of angry readers complaining when outdated strips like “Mary Worth” are dropped. But Cavna thinks syndicates need to shake things up more if they expect to survive well into the 21st century.

An example he cites is the collapse of United Media, a century-old syndicate which saw its parent company, E.W. Scripps, sell away the rights to its two largest features, “Peanuts” and “Dilbert.”  According to Cavna, part of Jean Schulz’s decision to leave United after 60 years was the syndicate didn’t adapt quickly enough online, forcing “Peanuts” to play “catch-up” in terms of different media platforms.

So how are Hearst’s modern-day successors doing?

King Features

It seems fitting that King Features is celebrating its 100th anniversary in an era of great change for the syndication business. With feature sales flat across the industry, King and other syndicates have been forced to examine their business strategy to remain relevant for the future.

King was one of the first syndicates to fully embrace the digital disruption of comics strips with their Comics Kingdom module. Free to newspapers (who can also sell ads against it on their pages), Comics Kingdom allows readers to view and share comic strips and other features from King’s offerings. Despite plateauing in popularity, the module still boasts 150 clients, including Philly.com, the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

“We’re a diverse company,” said King Features editor Brendan Burford. “We need to be where readers want to engage our content.”

In that vein, Comics Kingdom isn’t just a module, it is also its own domain, where readers have the choice of viewing comics for free, or paying for a premium subscription ($1.99 a month or $19.99 a year) that removes ads from the site and allows users to access a section featuring classic vintage cartoons from King Features’ archives.

In the realm of puzzles, King has taken the unique approach of taking three of the most popular crossword and Soduku features and offering them as app-ready modules: Crossword Module and Soduku Module. Both integrate seamlessly into any developer’s app and are fully customizable, including the ability to insert unique ad code.

But like most syndicates, King’s main focus for newspapers remains their print sales. In May, with the success of the Danish comic strip “Womo” (Universal Uclick) as a backdrop,  King launched the Swedish comic strip “Carpe Diem,” created by Niklas Eriksson, into 80 newspapers, an astounding number in today’s rocky economic environment.

Inspired by “The Far Side” and “Bizarro,” “Carpe Diem” takes timeless situations that happen in daily life and spin them on their head, casting them anywhere from the dawn of the universe to modern-day couch potatoes, and every day in-between.

“I chalk up ‘Carpe Diem’s’ success to the fact that it’s quick and funny,” said Burford, who also noted that its success as a feature in Scandinavia was a tremendous selling point. “It validates the notion that although business might be difficult in the newspaper business, I think if you come out with an idea people find funny, it has the opportunity to be a hit.”

Universal Uclick

King Features wasn’t the only syndicate to have a huge comic success this year. “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” has Universal Uclick president John Glynn beaming as his team was able to launch Dana Simpson’s unique comic strip into more than 100 newspapers.

“For our sales team to get more than 100 paying clients for a new comic in this challenging market speaks not only to their hard work, but to the high quality of Dana Simpson’s creation,” Glynn said. “I can firmly say I now believe in unicorns.”

The strip, which tells the story of a unique relationship between a 9-year-old girl and an arrogant unicorn, was the 2009 winner of the Amazon/Universal Uclick Comic Strip Superstar Contest. After winning the contest, “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” was placed on GoComics.com, Uclick’s popular comics website, where it quickly shot into the top 30 most-viewed features.

The strip’s online popularity led to a book deal with Andrews McMeel Publishing and both helped sales reps convince reluctant editors that the strip would be a popular addition to their comics pages.

“We’re using more of a ‘Moneyball’ approach to features,” said Glynn, who touted last year’s success with the Danish comic strip “Wumo” as a nice 1-2 for Universal Uclick. “If we can have data and analysis that help support a hunch about a feature, we can help editors make informed decisions about the products they purchase.”

Despite the back-to-back success, Glynn notes there’s less of an appetite among editors for new comic strips. “I don’t know if these new measuring tools are going to change the way we approach launches,” Glynn said. “But I do know going back to the days when we had three new launches a year seems crazy.”

Online, GoComics.com continues to be Uclick’s most popular product by far, boasting more than 70 million pages views a month and more than 1.8 million monthly unique visitors. Many come daily to see archived versions of “Calvin & Hobbes,” which continues to be the site’s most popular feature. In fact, when “Calvin & Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson returned to comics briefly and drew a handful of “Pearls Before Swine” comics, the resulting traffic crashed GoComics.com for the first time ever.

Uclick also has a toehold in the mobile space with its GoComics app continuing to be a popular download for smartphone and tablet users. Counting more than 200,000 users, the app can be downloaded for free, but for a monthly subscription of $0.99, users are treated to an enhanced experience featuring no ads, a customizable homepage and exclusive membership discounts.

In addition, Uclick also hosts a wide assortment of HTML5 Games which are fully customizable for both developers and Web editors. USA Today has created a popular online vertical around the crossword puzzles of Timothy Parker, USA Today’s crossword editor, who is also syndicated by Uclick. In fact, Andrews McMeel also publishes the popular USA Today Crosswords app for the iPhone.

Despite these digital success stories and the popularity of online games and comics, Uclick still finds it difficult to sell clients on the popularity of these features for their websites and mobile platforms.

“I think most editors continue to see their website as a breaking news platform, but as far as regular features like comics and puzzles, you really have to search for those features,” said Glynn. “It’s incumbent on us to help them understand to stop thinking of comics as a cost, and instead realize it’s a great way to earn more revenue and keep readers on your site longer.”


Creators Syndicate

Deep inside their sunny headquarters in Hermosa Beach, Calif., the staff at Creators have embraced digital and uncovered a new revenue stream in the most unlikely place—old columns.

Star Parker, a conservative firebrand who created waves back in February after calling President Obama’s remarks about Christianity “verbal rape,” was syndicated by Scripps Howard News Service before the syndicate shut down in late 2013. Creators took a leap and bundled a collection of her columns into an eBook, “Blind Conceit,” which sold remarkably well through their subsidiary, Sumner Books.

David Yontz, Creators managing editor, said they now have about 70 eBooks for sale and it has proven to be a lucrative revenue stream. “Many are collections of syndicated columns we bundle together. It’s nice because we can do it fairly easily with not a lot of manpower.”

Despite the success of their prose eBooks, Yontz said up until now Creators has been reluctant to go down the path of comic strip eBooks due to the man-hours involved in their design. However, with the release of an eBook featuring a collection of “Dog’s of C-Kennel” comics, Yontz said his team is developing a template to make it easier to sell more.

Like King and Uclick, online puzzles have continued to be a growing feature for Creators. They distribute Stanley Newman’s popular crossword puzzle “Netword” to hundreds of sites through a Java applet, which is easy to embed onto most websites and updates daily.

“Newman’s crossword has always been a popular feature in print, and is very popular online,” said Mary Ann Skinner, the assistant managing editor at Newsday where Newman is also their long-time crossword editor.

As far as comics are concerned, Creators has taken a step back, deciding not to launch as many new features in this environment. Their one launch this year, a panel comic by Daniel Bryer called “Long Story Short,” began in development on Creators’ Alpha Comedy website before launching with mixed success, landing in the pages of the Chicago Tribune and a handful of other papers.

“The comics page is typically slow to take on new stuff, and it’s a slow decline right now in the industry,” Yontz said. “Our bottom line closely follows the bottom line of newspapers.”


Washington Post News Service & Syndicate

While most syndicates seem to be finding some success syndicating their interactive games and puzzles, over at the Washington Post News Service & Syndicate, the 2012 merger with Bloomberg News has created a powerhouse that serves more than 1,200 publications. The news service, which features everything from political commentary to travel and fashion, includes delivery options, such as the ability to digitally upload stories directly into a client’s content management system.

In fact, demand for the content was so high that the Post began to offer the National Weekly, a weekly print edition featuring the Post’s best overage of news, politics and world events. The publication, which launched back in October, frees up newsrooms to focus on local issues and offers two possible revenue streams—one from a subscription fee charged to subscribers to receive the insert, and two blank pages clients can sell local ads into.

But much like Creators, comics editor Amy Lago noted that the market is tough for new features. The Post’s two recent comic launches, Dave Blazek’s panel cartoon “Loose Parts” (previously syndicated by Tribune Media Services) and Darrin Bell’s RFK Award-winning political cartoons, have has modest success adding clients.

“Times are tough all over, it’s slow and steady,” said Lago, who noted that time-crunched editors are so focused on putting out their newspaper that a full page of syndicated material just becomes less important.

One big success at the Post is Brian Crane’s popular comic strip “Pickles,” which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and now appears on over 900 newspapers worldwide. But don’t tell Lago the strip’s success is based on the fact “Pickles” main characters are a couple in their 70s.

“Yes, it does appeal to older readers, but ‘Pickles’ manages to be funny with a broad sense of humor,” said Lago. “It also has a wry sense of humor without offending anyone. So editors love that.”

Cagle Cartoons

The little syndicate that could, Cagle Cartoons keeps on trucking by remaining focused on a single niche—the editorial page (Note: I contribute cartoons to Cagle.com).

Cagle had a big win this year when Adam Zyglis, the staff cartoonist for the Buffalo News and part of the syndicate’s cartoon package, took home the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. Zyglis became the third cartoonist offered in the Cagle Cartoons package to take home a Pulitzer in the last five years. Mike Keefe took home the Pulitzer in 2011 for his Denver Post cartoons and Minneapolis Star-Tribune cartoons by Steve Sack won for his work in 2013.

In this era of cost cutting at newspapers, Cagle’s business model is to be inexpensive. For one fee (based on a publication’s circulation or a website’s traffic), publishers gain access to every new and archived cartoon in Cagle’s extensive database, which is searchable by topic and artist. Cagle also refuses to charge delivery fees for his service, noting digital delivery replaced the cost of mailing features years go.

In this symbiotic relationship, the success of syndicates is largely going to follow how quickly newspapers continue to adapt to these changing times. But Cavna thinks they don’t have the luxury to simply sit on their thumbs and wait on entrenched editors.

“Newspapers continue to cater to older readers, and it’s up to syndicates to convince them it’s in their best interest to drop older, dated strips in favor of modern strips that can attract new readers,” said Cavna. “It’s time to ask if they’re really willing to go after younger readers or if they’ve abdicated the idea entirely.”

Published: July 13, 2015

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