By: Rob Tornoe
The syndication business has seen many ups and downs in its more than 150-year history, but at no other point have the stakes been greater, and the waters choppier, than they are today.
The Internet — and subsequent diversification of news sources — not only threatens the traditional business of newspapers, but is also cause for concern for the national syndicates that have developed a business model of supplying those newspapers with content to fill their pages.
Nowhere else is this shift more evident than in the development of new comic strips, which have long been one of the primary sources of revenue for syndicates. In years past, syndicate companies would have in production many new strips to offer, but this year only one syndicate, Washington Post News Media Services (WPNMS), is launching a new comic.
In many markets, editors are reluctant to make changes to their comics page for fear of losing longtime readers. But to many, including WPNMS chief executive officer and editorial director Alan Shearer, fear to embrace change is what got newspapers in their current situation.
“I just wish more newspaper editors could see the value of reader engagement,” said Shearer, who points to papers such as the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune that engage readers for input prior to making changes. “If you make a change, and you get an intense reaction, that’s good! It shouldn’t be treated as a complication.”
Over the years, this reluctance to change has prevented new comics that have greater appeal among young readers from entering the market. This in turn has caused an increase in the age of comics readers, similar to the comic book industry. In an oversimplification of the problem, the same people are reading comics today who did 10 to 20 years ago, essentially aging alongside a feature that is supposed to lock in new, younger readers.
Stephan Pastis, creator of the popular comic strip “Pearls Before Swine,” realized something was wrong when he visited schools and talked to young readers across the country. “Based on my informal conversations, maybe one out of 10 people in what would be my target demographic actually knew about ‘Pearls,’” Pastis said.
So what’s the solution? For Pastis, it was developing an iPad app to reach the 20-somethings who never pick up a newspaper. “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,” he said.
Syndicates have also begun to trek down the mobile app road, but results have been mixed.
At King Features, the solution is DailyINK, an all-inclusive subscription service that allows readers to pay for unlimited access to all King content. The mobile product, originally conceived as a complement to the subscription services, has been surprisingly successful at bringing in new users as well.
Cagle Cartoons also has a robust set of popular mobile apps, displaying political cartoons by topic as well as author. Cagle’s partnership with msnbc.com has allowed the syndicate to market its apps to a broad audience and generate significant traffic and exposure for cartoonists.
The apps, which include the highly popular “msnbc.com Cartoons,” are free to download and use, with ads providing the revenue. However, Cagle Cartoons owner Daryl Cagle cautions that syndicates shouldn’t expect to replace lost print revenue with the money derived from apps.
“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.”
Over at Universal Uclick, the approach to apps has been tentative due to past experiences. “We were big into mobile apps in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and frankly we took a bath, so we’re a little skittish,” said John Glynn, vice president of rights and acquisitions. “We’re a content provider; we don’t develop software.”
WPNMS is also hesitant about launching a stand-alone app for its content and has decided instead to include columns and features as part of the Washington Post’s new iPad app, which Shearer promises will be “spectacular.”
While the Internet may be creating a dramatic shift in the business model of newspapers, which affects the bottom line of all syndicates, it also offers new opportunities for syndicates to promote their content and create new revenue streams for their creators.
After last year’s takeover of United Media, Universal Uclick merged United’s homepage comics.com into Universal’s gocomics.com homepage. According to Glynn, the results have been beneficial.
“We are head over heels about the success of gocomics.com,” Glynn said. “The overall readership has more than doubled and is currently about 25 percent higher than the combined sites were before the merge.” It helps to have big brands such as “Garfield” and “Dilbert” to draw readers in, but the popularity of the combined site is making it a destination for comics fans. The fact that it’s free doesn’t hurt, either.
Comics, offered seven days a week, have a built-in appeal to bring readers back to the site every day. Web statistics have shown that most people visit the same 10 websites every day, and Glynn said a large part of Universal’s success is in making gocomics.com one of those 10 websites for a large number of readers.
Cagle Cartoons has operated a successful editorial business for more than 10 years. Cagle.com, its flagship Web destination, has been the most popular online destination for political cartoons. Also popular is politicalcartoons.com, Cagle’s growing e-commerce site that sells reprint rights to book publishers, newspapers, and individuals.
“We’re seeing a lot of growth in sales to publishers, education books, and individuals for presentations,” said Cari Bartley, Cagle Cartoons executive editor and marketing director. She attributes much of the site’s success to a highly effective search engine and high Google search ranking.
Creators is making a move into this space and is hard at work on a new website called Alpha Comedy that Jack Newcombe, president and chief operating officer, hopes will not only revolutionize the highly competitive humor niche, but will create a new revenue stream for the syndicate and its creators.
“Right now, we’re focusing on the site starting off really cool, and creating a unique user-friendly interface so people can consume our terrific content and interact directly with the creators,” Newcombe said.
The opinion page
With newspapers cutting days out of their print schedule, there is an obvious impact on the sale of daily features such as comic strips. Often overlooked, however, is the effect on features purchased for the newspapers’ opinion page, namely political cartoons and columns.
There are many financial aspects at play in the shrinking hole for syndicated products. A large one is the move to more local content, often at little or no cost, in an effort to remain relevant to readers. But Shearer said he thinks that’s a shortsighted move that will only hurt newspapers’ appeal.
“We had one person here who used to quip that editors have become reluctant to purchase new features because local is what they cover, and as long as they’re covering local, they keep their jobs,” Shearer said. “That’s pretty darn cynical.”
Instead, he suggests that if newspapers, especially the hard-hit metro dailies, go completely local, they will struggle to keep readers who are interested in reading the best mix of content — both local and national.
Another pressure point is the dwindling resources that newspapers are devoting to their op-ed page. Numerous newsrooms have downsized their op-ed staff dramatically in an effort to save money. Stretched for time, editors often look for the simplest solution to filling their needs.
This is where Bartley said Cagle Cartoons has an advantage. She believes that focusing on content specific to the editorial page, and making the website easy to navigate and the archives completely searchable is a great help to editors with not enough time to find content.
“In our quest to give people more options, we have more balanced daily options for editors to make it easy for them to use our products,” Bartley said.
Cutbacks in opinion page budgets and new business models have made package deals such as Cagle Cartoons, as well as Universal Uclick’s NEA package and King Features’ Weekly Service, appealing to editors for one-stop shopping. However, Glynn fears the potentially negative effect these packages could have on compensation for artists.
“The problem with packaging content is you drive the cost down on the bottom line, and it becomes an exercise in quantity over quality,” Glynn said.
The choice between package deals vs. individual sales is a hotly debated topic among editorial cartoonists. Conservative cartoonist Mike Lester left Cagle Cartoons’ package to join WPNMS, in part because he wanted it to be sold individually.
“I wanted the opportunity to participate financially in the success or failure of my work,” Lester said.
This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial cartooning, Matt Wuerker, joined Universal Uclick in March 2011. Wuerker was a freelancer for more than 20 years before joining Politico as staff cartoonist. His cartoons are sold individually to newspapers nationwide, but so far he’s been disappointed with the results.
“The traditional syndicate model of sales to newspapers is giving way to being about distribution on the Web through Uclick,” Wuerker said. “I think my work is certainly getting in front of more eyeballs, but in terms of getting paid for the wider distribution, it’s been disappointing.”
Rick McKee, staff cartoonist for the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, left King Features last November to join Cagle Cartoons’ package, and he said the move has paid off, both in terms of compensation and in the popularity of his work.
“It seemed that my previous syndicate, while they are wonderful people, focused more on promoting their comic strips,” McKee said. “My cartoons have gotten much more exposure with Cagle Cartoons through a bigger client list and a lot more reprint requests.”
Back in November, Cagle Cartoons added the work of Rick McKee, staff cartoonist for the Augusta Chronicle, to its already-sizable package of U.S. and world cartoonists. McKee’s conservative take on politics adds even more political balance to Cagle Cartoons’ existing mix of left- and right-leaning cartoons.
“I’ve been a fan of Rick’s cartoons for years,” said Cari Bartley, Cagle Cartoons executive editor and marketing director. “As soon as we added him to our package, I got lots of comments from editors who really like his cartoons.”
Enjoying success out of the gate in a difficult market, “Dogs of C-Kennel” captures the hilarity of dogs and the hearts of their owners. The strip is produced by brothers Mick and Mason Mastroianni, grandsons of legendary cartoonist Johnny Hart. Jack Newcombe, president and chief operating officer of Creators, said the comic’s early success can be attributed to the artists’ talent and long development process, not to mention the great characters.
“I’m a dog-lover, and my favorite character is a bird, Wheeler,” Newcombe said.
King may not have a new strip to showcase to editors, but it does have “Dustin,” one of the biggest success stories on the funny pages in recent years. Created by two well-known editorial cartoonists, Steve Kelley of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Jeff Parker of Florida Today, “Dustin” is the story of a 20-something college graduate who moves back into his parents’ house, and can be seen in more than 300 newspapers nationwide.
“The subject matter and timing of ‘Dustin’ allowed it to tap into something happening in our society,” said Claudia Smith, director of advertising and public relations at King Features. “In a humorous way, it touches on how our society has been affected by the recession.”
Due to its merger with United Media last year, and the subsequent doubling of its features inventory, Universal Uclick chose to skip launching a new comic strip this year. But it does have this year’s Reuben Award winner for best newspaper comic strip, “The Duplex.” Produced by political cartoonist Glenn McCoy, “The Duplex” features a young bachelor and his dog. Their ultra-macho lifestyle is turned upside-down when a young girl and her poodle move into the other half of the building.
“‘The Duplex’ is ridiculously funny,” said John Glynn, vice president of rights and acquisitions. “It’s the whole package: great characters, superb art, and punch lines that make me stomp my feet and make weird snorting noises.”
Washington Post News Media Services
WPNMS’s greatest brag is “Mike Du Jour,” a gag-a-day comic strip produced by hard-hitting political cartoonist Mike Lester. A long-term cartooning goal for the conservative ink slinger, “Mike Du Jour” has been waiting in Lester’s studio for years for the right time and opportunity to launch.
“To me, this feature is different. It looks different, and its voice is different,” said WPNMS comics editor Amy Lago. “It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, which rarely happens, and accessible to readers of all ages.”