By: Rob Tornoe
Did you know the newspaper syndication industry was once so large, there used to be a trade magazine devoted to it?
During the 1930s, when the number of newspaper syndicates peaked at around 130, Circulation magazine covered the comings-and-goings of the 1,600 or so features that were offered to more than 13,700 newspapers throughout the country.
Since that time, many syndication companies have shut down, consolidated or shifted their business models entirely. In 2011, the move towards a smaller syndication market culminated in the merger between two of the largest syndicates—United Media and Universal Uclick—creating one mammoth newspaper syndicate that continues to dominate the marketplace with more than 100 features.
What caused the massive shift in the syndication business? The changing needs of newspapers and media companies in the digital era where space is tight, budgets are tighter and time isn’t the luxury it once was. Once content to simply shop for comics, puzzles and columnists, newspapers now need a vast array of content as they retrench to focus on local interests. Plus, a shrinking printed news hole has pivoted to largely expanding digital operations in desperate need of content.
TheStreet, a digital financial media company most associated with its ties to investing celebrity Jim Cramer, was founded in 1996 as a new type of business and investment resource. Nearly three years ago, editors realized that most business news coming from wire services was focused on both coasts, with little to no focus on what’s going on in-between.
According to James Freiman, TheStreet’s senior vice president of strategy and business development, finding out what type of content media companies wanted to run was an eye-opening experience.
“When we first went out to newspapers, we thought it was all about Jim Cramer and investing,” Freiman said. “We were so far removed. What editors and readers really wanted was personal finance, saving and click-worthy headlines that drift towards softer business news.”
So, TheStreet began developing content around those needs and slowly amassed a client base of newspapers that now tops 400, including outlets such as Philly.com, the San Diego Union-Tribune and Dallas Morning News.
TheStreet works with clients in one of two ways: newspapers can either license content from them, or participate in a 50-50 revenue share based on the ad revenue TheStreet can monetize from its content’s page views. In both cases, TheStreet allows its customers to also use its content in their print editions for no charge, everything from Jim Cramer investment picks to clicky, light pieces such as the top 10 environmental friendly cars for the summer.
“Compared to stuffy business news that newspapers traditionally get from Reuters or the AP, TheStreet’s MainStreet brand is fresh and lively, something readers appreciate,” said Freiman. “Those stories are less Wall Street Journal and more MarketWatch.”
Comics and Puzzles
When most people think of syndicates, they think of comic strips, those multipanel bundles of joy that have driven readers to newspapers for more than 100 years. But as budgets have tightened at metro dailies, editors have been paralyzed with fear over swapping out old favorites for new blood. Recently, the New York Post decided to nix its comics section altogether, a move that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago (though, to be fair, the Post had only offered six comics).
Obviously, readers care less about comics, and newspapers would be smart to move in other directions, right?
The massive syndicate Universal Uclick, fresh off a Reuben Award victory for its popular comic, “Non Sequitur,” and its cartoonist, Wiley Miller, is currently enjoying a victory lap of sorts with its first new comic since its merger with United Media, “WuMo.”
“WuMo was the largest launch in the history of Universal. If you look at our roster of comics, that’s incredibly impressive,” said John Glynn, President and Editorial Director for Universal Uclick. “WuMo has 325 paying clients just seven months after launch.’
Created by the Danish duo of writer Mikael Wulff and illustrator Anders Morgenthaler, the strip’s unique artwork and humor have catapulted it from a popular underground feature to one of the most successful comic launches in the last 10 years.
“Luckily, newspapers as an industry understand that comics are an integral feature of what differentiates them from other media,” said Glynn. “It’s part of what makes a newspaper a newspaper.”
Margo Sugrue, the National Sales Director of Creators Syndicate, agrees, noting that comics are more popular than ever, not just in the newspaper, but online as well.
“I’ll never forget sitting with an editor at WashingtonPost.com during the Summer Olympics,” Sugrue said, noting that the editor was angry and frustrated, saying, ‘We sent a reporter all the way there to cover the games, and the comics are getting more web hits!’ ”
King Features is also enjoying the success of its comic strip, “Take it From the Tinkersons,” a humorous take on the hopes and dreams of a modern family. Created by Bill Bettwy, a graphic designer for a Pennsylvania minor league baseball team, “Take it From the Tinkersons” is currently being distributed to more than 120 newspapers nationwide, a success King Features marketing director Mark Karlan attributes to its fresh subject matter. In addition, offering the comic in both strip and panel formats appeals to editors looking for some flexibility.
With the popularity of web comics and readers spending more and more time on newspaper websites, syndicates have had to re-think their offerings to publishers making the shift to more online content.
King Features has long been a leader in this regard. Its Comics Kingdom module, which delivers more than 80 comics every day, is currently run in more than 150 newspapers. Publishers are allowed to embed the module for free on their site, and monetize the page views with ads, they way they would traditional content. Meanwhile, King has embedded ads within the module, allowing it to benefit from the traffic its clients provide. It’s a digital win-win.
Other syndicates have made the move to offer their content in easy-to-implement digital solutions. Universal Uclick works with newspapers such as the Washington Post to provide comics every day online, and offers its entire catalogue of comics, features and puzzles in a mobile-friendly format.
Puzzles have also become a growing feature for digital readers. Creators Syndicate distributes the popular crossword puzzle “Netword” to media sites every day through a Java applet that automatically updates daily with the daily puzzle. Basically, once the code is copied and embedded onto the media company’s website, it runs on its own, allowing editors to focus on more immediate tasks while generating revenue on an increasingly popular (and sticky) web feature.
More and more, newspaper publishers are looking for group deals from syndicates, both in an effort to save time and cut costs were efficiencies can be found.
Take for example the shift in how editorial cartoons are marketed. Syndicates have long sold editorial cartoons separately the way they sell every other feature. Over the years the name-brand value of a specific cartoonist has given way to the need for editors to use an array of editorial cartoonists—and, thus, offer diverse opinions—in both their printed product and on their websites.
Cagle Cartoons has long been a leader in this business model (disclaimer: I am a contributor to Cagle.com). Founded in 2000 by political cartoonist Daryl Cagle, Cagle Cartoons’ focus on the op-ed page and its single package of national and international editorial cartoons now reach more than 850 newspapers across the country, largely due to its attractive price point, searchable archives and its decision not to charge delivery fees generally associated with a lot of syndicated content.
Cagle may have been the first, but other syndicates have also responded to the needs being driven by the nation’s editorial page editors. Recently, Tribune Media Services made the switch to start offering its editorial cartoons in one package, rather than being split out and sold separately. King Features offers a weekly service that packages all of its content—editorial cartoons, comics, games and columns—into an 80-feature package that appeals to community newspapers and media companies looking for cost savings.
Consolidation isn’t just limited to small packages. A number of years ago, Sun Media, which owns several newspapers in Canada, was looking for efficiencies where the chain could save time and money while re-focusing on creating local content. The company found it with its comics section.
“We had different comics and puzzles purchases separately for each market, and thought we could create one great section that we could run in all our tabloids,” said Glenn Garnett, vice president of editorial at Sun Media.
So Garnett’s team began to come up with a plan, with the help of Creators Syndicate, to produce a universal comic section that would be engaging and work in all its markets. The reader response was remarkably good, and allowed the Sun Media’s newspapers to experiment with comics readers weren’t seeing anywhere else, mostly due to fearful editors stuck in their ways.
“We rolled the dice on seven strips that we thought were new, innovative and could be shared across all Sun tabloid markets,” said Garnett.
The focus on local content also allowed Sun Media to learn a thing or two about syndication, and package the content they’re creating into its own national newswire, QMI Agency. The agency, which produces wide-ranging multimedia content in both English and French, serves more than 200 clients in the Canadian market. And not just media companies. Government agencies, advertising outfits and lawyers all use the unique content provided by QMI.
“The Canadian market is different from the American market,” said Garnett, who noted that the market was underserved and opened up a new revenue stream for Sun Media. “You’re distinct or your die and our homegrown solutions have been popular here in Canada.”
Sugrue sees this type of consolidation part of the future of the business, as newspaper companies shift to more shared services and depend on syndicates to help them create efficiencies that can help support their local product.
“It used to be that every newspaper, even those in chains, would operate independently,” said Sugrue. “Now, there’s a real opportunity to help newspaper chains save time and money, and we’re happy to help with that.
While there are no longer a number of massive newspaper syndicates serving the needs of editors, the market for content has created several specialized niches that seem more responsive and adept to the modern needs of editors.
Allison St. Claire was the editor of Senior Edition USA, the nation’s first newspaper specifically created for senior citizens. After McClatchy bought out the newspaper, St. Claire knew there was a need to amend newspapers for content that targeted seniors. She started Senior Wire, and 23 years later, the little syndicate is going strong, providing unique content to more than 50 papers.
Every month it’s a crapshoot for St. Clarie, who works with 75 freelance writers (all seniors themselves) to develop a diverse array of content that ranges from seasonal, financial, advice and humor. Senior Wire doesn’t charge a monthly fee, instead opting for a “pay what you use” method that has offered flexibility to its budget-conscious consumers.
“Most papers fall into a rut. Some want only health news, others are only into lifestyle,” St. Claire said, noting that what many newspapers decide to buy goes hand-in-hand with the types of ads they’re able to sell.
Green Shoot Media is another syndicate that aims to produce content that appeals to local advertisers. Focusing on the marketing department of newspapers, Green Shoot offers fully-designed pages featuring content appealing to local advertisers, including auto, weddings and real estate, to a rapidly-growing client base of more than 500 newspapers.
“It used to be good enough for syndicates to produce a car section once per year,” said Green Shoot Media owner Derek Price. “Now, they want the content drilled down much further than ever—a niche within a niche.”
Take for instance a recent auto section designed by Green Shoot Media—the 50th anniversary of the Ford Mustang. It has an obvious advertising base, and since the syndicate designs every section (along with InDesign files to allow newspapers to alter them to fit their own design motif), salespeople can bring them right out to advertisers and sell them on the spot.
“Their content is really handy, “said Jill Briggs, the ad manager for the Herald Dispatch in Huntington, W.V. “Our newsroom is juggling 1,500 things, so the content that Green Shoot Media provides enables us in the ad department to do a better job selling ads.”
Green Shoot Media, which has traditionally sold sections individually for a low price (which comes with a license to use it online for no additional charge), has begun experimenting with offering subscriptions to clients who regularly use their products.
“We’re producing so much content these days, we’ve become more like the Associated Press for the advertising department,” Price said.
The Syndication Players
Here is a list of the top syndication companies, providing most of the materials to newspapers:
• Creators Syndicate
Features, comic strips, editorial cartoons and puzzles Creators.com
• King Features
Features, comics, editorial cartoons and puzzles KingFeatures.com
• Tribune Media Services
News, features, comics, editorial cartoons and puzzles Tribunemediaservices.com
• Universal uClick
Comics, editorial cartoons, columns, features and puzzles Universaluclick.com
• Washington Post News Service & Syndicate
News wire, comic strips, columns and editorial cartoons Syndication.washingtonpost.com
• Cagle Cartoons
Editorial cartoons, caricatures, news art and columnists Caglecartoons.com
• Canadian Artists Syndicate
Cartoons, advice, entertainment and puzzles Artistsyndicate.ca
• Clip Syndicate
Online video Clipsyndicate.com
• Green Shoot Media
Pre-designed special sections Greenshootmedia.com
• Ink Bottle Syndicate
Comics, columnists Inkbottlesyndicate.com
• More Content Now
Pre-designed special sections, editorial cartoons, puzzles Morecontentnow.com
• Senior Wire
Editorial, financial, health and travel features for seniors Seniorwire.net