By: Rob Tornoe
“You could work anywhere, and you’re going to work for a newspaper syndicate?”
Jack Newcombe recalled how his friends responded when he revealed his first job after completing his MBA at Stanford University would be to work for his father, Richard Newcombe, at Creators Syndicate.
Rick founded Creators Syndicate in 1987, only the second major independent syndicate started since the 1930s, and has now handed over the reins to Jack, who took over as the company’s president and chief operations officer in July. Rick continues to serve as CEO and chairman of the board, but it’s Jack’s company now, calling the shots in a transitional period for the newspaper industry.
Jack certainly isn’t bashful. His youthful optimism and ambition in the face of a cataclysmic shift in the media industry inspires confidence, even as he admits to not knowing all the answers.
I recently spoke with Jack about his goal of building Creators Syndicate into a large media company that competes with the likes of Disney, News Corp. and Viacom, and the practical reality of getting creators paid amid media budget cuts.
How have the last few years of media cutbacks affected Creators, and how have you weathered the storm?
I read that the Newspaper Association of America released figures to the AP that newspaper ad revenue declined for 20 straight quarters, most recently by 7 percent. Those are obviously extremely negative numbers over a long period of time.
With regard to Creators Syndicate, we are one of the positive ones in an otherwise volatile media landscape. Our main clients are newspapers, and some newspapers are in serious trouble. As a result, since the recession hit at the end of 2007, like all the other major syndicates, we have absorbed a lot of cancellations.
Now, recently, we have actually seen an increase in feature revenue. I cannot speak for the industry or for our clients, but I can say that this is no accident for Creators Syndicate. Our sales staff, our operations staff, our business development department, and all employees at Creators have been working tirelessly to get those numbers up, and we are just now seeing the results.
How do you bridge the gap of editors who are set in their ways and afraid to change their offerings?
Step one — acceptance. I’m not going to change that person’s mind. I could come out with “Far Side,” show them, and they’d say, “We have budget cuts. I’m not kicking out ‘Hagar.’” The best thing I can do is not try to change their mind. They’re on their own, and I still have a fiduciary responsibility to our creators.
Now, I need to figure out how to get my creators that audience of loyal fans. Today, the fan base you can get, while potentially smaller, is also getting more loyal and more passionate.
Yes, but how do you make money with passion?
I’m not going to pretend to know the answer to that. There used to be the idea of get a billion eyeballs, charge X dollars for those eyeballs, then you value the content at Y. Advertisers aren’t willing to pay as much, or as often, for digital ads, so it puts our customers in a bind.
One answer is ancillary revenue, making money through different avenues. That’s across the board from charging for archives, toys, and TV shows. We’ve placed a huge focus in the last six months on building relationships with agencies and producers. None of it is finalized, but it’s been unbelievable getting these ancillary products and revenue streams going.
Stand-up comics do a podcast that they give away so they can sell out a live event. However, I don’t think it’s fair to the artist or the writer to say, “Do this for free.” At the end of the day, the most important thing in our business is to get our clients paid.
Where are you seeing sales growth?
It seems like middle-American papers without a lot of debt are doing better than the big-market counterparts. It’s funny, I spoke to someone who works tangentially in media, and he was shocked that we had any sales at all. People are still buying, and we have a sales team for a reason.
Are there any new features that you’ve launched that have contributed to this sales success?
In the past 12 months, we’ve launched two new lifestyle columns that have been tremendously successful. One is a parenting column by Teresa Strasser, which is wildly popular, and the other is a nutrition/health/life column by Daphne Oz, who is a host on ABC’s “The Chew.” Her column is receiving a ton of positive feedback.
On the comics side, we have two recent success stories. The first is “Diamond Lil,” and the other is “Dogs of C-Kennel.” Both comics were launched in the worst recession that the newspaper industry has ever seen, and both have been tremendously successful for us and generated a tremendous readership. Obviously, sales were helped by the end of “Cathy,” but I also think it was helped by the professional nature of the creators. Mick and Mason Mastroianni (“Dogs of C-Kennel”) are Johnny Hart’s grandkids, and Brett Koth (“Diamond Lil”) has worked with Jim Davis on “Garfield” for nearly 25 years, so the fact they weren’t amateurs allowed us to develop and create great products prior to their launch.
Down the pipeline, we have a few writers who are going to be huge once we finalize the contracts. In terms of comics, we will be launching an unbelievably creative and funny comic strip early in 2012, called “Hope & Death.”
How do you measure the success of these new features?
By the checks that go out to the creators. Every single one comes across my desk and if it’s a number that I feed good about, then it’s a success. At the end of the day, our job is to get our talent paid however we can, and it’s something I take very seriously.
There’s no shortage out there of great artists and talented writers I want to sign. But I want to make sure I can put them in the best position to succeed and to be compensated for their work. And in this new age of technology and social media, that’s what we’re working hard to figure out.
What do you see as the future of syndicated content?
There are two things going on: 1) The economy and the newspaper industry are having a tough time getting any traction, and 2) as a result, we’ve seen some consolidation.
What this leads to is a tremendous opportunity for Creators Syndicate as an independent media company — not owned by a major conglomerate — with an entrepreneurial history. We have the industry juice to distribute and sell to anyone in the world who will buy content and relationships with all the big decision-makers in media. At the same time, we can still provide premium customer service to all of our clients and talent. Most importantly, we are nimble enough to adapt and embrace the media revolution that is currently taking place.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher Magazine and edits the satirical humor magazine Delaware Punchline. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.