By: Rob Tornoe
For aspiring comic strip artists, columnists, and other content producers, newspaper syndication has always been a tough mountain to climb. With only a handful of new features picked up each year out of hundreds submitted, the odds are stacked against those cartoonists and writers who diligently compile the required six weeks’ worth of completed work, only to receive form letters informing them their skills aren’t up to snuff. And that was before economic recession struck.
Now it’s tougher than ever to make the jump to syndication.
So far in 2013, only one new comic strip has been launched into syndication and, perhaps bucking a perceived trend, it’s selling very well. Appropriately launched on April Fools’ Day, “Take It from the Tinkersons,” a humorous take on the hopes and dreams of a modern family, is already in 75 newspapers. King Features editor Brendan Burford said he attributes the strip’s early success to artist Bill Bettwy’s unique style and terrific sense of humor.
“The success of the strip within only a month or two of being launched is a testament to the fact that Bill is a terrific cartoonist who tells jokes and writes characters people relate to,” Burford said.
Bettwy’s strip was an unlikely candidate for syndication success, given that the last two comics to enjoy similar popularity so shortly after launching — Universal Uclick’s “Cul de Sac” and King Features’ “Dustin” — were created and produced by well-respected cartoonists who already had name recognition among newspaper editors.
Bettwy, who spends his days designing graphics and repairing mascot uniforms for the Altoona Curve, a Pennsylvania-based Minor League Baseball team and Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, said that finally being able to draw a syndicated comic strip is a dream come true.
“Not only is it a hard industry to get into, it’s getting harder and harder. In the 1990s, they launched three comics a year. Now it’s one every 18 months,” Bettwy said. “It’s like I won the lottery.”
More interesting is how “Take It from the Tinkersons” forged its unlikely path to syndication success. Bettwy didn’t have any special connections with either King Features or Burford, nor did he have the pedigree or brand recognition of a big-name cartoonist. Prior to launching the strip, Bettwy’s largest cartooning gig was drawing political cartoons for his local newspaper, the Altoona Mirror.
No, Bettwy simply submitted his comic strip following the guidelines on King Features’ website, just like every other aspiring cartoonist before him, and hoped to hear back. Among the stacks and stacks of submission, Bettwy’s strip stood out to Burford right away.
“It’s the sort of comic strip that editors know will work inside their pages, so they’re less reluctant to make a change,” said Burford, noting that family comics strips such as “Zits” and “Baby Blues” have done well for King Features.
So, does the success of “Take It from the Tinkersons” point to a potential shift in a marketplace notoriously resistant to change, or is this a case of simply being in the right place at the right time?
At King Features, the key to success seems to be in picking strips that speak to people. “Dustin” continues to be one of the top performing strips launched in recent years, topping out at more than 300 newspapers. Although it’s not the 1,000+ client list of “Zits,” Burford said it’s indicative of what a great idea executed by the right creator can accomplish.
“The challenge now is the same one we’ve had for a hundred years: finding a good comic strip,” Burford said. “If you can get a good comic strip that has the right voice for current newspaper readers, you can still create a respectable living for the cartoonist making it.”
Universal Uclick hasn’t launched a new comic strip in the past year, but that’s not because business is bad. In fact, according to editorial director John Glynn, revenue has been up at Uclick for the past two years, and he hasn’t seen the big downturn that many media experts have been writing about.
“Our read of the marketplace is big papers are having problems with paying down debt and dealing with overhead,” Glynn said. “However, in medium and smaller markets, there seems to be a lot of stability and willingness to try new things.”
Universal Uclick’s 2011 merger with United Media resulted in so much new content (according to Glynn, it “literally doubled” the number of features offered) that the need to develop and launch new projects was eliminated — at least in the short term. Glynn said comics will always be the company’s bread-and-butter.
“Comics are already in a perfect format that’s incredibly well suited for our busy lives,” Glynn said. “They offer a little bit of respite from our hectic workloads, and I think the best ones will always be in demand.”
Creators is offering a couple new comic strips, although “new” is somewhat of a misnomer. The syndicate acquired the rights to classic “Donald Duck” and “Mickey Mouse” strips, some drawn by Walt Disney himself. With many editors looking forward to the next great strip, Creators president and general manager Jack Newcombe is banking on some editors to look back.
“They’ve actually been pretty successful for us in terms of sales,” Newcombe said. “You might not think it, but they are fantastic strips that remain very good.”
Apart from popular classics, Newcombe said comics have been a tough sell, chalking it up to gun-shy editors unwilling to commit to expensive new features. Despite that, he said that revenue derived from the classic syndication business continues to increase year-over-year — a positive development, but one that Newcombe doesn’t think will last.
“It’s no real secret that it’s probably fool’s gold,” Newcome said. “I don’t think the traditional newspaper syndication industry is going to grow by a lot in the next few years.”
Over at The Washington Post News Service & Syndicate, comics editor Amy Lago anticipates further growth for their newest comic strip, “Mike du Jour,” drawn by conservative political cartoonist Mike Lester. But, Lago admits editors have been hesitant to pick up new comic strips.
“The truth is there are a lot of good new comics out there that aren’t getting a good shake,” Lago said. “I think it’s just going to take some time and effort for things to shake out a bit.”
Many syndicates are staking claims on the digital marketplace as an opportunity to not only grow their portfolio, but also buffer themselves in the event newspapers continue to whittle down traditional print content. None have been as successful at leveraging digital readers as Universal Uclick.
Gocomics.com continues to be Uclick’s most popular online product, and after merging with United Media’s site comics.com, traffic continues to grow month over month, topping 70 million page views per month and more than 1.8 million monthly unique visitors.
Universal Uclick also made its first foray into mobile with the GoComics app launched in May. Available on all major smartphones, the app made it to Entertainment Weekly’s Must List, and already has 200,000 downloads.
“We like to make people laugh. And in a world where everyone is constantly on the go, we want to bring our content to our readers,” Glynn said.
King Features has occupied the mobile space for several years now, with its online subscription service DailyINK. Customers can download the app for free on practically any smartphone or tablet, and receive a free week of content. After that, subscriptions cost $1.99 a month, or $19.99 a year.
The innovative approach, developed by the late editor Jay Kennedy in 2006, has netted more than 11,000 subscribers to what Burford describes as a “premium experience” of comics reading on any device. The app includes all of King’s comics features as wells as an assortment of vintage strips, such as “Beetle Bailey” and “The Katzenjammer Kids.”
Burford described King’s approach to digital as “agnostic” — not wed to any single strategy — and said the syndicate is willing to experiment and try new things. In addition to the subscription-based DailyINK app, King also offers the Comics Kingdom module to newspaper websites for free.
“Comics Kingdom is the best of both worlds for both us and our customers,” Burford said. “Publishers can get free content and sell ads against it on their pages, and within the module, we have ads and benefit from the traffic these websites provide.”
Currently, 150 newspaper websites run the Comics Kingdom module, which offers readers the ability to read all King Features comics online, plus a 30-day archive.
At Creators syndicate, the move online is a key component of revenue strategy, and the company is banking on the success of its new humor website, Alpha Comedy, to help drive growth. Alphacomedy.com, launched in January, was conceived as a way to create a humor-based destination that has a unique look and user-friendly interface. The site currently features cartoonists syndicated by Creators, and Newcombe said he’s “shocked” by how well the site has performed.
Newcombe also said Creators will soon launch other verticals based on its syndicated content, such as politics and lifestyle, which have a wide audience and may appeal to other websites looking to partner up for content.
“What we realized is on the Web, instead of packing all of our content together, we needed to break it apart and offer it separately, the way readers wanted to see it,” Newcombe said.
As newspapers continue to trim and closely monitor their budgets, not only are staff political cartoonists getting handed pink slips, but editorial page editors are being forced to make tough decisions about the cartoonists they choose to fill the daily hole on their op-ed page.
Daryl Cagle launched his Cagle Cartoons syndicate 13 years ago, and changed the marketplace with his decision to sell political cartoons as a package, rather than by individual artist (Disclosure: I am a cagle.com contributor). Since then, he has grown his client base to more than 850 newspapers nationally and internationally, and in doing so has become a target of a small but vocal segment of cartoonists who think he has undercut artists everywhere with his low prices.
“Individually syndicated cartoonists who used to be the stars of our profession are now seeing an even steeper decline in their lists of subscribing newspapers,” Cagle said. “These are difficult times for some cartoonists who compete with us; I can see why they are frustrated with us.”
While some cartoonists feel Cagle has destroyed the marketplace for political cartoons, others are jumping ship to be part of his popular package. In January, Cagle nabbed this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Steve Sack, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, from Creators syndicate. Cagle also recently signed Sean Delonas, former Page Six cartoonist for the New York Post.
“Cartoonists don’t make much, but other syndicates pay cartoonists even worse than we do,” Cagle said. “The idea of another syndicate hiring a cartoonist, to start with zero papers, and sell new papers one by one, looking at twenty or thirty papers as a success — that just isn’t an attractive alternative for an editorial cartoonist who wants to have his work seen by the largest possible audience.”
Cagle Cartoons isn’t the only syndicate snapping up political cartoonists. Creators has added Pennsylvania-based Tom Stiglich, and Andy Marlette, staff cartoonist for the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal and nephew of the late Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Marlette. Newcombe said there’s potential for growth in sales of editorial cartoons due to the nature of the media and the impact of the online world.
“When Steve Breen drew his Manti Te’o cartoon, it was plastered all over the news. ESPN First Take did an entire segment on it,” said Newcombe, noting that his customers prefer quality individual cartoonists over the one-size-fits-all nature of a package deal.
“Really good cartoonists don’t just go viral, they go mainstream,” Newcombe said. “You get what you pay for.”
Over at Universal Uclick, Glynn said it’s difficult to predict the potential for sales growth in political cartoons. Uclick has its own package of content, the NEA Package, but it’s intended for small markets and not sold to larger newspaper clients.
“My feeling is we’re selling newspapers quality over quantity, and it’s what our customers really seem to prefer,” Glynn said.
Perhaps the toughest sell in the current marketplace is promoting traditional editorial columns to editors who are increasingly looking for free local content to help balance their tight budget.
Glynn said Universal Uclick will soon be launching a new column from a St. Louis writer who covers issues related to parenting in the 21st century. He said it’s a great column, but he’s tried to temper the expectations of all involved.
“We have high hopes, but we’ll see what happens,” Glynn said.
Although Cagle Cartoons does have a stable of columnists that includes big names such as Michael Reagan, Cagle admitted that it’s a tough sell, and said that if columns weren’t available as part of the overall Cagle package, not too many editors would pay more to run them.
“I don’t see a good business model for columnists, except to use the columns as promotion for their (the authors’) books and speaking engagements,” Cagle said.
Despite the tough sell, some syndicates are finding slivers of success selling columnists.
Newcombe said he attributes much of Creators’ success to syndicated columnists with household name appeal, such as Bill O’Reilly and Chuck Norris. This year, Creators not only added another Fox News contributor, Judge Andrew Napolitano, it also teamed up with polling pundit Scott Rasmussen on a weekly column that provides unique insights to current events in and out of Washington.
“Personally, I think most columnists are bad, and our sales show we have really good ones,” Newcombe said. “Even the newspapers industry as it is, there’s a lot of newshole, which presents an opportunity as long as you have great content to offer.”
One syndicate that’s taking a unique approach to columns and written content is Family Features. Started in 1979, Family Features works with clients such as General Mills and Home Depot to distribute their message through editorial content, including columns, recipes, and feature stories. What’s the major benefit for editors? Content is free, and topics range from travel to home and garden.
The company has an impressive array of newspaper clients, including The Dallas Morning News and the San Antonio Express-News. But does it cross an ethical line for editors who walk the tightrope between cutting costs and using advertorial content?
“We’re serious about adhering to tough editorial guidelines,” said Vickie Rocco, director of audience development at Family Features. She noted that the promotional aspect of the arrangement usually consists of quotes from experts at brands that have relevance to the content they produce.
“We provide quality editorial content that’s free to use,” said sales director Susanne Vielhauer. “Often people get confused. We’re not an advertising organization; we’re a syndication business funded by branded sponsors.”
Despite offering big names in the political world such as Charles Krauthammer and George Will, the Washington Post News Service & Syndicate’s biggest surprise growth with a relative newcomer, Esther Cepeda, whose column now appears in nearly 170 newspapers nationwide.
“Esther is plugged into social media, so when editors run her columns, they’re often surprised by the reaction they get from readers,” said Alan Shearer, chief executive officer and editorial director at the Washington Post News Service & Syndicate.
Shearer said he thinks newspapers’ current preference for free local content is shortsighted and won’t wear well over time.
“There is a big limitation to what they can do,” said Shearer, who added that columnist Ruth Marcus has regular, off-the-record lunches with senators on both sides of the aisle. “That doesn’t mean it’s automatically better than what a local writer can offer, but she’s getting insight a local writer working for free will never have.
“Admittedly, it’s a tough market. You have to work hard to spread your ideas,” Shearer said. “But it can be done.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and reporter for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at [email protected]