The State of Syndicates

By: Debra Gersh Hernandez

Just like their newspaper customers, syndicate services face a changed world that offers unprecedented new opportunities — that are hampered by unprecedented economic challenges. New digital distribution channels offer new opportunities for growth, and newspapers’ financial cutbacks have led to increased demand for content.
 
But those same budget woes that left editors short-staffed and in need of material also left them with less money for new syndicated products.
 
“The truth is, it’s harder to sell any kind of syndicated content today even than a few years ago, because the newshole has shrunk so much,” says Paul Camp, chief evangelistic officer at Content That Works.
 
Ask Alan Shearer, editorial director and general manager of the Washington Post Writers Group, what editors want from syndicates these days, and he’s got a quick answer: “Probably nothing. It’s very hard to develop something new for feature pages right now. They’ve been cut, and they tend to be local in their content. They’re not much interested in anything else.”
 
If newspapers do expect something from syndicated material these days, it’s that they must be more than a service for readers, says Camp — they must also generate revenue.
 
“Our local media customers want and need excellent content … pure, editorial content that plays well in any newsroom across the country and allows the advertising department to go out and make money,” he explains. “It also helps the newspaper sell the newspaper to their customers. It’s a triple play these days; it’s not just putting a popular feature in the paper.”
 
At Family Features Editorial Syndicate, which provides free editorial content produced by corporate and nonprofit sponsors, Director of Media Wendy MacDonald notes that growth has come from “publications looking at new ways to generate revenue” either from niche Websites or special sections.
 
It all boils down to the simple idea that editors want quality content at a reasonable price. Not a radically new approach, perhaps, but one reflective of the times.
 
“It’s back to the basics,” says Lisa Klem Wilson, senior vice president and general manager at United Media. Comics and puzzles continue to be popular, she says, noting that the KenKen mathematics puzzle is particularly popular. “Newspapers can’t get enough of the puzzles, and they like fresh, new puzzles.”
 
But United also has seen a surge in interest for its Newspaper Enterprise Association packages, which offer several features in bundle pricing.
 
“That feature grew last year significantly because newspapers are looking for a good value,” Wilson says. “It’s not something we suddenly came up with. NEA is a product we’ve had for more than 100 years, and it has retained the 550-600 clients we’ve always had for it. Now, it’s become something that papers are looking for to fill their newsholes. It’s an excellent value and can give readers a lot for [editors’] budget.”
 
Over at Creators Syndicate, however, Executive Vice President and General Manager Jack Newcombe says that because of this economy, “Nothing’s really hot.” But for Creators, “segmented content … dividing up the content and having it be really good is what’s selling.”
 
“First and foremost, we as syndicates — and anybody in media — have to do a much better job of listening to our consumers. [Decisions] should be based on what readers want,” says Newcombe. “Step one is understanding and respecting our consumers. We have to open up our ears and listen to people and give them what they want. If you have quality content, the cream will rise to the top, and quality will sell.”
 
Second, he adds, “is to find really good stuff. There is a reason Peanuts, Garfield and Andy Capp are still around. They’re funny. These are the foundations of the cartooning industry. … There’s no substitute for great content. I’m a believer that people are successful because they’re good — or they’re not – especially in media, where the [consumer] switching costs are so low.”
 
Still, the Internet does give syndicates unprecedented tools to market their material.
 
Consider how United uses social media to support some of its properties, as do its authors and cartoonists. In addition to garnering attention for a feature and building grassroots support, social media gives fans an opportunity to get more information. And when United offers new features, such as widgets and animations, they often are shared with the fan base first.
 
A notable example of how this can take off happened with the strip Big Nate, which Wilson says at one time wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire. Then Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney asked to use the strip’s characters for a Big Nate Island episode on Kinney’s popular kids’ Website, Poptropica.
 
“We allowed Jeff to use the characters on the island, and within two weeks it had two million visitors,” Wilson says. The island caught the notice of editors at Harper Collins, and soon there were a series of bestselling Big Nate books. “Now they’re talking about a movie,” says Wilson.
 
Newspaper comic Big Nate had to find its audience online, but the process came full circle by fueling sales to newspapers because there’s proof kids like it.
 
“We had this guy chugging along, and now he’s an author with a possible movie deal,” she says. “That will happen more and more for comics properties, as they look for avenues outside the newspaper, sweet spots where they can hone in on their audience. It’s good for newspapers when readers see a familiar comic. It’s a brand associated with the newspaper. … Being associated [with the movie] reflects well on them. When people see the brand in the store or in a movie theater,” they recall that they were first exposed to it in their newspaper.”
 
The Internet is showing that comics provide a real opportunity to increase reader engagement, says Shearer at Washington Post Writers Group. Just look at the blogs dedicated to comics, he says: “This is where the passion is. People are really engaged. We can build on their excitement.”
 
Online comic readers also tend to stay on those sites longer than average visitors because they catch up on a comic every few days or so, the syndicate has found. “It’s starting to look like a very different market than daily paper — a different group – with some overlap,” Shearer says.
 
Comics offer newspapers two possibilities, he adds: The chance to expand readership beyond their print product, and to generate greater revenue by selling advertisers on an audience that engaged with the site.
 
“For newspapers building Websites — other than comics, guess where do people stay the longest? Your opinion pages,” Shearer says. “You should be building those up as fast as you can. Length of stay is a wonderful thing for advertisers.”
 
When it comes to selecting comics, newspapers tend towards the tried-and-true. Any new strip that launches, United Media’s Wilson cautions, had “better have an angle to it. Not heavy, not editorial cartoons, but topical and relevant. Relevant humor means a lot to the reader. You’re offering news and relevant information [in the newspaper], your comics should be relevant, too.”
 
The new comics being offered by United “have to have some kind of a hook in the marketplace,” she says. Among the new strips are Freshly Squeezed, about three generations of a family forced to live together because of the economy, and Family Tree, a strip by Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Signe Wilkinson about a family’s efforts to live green.
 
Still popular, however, are strips Wilson characterizes as old favorites such as Pearls Before Swine, and “standards,” such as Dilbert, Peanuts and Marmaduke, Wilson says.
 
“Comics have always done well and will continue to do well,” she adds.
 
At Creators — where new offerings include Diamond Lil, Dog Eat Doug and The Barn — Newcombe says, “The classics are still going strong. We did an analysis of B.C. versus the overall newspaper industry…. We ran this analysis of how publicly traded newspaper stocks were doing versus how B.C. was doing, based on performance metrics. It outpaced the market by 30% to 40%. Andy Capp is doing phenomenally well. Girls & Sports is a new one that we got onto ESPN.com’s ‘Page 2’ blog. Every day they show the strip. The fact that we’re getting that type of exposure lit a fire under the creators. It’s a new distribution channel that’s really hitting the target market.”
 
It is precisely these new digital distribution channels that present the best opportunity for growth, syndicators say.
 
“I do see newspapers expanding their offerings online,” Wilson says. “There are many more comics online. Traditional newspapers more and more are looking toward syndicates to provide content to fill out certain verticals and other information to provide the community. They can get depth of content in a particular category, competing with the verticals.”
 
Both Content that Works and Family Features offer video packages that clients can utilize in conjunction with printed material or alone on the Web.
 
“What we’re trying to do is make it as easy and turnkey as possible, because that’s what customers are telling us” they want, Camp says, adding, “We see a lot more clients out there than we thought because of the Internet.
 
“Electronic media outlets are realizing that they can go up against traditional media clients,” he adds. “They will be competitors in niche markets, and we see that as a huge opportunity.”
 
Family Features has “started to provide videos as well, to pair it with feature articles. Newspapers can use it to drive traffic to their websites,” MacDonald says. Also offered are various “Web solutions,” such as automatically updating web feeds and seasonal widgets that change every month.
 
MacDonald says that usage of Family Features is up, which “reflects the needs of publishers to save time and money — and also generate revenue” from special sections and niche publications.
 
Perennially popular is the seasonally themed content, such as summer entertaining, back-to-school and holidays — as well as home and garden, do-it-yourself solutions, family and parenting, content for seniors or boomers, budget saving ideas, green living, healthy living and recipes, bridal, and organics, MacDonald says.
 
Camp, who also has seen growth at Content that Works as editors look for more content, says his syndicate is seeing interest in features that tie in to a particular event or happening. For example, when the federal government’s “Cash for Clunkers” was announced, they produced a package of features about how to take advantage of the program, which clients, in turn, could then use to sell ads to local auto dealers.
 
Another was a first-time homebuyer’s guide, to help this audience take advantage of the government tax credit. “This was a positive thing they could take to Realtors,” Camp says. “We were able to help a ton of clients make a ton of money from a package that, at its base, was helpful to the consumer. It also gave the newspaper or local TV or radio stations a chance to come up with something new to support their advertising efforts.”
 
Camp’s hottest feature right now, however, is Coupon Queen. “She helps consumers to save money on their shopping trips. In this economy, obviously, this kind of thing is a really big drawing card.”
 
While consumers are clipping coupons to save money, editors are clipping budgets.
 
There’s a pretty even split over whether editors today are more willing to change comics and other features quicker than before. All did agree, however, that their clients are all being pressured to do more with less — and to make it work for readers.
 
“I think features editors are inundated,” says United Media’s Wilson. “They’ve got the jobs of three or our people. They don’t have resources like they used to…. I do think they’re not changing the comics as frequently because they can’t give attention to new features like they used to. There are still editors who believe in the comics and are desperately trying to do the best they can with the comics pages. It’s a tough place to be right now.”
 
On the front lines, Creators’ Newcombe is seeing editors who are “unbelievably cautious right now. They don’t want to pull the trigger and be wrong. That’s okay. It’s not great for our business, but I understand they have to be prudent with their decision-making. I would argue that some of these papers have content that is less than premium. If I can get better quality content at the same price, they should make the switch.”
 
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Opposing Voices: No matter which party is in office, columnists on the other side of the fence benefit
 
With Democrats in the White House and Congress, syndicated columnists with a more conservative angle are gaining in popularity.
 
“We all know there is a trend toward the opposite point of view,” says Lisa Klem Wilson, senior vice president and general manager at United Media. “The country is very polarized. There’s always been a reaction to the current administration. If a liberal is in office, there’s more interest in conservative points of view to balance that.
 
“It happens with every administration,” she adds. “So right now, a lot of conservatives are getting their voice out. But it will swing the other way when the White House changes.”
 
But the swing to a blue majority hasn’t really helped syndicates, says Wilson. In United’s portfolio, conservative columnist Byron York has “done very well in terms of exposure, but I can’t say there are others.”
 
The market for opinion columnists, Wilson says, is not growing: “Newspapers have chosen to do more local-based columns with the space. It’s not bad for newspapers, but it’s not good for syndicates.”
 
Jack Newcombe, executive vice president and general manager at Creators Syndicate, says that conservative writers “joke that Barack Obama is the best thing to happen to them because people are mad at him. There’s going to be some cyclical stuff, but ultimately good writers will have staying power.”
 
Among the Creators columnists who are gaining popularity are Fox News personalities John Stossel, who “accounts for an overwhelming demand from all around the world,” and Susan Estrich, as well as Michelle Malkin and Dick Morris. Nevertheless, also popular is Connie Schultz, a columnist for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland who also happens to be married to a Democratic U.S. Senator.
 
“Overall, if you look at the cable TV ratings, there seems to be a demand for conservative opinion,” says Newcombe. “Half the country is looking for conservative opinion. That creates a marketing opportunity for our writers.”
 
Conservative columnists, though, do well in any administration, argues Alan Shearer, editorial director and general manager of The Washington Post Writers Group. “In general, historically it is true that conservative columnists are more popular than liberals,” he says. The reason? That’s the way most editorial pages swing, Shearer adds: “Publishers tend to be more conservative.”
 
In the Post syndicate’s stable, two conservative columnists, Kathleen Parker and Charles Krauthammer remain the hottest properties. But a less ideological column from Washington Post political writer Dana Milbank is also proving popular. “For a long time, there was the sense that you had to be ideological to be placed on the spectrum, to be a success,” he says. “Milbank may break the mold.”
 
Whether liberal, conservative or someplace in between, opinion columnists have a better shot of getting into the paper than many features or comics being squeezed out by the shrinking news hole and emphasis on local, local, local, Shearer says: “Editorial page editors are always looking for something new.”   — Debra Gersh Hernandez
 
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‘Chicago Tribune’ Gives ‘Comics Carousel’ a Whirl

 
Back in February, the Chicago Tribune announced a comics page feature called Comics Carousel that gives readers the chance to vote for one of two strips they prefer. The voting began in June, so there’s no winner yet. Tribune Associate Managing Editor/Entertainment Geoff Brown talked about the unusual decision-making process and comics in general with E&P contributor Debra Gersh Hernandez.
 
Q: What are some of the trends you’re seeing in comics?
 
After about a year of inactivity, the syndicates are bringing us new comics again.
 
What do readers and editors want now?
 
Anticipating readers’ desires is difficult, because every type of humor has a dedicated core — and what one sector of customers finds amusing or clever, others find boring or annoying. So we try to maintain a variety of strips: edgy and gentle, new and classic, family and talking animals.
 
What I don’t need are new strips that lose their way after a few months, then resort to toilet humor to survive a dry creative stretch.
 
Such as?
 
I have a decade-long policy of never publicly critiquing comics or their creators. Cartooning is a tough, specialized art that’s beyond the talents of all but a few hundred people in this world. I can’t draw, and I’ve been told repeatedly — at home and in public — that my jokes aren’t funny, so I throw no stones.
 
Though I do have a great sense of humor, I have blind spots like everyone else. That’s why I have a comics committee, with a wide variety of tastes, to help with our decisions on what to acquire and what to discontinue. I’ve had a comics committee almost since the day I became responsible for the comics pages.
 
What’s cooking at the Tribune now?

 
Since Feb. 14, in the Sunday comics section, we’ve been holding a continuing competition called Comics Carousel. The idea: Two strips that our readers might otherwise never see get a few months of exposure; then the readers get to vote which one gets to stay in the Carousel and which one will be replaced by a new challenger. On June 6 we [began] two weeks of reader voting, by phone and online.   
 
I had thirsted for a way to offer fresh content without having to drop a strip to make room. I also had been under pressure for many years to carve out a space for a rotation of comics that readers could vote on, as other newspapers have done. I tried a rotation, but it gave no strip a chance to resonate with readers. I resisted having readers vote for only one strip because the data would have no proportion. It would be clapping with one hand.
 
But when we wound up with two open spots because of a redesign, my dream came true. Now we could offer fresh content regularly without the side effect of alienating readers, give readers a voice, and provide us something to promote every so often.
 
Seems as though it’s also a great way to draw readers to the page. 
 
We hope that every new strip expands the appeal of comics to all demographics. Maybe the competition aspect of the Carousel will appeal to a new generation of comics readers.
 
Is there any online or social media component?
 
Our comics don’t run online, but we do talk about Comics Carousel in Trib Nation, our premier social media outlet.
 
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TV Books: Forgotten, but not gone
 
By Mark Fitzgerald

TV listings books are a near-perfect reflection of the newspaper industry itself: Those not paying attention seem to think they are dying, if not dead.
 
“I kind of cringe when people say, ‘Oh, they still have TV books?,’” says David A. McGee, president of Dallas-based Tel-Aire Publications Inc., a syndicate specializing in TV listings.
 
“It’s kind of like what Mark Twain said, ‘The reports of my death have been exaggerated,’” adds Timothy O. Dellinger, president of Advantage Newspaper Consultants Inc., which works with newspapers to increase revenue from TV books.
 
The problem is that people tend to remember a newspaper announcing the discontinuation of its TV book — but not the fact that it almost always returns to the newspaper. “What happens is, the newspaper cancels it, and then gets inundated with complaints,” says Dellinger.
 
Three years ago, for instance, the Chicago Sun-Times canceled its TV Prevue, and received what it said were “thousands” of complaints. “You were right, and we were wrong,” the paper said as it announced the weekly listings would return.
 
But it’s a fact that the TV listings business has changed dramatically — especially for syndicates. When Tel-Aire Publications Inc. began in the early 1970s, McGee recalls, the business involved producing bound, four-color supplements that newspapers were unable to print themselves. With the spread of technology through the 1980s and other economic changes, especially the high cost of newsprint, the market for third-party supplied TV books dried up as newspapers began printing them themselves. Syndicates turned to producing the grids and program listings alone, but that business, too, became tedious as cable and satellite TV grew and the number of channels multiplied exponentially.
 
Today, “Our most popular product is a generic grid that basically provides a timetable of the most popular channels,” says Tel-Aire’s McGee. “More and more newspapers resort  to that for several reasons, including the cost of [a more elaborate] feature and the cost of newsprint.”  (Tribune Media Services, by far the biggest player in syndicated TV listings, declined to comment for this story.)
 
TV books and listings in general could be on the brink of a comeback as newspapers figure out how to charge for online content. As McGee notes, TV listings, after all, is localized, unique content that can’t be replicated by an online aggregator.
 
But TV books can also make money right now for newspapers, says Advantage Newspaper Consultants’ Dellinger: “When newspapers come to us, they’ve typically cut back just to grids and are doing just the bare amount they have to produce to get by. They’re eager to turn this section into some form of revenue provider. They tell us, ‘We’ve got a section we can’t sell, it looks horrible, can you design something?’”
 
Advantage’s advice is not to return to the magazine-quality TV books that prevailed in the 1980s, or to load up on listings of obscure channels. “You don’t have to be all things to all people,” says Dellinger. Instead, newspapers are advised to shape the listings to please the core readers, usually an older demographic. And advertising is pitched not to retailers, but to professional services that typically don’t advertise in the newspaper.
 
The fact that the ad hangs around the house all week is a message that resonates with these customers, Dellinger says, and is a reason that even in smaller markets ad revenue can spike with just a few changes to presenting and selling the TV book.
 
At The News Miner in Fairbanks, Alaska, Advantage actually reduced the TV book to 32 pages from 40, but added premium ad space on the cover and around the crossword and Soduku puzzle pages. In the 40-page TV book, Dellinger says, the News Miner had less than 140 inches of ad space. By the end of the first sales campaign, the 32-page book included more than 330 inches of ad space.

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