Comics-Page Changes Can Come at a Price

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By: Shawn Moynihan

It’s the moment any editor dreads. Word comes down that the newsroom budget’s been cut, and finding cost savings is the top priority. Some things are going to have to go by the wayside ? and in some cases, those “things” are the ones guaranteed to elicit reader rage: comics.

Several major newspapers have seen their comics reduced or re-sized in just the last few months, in the process learning some valuable lessons about how best to approach such delicate changes without alienating too many readers. But considering the ill will often engendered by making changes to comics sections, is it worth it?

Jeff Reece, lifestyle editor at The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, knows full well how cuts to the comics page are received. In December, the paper decided to drop eight strips from both its daily and Sunday comics. It instituted a “Comic Strip Survivor” voting drive through which readers could make their selections, of which eight of the 16 strips would be eliminated.

“The reaction, as you might have guessed, was pretty big,” says Reece. “Comics are sort of the ‘third rail’ of the newspaper.” When news of the comics cuts spread, he recalls, Reece spent the first three mornings from 8 to noon fielding phone calls from readers.

The ballot ran in print and online for eight days; the Times-Union received 7,700 total ballots, 5,700 of which were clipped from the print edition. “That was a bit of a surprise,” he recalls. “The counting took longer than we anticipated, because we had to do those by hand.”

Ultimately, the decision was made to simply leave the daily comics alone.

“We re-thought our strategy,” reports Reece. “Maybe there was some surprise, or a change of heart, but an effort was made to save money elsewhere.” Five comics, however, were still cut from Sunday ? trimming the Sunday comics section by two pages, from six to four. Comparatively, “the response once we actually cut the Sunday comics was pretty light,” he adds. Only four regular strips were axed ? “Watch Your Head,” “Cathy” “Brevity” and “Prince Valiant” ? along with the slot occupied by the Washington Post Writers Group-distributed “Opus,” which ended its run in 2008.

With those Sunday adjustments, the Times-Union now saves a little over $6,800 a year in syndication fees alone, Reece says, adding that the savings in newsprint are “probably pretty substantive.” Now he says he worries that any further budget cuts will have to come from elsewhere: “What’s going to kill me is if six months from now, they tell me that I can’t run a Lifestyle section anymore ? because we’re not going to revisit [comics reductions] again.”

Another paper that has seen its share of recent comics cuts is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which in January dropped a half page from its daily comics ? 11 strips in all, including “Mary Worth,” “Mark Trail,” “Rose is Rose” and “Cathy.” At first it had dropped 13 strips, but after some reader pushback, the AJC held a readers’ poll to have two of them reinstated.

“I’m still getting some feedback” on that move, says Frank Rizzo, who has overseen the comics sections for 15 years and is a copy editor on the paper’s information desk. He says he also gets complaints from readers about the slightly reduced size of the daily comics. One thing that helps soften the blow somewhat: adding color to the revamped daily comics.

In February, the AJC decided to reduce its Sunday comics section from eight to six pages. Another reader poll helped determine which of its Sunday strips to cut: “Frazz,” “DeFlocked” and “Night Lights and Fairy Flights” were eliminated in that round.

“The whole point was to reduce newsprint and save money,” he adds, noting that the AJC prints on a 48-inch web, and was looking to re-tool to a 44-inch web by the end of April. He’s hopeful that if the comics again have to drop in size, “it’ll be marginal.”

The Washington Post’s Michael Cavna, TV/theater editor and the man behind its “Comic Riffs” blog, reported the paper was dropping five comics from the print edition (“Little Dog Lost,” “Pooch Cafe,” “Piranha Club,” “Zippy the Pinhead” and “Judge Parker”) by the end of March, but those strips would still be available on the Post’s Web site. In April, “Judge Parker” fans rebelled with more than 750 calls, e-mails and letters, and the strip was reinstated on April 20.

“Most daily newspapers are struggling to survive,” says Cavna. “Most syndicated cartoonists are struggling to hold on to clients. In the middle of these perilous crossed train tracks is one, if not two, badly hurting business models.”

He offers an analogy: “Comics are your bedroom furniture. You can burn them for a little short-term, shortsighted heat savings ? and your structure will still stand. But many people won’t want to live there much longer.”

Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, believes the decision by several papers of note to re-size or drop comic strips does not represent a “trend” per se. “It’s a trend-let, by no means is it a tsunami,” he says. “The overwhelming majority of them are not doing it, but there are some prominent examples of that happening. They’re acts of desperation.

“What this is about is, papers are getting smaller, so comics sections are getting smaller,” he adds. “They need to monetize every section of the paper, and that space could be an ad. That’s the dilemma for some of them. … In the short term, they know these are bad business decisions. They know comics are popular with readers.”

While many of the major syndicates echo the sentiment that comics are as popular as ever, “The question today isn’t ‘are they popular,’ it’s ‘are they necessary?'” says Alan Gardner, editor/writer of The Daily Cartoonist blog. Comics, he adds, historically were used build readership and lure readers from competing papers, “but there are few markets left with competing papers.

For many, a no-win situation
Still, it’s hard to stick to your editorial guns when the phones are ringing off the hook. In May 2008, The Oregonian reduced its Sunday comics from eight pages to six; two strips, “Tokyo Pop” and “Dennis the Menace” were dropped without much fanfare, and “Cul de Sac” was added. “It virtually went unnoticed,” says Managing Editor/Features JoLene Krawczak. “We get comments when we have to drop a comic to accommodate a strip ad, but this was remarkably smooth.”

In late February, the Oregonian sought to trim its daily comic strips from 33 to about 23, in order to reduce the comics to one page. Readers were asked to select their three favorite and least favorite strips from a list. “We were really clear to say we wanted your opinion ? we didn’t say the poll will determine the results,” says Krawczak. “The poll would help us decide.”

The paper was soon besieged by thousands of calls and e-mails from readers. The response was so strong that the company’s senior leadership decided to scrap the plan altogether. “I was shocked what a refuge comics are for people in these tough times,” she adds. “We ended up making no changes.”

At The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind., Editor Bob Zaltsberg recalls how the elimination of one strip elicited backlash not just from comics lovers but from those of a certain political bent. After Bruce Tinsley’s comic “Mallard Fillmore” was dropped Jan. 5, “I got a steady stream of distressed conservatives, writing, e-mailing and calling me, concerned that we dropped the one conservative strip in the paper,” he says.

Zaltsberg conducted a poll in February asking readers which of the paper’s comics had “outlived its natural life,” he recalls, and asked readers to send nominations for what should be dropped. He got more than 1,000 responses. In March, a second poll asked readers to vote for which of the four strips that garnered the most votes ? “Nancy,” “Henry,” “Wee Pals,” and “Get Fuzzy” ? should be saved.

After those votes were tallied, though, Zaltsberg faced a similar problem. “Wee Pals” features characters of color. Should that be dropped, even if it received the most votes (which, as it turned out, it didn’t)? Finally, he decided to keep them all. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t make the same mistake of dropping something that was representative of a minority in our community,” whether it be cultural or political, the editor says.

“I think with all the problems we’re facing today and trying to keep readers engaged, to take something out that clearly elicits a good deal of passion in readers, you do so at your own peril,” Zaltsberg notes. Polling readers on comics changes, he says, is “a great exercise, but tread carefully, and really decide ? is it worth alienating 100 readers for saving $1,000 a year? It might be.

He adds, “If you’re going to mess around with the comics, you’d better know what the return on your investment is going to be.”

This story first appeared in E&P’s May issue.

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