Economy Not As Bad As Syndicates Expected

By: Dave Astor

Editor’s note: Beginning this week, “Syndicate World” will be published on Thursdays instead of Mondays.

The economy is still in the dumps, but several syndicates and news services say sales are no worse or slightly better now than they were early this year.

During the first half of 2002, some distributors had weeks of “netting negative” with more cancellations than sales, said United Media Vice President/General Manager Lisa Klem Wilson. “But things started to get a little better as of August.”

Why? Wilson said some newspapers realized this summer that 2002 wasn’t going to be quite as bad economically as they had envisioned when budgeting for the year several months before. Creators Syndicate President Rick Newcombe added that he sees newspaper ads picking up a bit, which can mean a little more money for feature budgets.

And there’s always some recession protection for syndicates and news services because papers that cut staff still need content. But a number of papers reduced both personnel and feature budgets, said Cristian Edwards, executive vice president of the New York Times Syndication Sales Corp. — parent of the New York Times News Service and New York Times Syndicate. Edwards did say the news service’s list remained relatively stable (at about 650 clients) despite the “tough economic climate” — noting that the record seven Pulitzers won this spring by The New York Times helped.

“Some of our products have grown, and some have taken a hit,” added Doug Page, Tribune Media Services’ sales director/domestic syndication, reflecting scenarios at various syndicates. He said puzzles sold well this year as papers sought features with which readers spend a lot of time.

Sale and Cancellation Figures

Al Leeds, president of the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, said LAT-WP had 40 sales and 14 cancellations this year, raising its client list to 632. But he’s waiting to hear if four or five big clients will cancel in the next few weeks.

Copley News Service Editorial Director Glenda Winders said Copley “held its own” this year with the help of business generated by its summer-launched Web site and sales of feature packages covering everything from brides to cars to the holidays. “You can’t leave Christmas out of your paper,” Winders observed. On the other hand, Copley didn’t introduce any features in 2002 because of the economic climate, though it did change its “Video Views” column to “DVD Select.” A typical year would bring three or so new offerings.

Other syndicates also launched fewer features than usual, while some introduced about the same number. And several pared more older features from their rosters than they would have in better times.

Wilson said one bright spot for United is that Darby Conley’s 1999-launched “Get Fuzzy” comic now has about 300 clients, brisk book sales, and interest from licensors and Hollywood. Travel budgets for United salespeople did dip a bit before being reinstated after the summer boost in business.

Also, some syndicates reduced travel to conventions this year.

Meanwhile, Ann Landers’ death in June led syndicates to sign advice columnists or find new clients for established ones. Alan Shearer, Washington Post Writers Group’s editorial director/general manager, said Carolyn Hax’s “Tell Me About It” list rose to 198 from 97 this year.

Shearer added that sales for WPWG’s established Op-Ed writers remain good — helped by increased demand for commentary since Sept. 11, 2001. But he said 2002 has been tough on new features, noting that Marie Cocco’s column and Matt Janz’s “Out of the Gene Pool” comic didn’t get as many subscribers as they would have in a nonrecession year. “It’s harder than ever to get something started,” said Shearer.

Staffing at syndicates and news services, already lean in most cases, remained about the same this year.

Rate hikes for next year will, in many cases, be smaller than they would have been in better times. For instance, Copley is raising feature prices 2.5%, with Winders noting: “If the economy were good, it would be somewhere between 4 and 6%.”


AccuWeather Purchases …

… WeatherData’s Newspaper Division

AccuWeather acquired WeatherData’s newspaper division, leaving one enormous and one big player providing papers with meteorological material.

In making the purchase (for an undisclosed price), AccuWeather adds The Dallas Morning News and 16 other WeatherData papers. Its newspaper list is now a whopping 851.

Joel Myers, AccuWeather’s founder and president, said his company can easily handle the new clients: “AccuWeather has recently made a million-dollar investment in system development and the automation of internal processes. This gives us ample capacity [to serve] the weather needs of the customers who are joining us, as well as our continuing customers.”

Tribune Media Services’ weather products go to more than 100 papers, said Cameron Yung, a TMS executive director who reported that 18 new clients have been signed in 2002. This April, TMS — which was already providing customized weather content to larger papers — started also syndicating noncustomized weather content to under-70,000-circulation papers.

TMS partners with the Weather Channel and Weather Central in providing information to clients.


Longtime King Exec Dies At 58

Ted Hannah Was Public Relations Director

Ted Hannah, former director of advertising and public relations for King Features Syndicate, died at his New York City home after a protracted illness. He was 58.

Hannah joined King in 1974 and, except for briefly leaving in 1980 to direct Omni magazine’s publicity efforts, worked for the syndicate until taking early retirement in 1999. His behind-the-scenes work helped propel numerous cartoonists and columnists to prominence.

“Ted was instrumental in helping guide my career in all aspects – newspapers, TV shows, and books,” King columnist Heloise told E&P Online. “He taught me so much. And he was a close personal friend. I called him a ‘southern New Yorker.’ He was a New Yorker with a gracious southern touch.”

Hannah was born in Mississippi, and started his career as a writer for the Jackson Daily News.


Et cetera …

The “Dear Abby” column on Oct. 31 ran a letter from a prisoner who said she accidentally killed her husband after years of abuse. “Abby” writer Jeanne Phillips of Universal Press Syndicate answered: “My prayers are with you, and I hope you are dealt with more compassionately by the legal system than you were by the person who drove you to desperation.” The woman’s name came out in subsequent coverage. The late husband’s sister told The Associated Press she was angered by the letter and that her brother wasn’t abusive. Phillips told AP she gets “hundreds of letters a year from women who are battered and abused and feel they have no way out of a horrible situation. ‘Lost It All In Philadelphia’ made a heartfelt plea to other women not to follow in her footsteps, but to get help and to get out.” …

Creators Syndicate columnist Robert Novak made waves in Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race, writing that the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party “did not want to risk running the African-American [Alan] Page in an overwhelmingly Caucasian state, and Page was swiftly discouraged” from replacing the late Paul Wellstone. Page, a Minnesota Supreme Court associate justice and former football star, told the Saint Paul Pioneer Press that he “did not seek to be nominated” and was not discouraged from running. Walter Mondale replaced Wellstone, and lost to Republican Norman Coleman.

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