How and Why the Creators/Copley Deal Happened

By: Dave Astor

Eight years after the last big syndicate merger, two of America’s eight largest feature distributors will soon be under one ownership.

Why did Creators Syndicate decide to buy Copley News Service? Why did Copley Press decide to sell CNS? What’s in the future for the 21 CNS employees? What do creators at the two syndicates think of the deal? The answers, based on nine phone interviews conducted today, are below.

Creators President Richard S. Newcombe — whose syndicate announced Wednesday that it’s purchasing CNS effective July 1 for an undisclosed amount — actually expressed interest in buying CNS 15 years ago. But he said it wasn’t until about a month ago that Creators was contacted by JP Media Partners — a merger-and-acquisition firm representing CNS — about whether there was interest in a purchase.

Newcombe was indeed interested because of the quality of CNS’ features and for various other reasons. “We’re two hours apart on the 405 freeway,” he said of the Los Angeles-based Creators and San Diego-based CNS, adding that CNS will get to keep its initials when renamed Creators News Service.

“There are tremendous opportunities for synergy,” he continued, noting, by way of example: “Copley sells to many smaller newspapers. That would open new markets for us.”

Meanwhile, said Newcombe, Creators plans to keep the entire CNS lineup of features for at least six to 12 months (and perhaps longer). Also, CNS content will continue to be sold both in packages and individually.

When asked why CNS was sold, Copley Press Executive Vice President Harold W. Fuson replied: “We made a decision a few years ago to focus on our flagship — The San Diego Union-Tribune. Copley News Service played a much different role in our company when we had a group of newspapers spread across several states.”

The troubled economy was also a factor — albeit a lesser one, said Fuson. “In an economy like this, you have to be more careful about how you use your resources,” he told E&P. “You have to focus even more sharply on your core business.”

Fuson added that Creators was approached because Copley Press had heard very positive things about Newcombe and his 1987-founded syndicate, which is one of America’s five biggest feature distributors. The 1955-founded CNS is one of the eight biggest.

Although he feels Creators is a good fit for CNS, Fuson said it’s unfortunate some CNS staffers might not retain their jobs after July 1. “Any time you make changes in a business, it affects people’s livelihoods,” he said. “It’s not something you do lightly.”

Newcombe — who addressed the CNS staff Wednesday — said there’s always “emotion, frustration, anxiety, and relief” involved when any syndicate is sold. The Creators president was with News America Syndicate in the mid-1980s when it was bought by King Features Syndicate.

CNS staffers were reportedly offered buyouts by Copley Press. Newcombe said some of the 21 (the exact number is not yet known) will have jobs under the new ownership. They might choose to work at Creators’ Los Angeles office or opt to remain in the San Diego area and work at home. CNS’ San Diego office will close.

Newcombe said CNS Vice President/Editor Glenda Winders will stay on at Creators as a consultant “with a special emphasis on working with cartoonists.” He added that Winders will also do writing for Creators.

“I think the world of Glenda,” said Newcombe.

Winders, who has been with CNS for 20 years, told E&P she might also do some teaching.

The sale of CNS “is not what I would have wanted,” she added. “I like it here, and we have done good work.” Winders also noted that she has built close relationships with fellow CNS staffers and with CNS creators.

“But if CNS has to be sold, Creators is the best place to sell it to,” she said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with them, and their vision is the same as ours.” She also observed that the combination of Creators and CNS will make for an impressively strong syndicate operation.

Several CNS creators praised Winders and commented on the deal.

“You couldn’t find anyone who has something negative to say about Bob Witty or Glenda Winders,” said Union-Tribune/CNS editorial cartoonist Steve Breen. (Witty is a former CNS executive who left the syndicate in 1998.)

Breen added that he feels for the CNS staffers who might lose their jobs, noting that he has gotten to know a number of them well because he works so geographically close to what he called “a great syndicate with a great atmosphere. I’ve always loved Copley News Service, and it’s going to be sad to see it go.”

The Union-Tribune cartoonist had kind words for Creators, too. “It’s exciting to be part of an organization with so much talent,” said Breen.

Investor’s Business Daily/Copley editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez — winner of a 2008 Pulitzer Prize last month for his work — said he “had such a wonderful time working with Copley News Service. I hope to continue working with many of the same people.”

Ramirez, reached during a brief break at today’s Pulitzer presentation and reception, added: “I’m sad that Copley was bought by somebody else, but if I had to choose which syndicate would purchase it, I’m so glad it’s Creators. Rick Newcombe is a good friend. I have enormous respect for him, and really look forward to working with him.”

Also, Ramirez said Newcombe helped pave the way for cartoonists and writers to retain more rights to their work when he founded Creators in 1987.

Birmingham (Ala.) News/Copley editorial cartoonist Scott Stantis said “it’s sad to see so much of Copley jettisoned and sold,” adding sarcastically, “I love corporate America.”

Stantis — who described Winders as “very straightforward” and a wonderful editor and person — did say that working with Creators “could be great.”

E&P also asked three Creators-syndicated people for their opinions of the deal.

“I’m shocked that Rick Newcombe didn’t call me up and discuss this before he made the decision,” joked Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovich. “Why wouldn’t he seek the advice of a cartoonist?”

Turning serious, the formerly-CNS-syndicated Luckovich said Newcombe is a “smart, honest, and competent businessperson” who wouldn’t have bought CNS if it wasn’t a good idea.

The Plain Dealer of Cleveland columnist Connie Schultz said the deal could “help cast a wider net” for creators at both syndicates when it comes to getting into newspapers.

“Herb and Jamaal” cartoonist Stephen Bentley agreed: “When these types of mergers happen, you hope they will benefit the cartoonists and columnists involved by opening new opportunities for them.”

Newcombe concluded that Creators’ purchase of CNS indicates that “we obviously believe in the future of newspapers and the syndication business. There is a power to print that hasn’t gone away.”

The year-2000 syndicate merger mentioned in the first paragraph of this story involved Tribune Media Services absorbing the Los Angeles Times Syndicate — for which Newcombe also used to work.

Wednesday’s E&P article announcing the Creators/Copley deal can be seen here.

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