Philly ‘Inquirer’ Asks for Comics at No Charge

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By: Dave Astor

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently asked several syndicates to provide comics at no cost for at least six months, E&P has learned.

“We thought it was an unreasonable request and would set a very disturbing precedent,” said Washington Post Writers Group (WPWG) Sales Manager/North America Karisue Wyson, when contacted by E&P. She recalled that the Inquirer, citing budget reasons, told WPWG it would continue to run “That’s Life” only if it could use Mike Twohy’s comic free for 12 months. It later shortened this request to six months, according to Wyson, but the syndicate still would not agree.

Though feature rates are usually low, newspapers frequently pressure syndicates to reduce or freeze prices — especially during recessionary times. But Wyson said a client never previously asked her to suspend billing for so long. “When I mentioned it to a couple of other editors, they were shocked,” she said. “Comics are a unique, complex, important art form. The artists deserve to be compensated.”

Some syndicates do offer cartoons and text features at no charge for brief trial periods.

Inquirer (Click for QuikCap) Editor Amanda Bennett declined to answer questions about the no-billing request, saying price discussions between the newspaper and syndicates are “private.” She did add: “We are negotiating very aggressively, like I would expect everyone else is.”

Wyson said the Inquirer is a “nice client,” and that WPWG is willing to negotiate prices with newspapers. But a half-year gratis, she added, is unacceptable. Wyson noted that WPWG’s rates aren’t high (like several other major syndicates, they range from less than $10 to more than $100 a week for a daily comic, depending on client circulation). And she said the Inquirer would not promise to run “That’s Life” on a paid basis after the free period, or promise to consider buying other WPWG comics. The Inquirer does pay for the Sunday “Opus” strip by Berkeley Breathed of WPWG.

Twohy agreed that his comic shouldn’t run for free in the Inquirer, said Wyson, though the cartoonist was disappointed to possibly lose a major subscriber.

Universal Press Syndicate reportedly agreed to the Inquirer’s request, then backed off. Three sources said King Features Syndicate also agreed. When reached by E&P, a King executive declined to confirm or deny what they did with the Inquirer, citing syndicate-client confidentiality. (King’s president later said the syndicate never agreed to offer the comics for free. See “King Features: We Denied ‘Inquirer’ Request.”)

United Media is the syndicate thinking about the Inquirer’s request. “We try to help newspapers through difficult times, but it’s a difficult decision,” said Lisa Klem Wilson, senior vice president and general manager. “At the end of the day we represent talent, and they need to be compensated for their work. Every decision we make has to take that into consideration.” Wilson said she wants to talk directly with the Inquirer about its request (made through a United sales rep) before the syndicate decides.

Two other distributors with many comics are Tribune Media Services and Creators Syndicate. TMS Sales Director Doug Page said the Inquirer, to his knowledge, didn’t ask TMS for a lengthy suspension of billing. Creators National Sales Director Margo Sugrue declined to comment on whether her syndicate was asked. She did say Creators is willing to temporarily suspend billing in extraordinary circumstances, such as when the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald had a devastating flood in 1997. “We try to be accommodating, but there has to be a quid pro quo,” added Creators President Rick Newcombe, noting, by way of example, that a paper getting a feature gratis for three months would have to promise to subsequently pay to run it for at least three months.

Is the Inquirer facing extraordinary circumstances? No, said one syndicate executive requesting anonymity, noting that helping Knight Ridder achieve a higher profit margin at the Inquirer does not qualify.

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