War Not Taking Wind Out of Syndicate Sales – Yet

By: Dave Astor

Editor’s note: See the April 14 E&P magazine and the April 17 “Syndicate World” for an interview with David Horsey, who won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for his Seattle Post-Intelligencer/Tribune Media Services editorial cartoons.

As news services work mightily to cover the Iraq war, syndicates are also affected. The U.S. invasion has had a slight impact on feature sales — and a bigger impact on content.

The Washington Post Writers Group (WPWG) even had two columnists “over there.” Michael Kelly was embedded with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division until his death in Iraq last week (see story below), while David Ignatius (interviewed in last week’s “Syndicate World”) is roaming the region independently.

Karisue Wyson, WPWG sales manager/North America, said the war is a compelling story when written about by a reporter. “But adding a columnist’s skill makes it even more powerful,” she noted.

Since Kelly began writing from the war zone, his client list had increased from about 70 to nearly 80. And Ignatius, who entered syndication with WPWG just this year, has seen his list double to about 35 during the past few weeks.

Wyson said column sales for Jim Hoagland, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will also rose since the war began — though not as quickly as for Kelly and Ignatius. But comics have been harder to sell during this period, she added.

Creators Syndicate President Rick Newcombe agreed, reporting that the attitude of some papers is: “Don’t talk to us about comics right now — we have a war to cover!”

But Tribune Media Services is seeing a small rise in comic sales, said Sales Director/Domestic Syndication Doug Page, noting some papers may feel readers need a bit of escape from war news.

‘Op-Ed is really in demand’

There’s also more interest in opinion columns — including the one by Creators writer/TV commentator Oliver North, who’s in the war zone. “Op-Ed is really in demand right now,” said Margo Sugrue, national sales director at Creators.

Another columnist in the war zone is Nicholas Kristof, who’s syndicated by the New York Times News Service.

Creators is also syndicating a text/art feature by Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovich based on his recent visit to the Pentagon.

Universal Press Syndicate and Copley News Service executives reported more reprint sales of editorial cartoons, with the purchases about “equally split” between pro- and anti-war drawings.

Other than that, “It’s been pretty much business as usual” since the war began, said Universal President Bob Duffy.

“I don’t see the war affecting sales a whole lot,” agreed Copley Editorial Director Glenda Winders, noting that papers still have feature sections to fill. Of course, even feature columnists are addressing the war, as Copley advice columnist Cherie Bennett does when answering questions from teen readers.

Some syndicates are still waiting to see if the war will affect sales. “It’s too early to tell,” said George Haeberlein, vice president for worldwide syndication sales at King Features Syndicate. He did note that there have been newspapers too busy to talk with syndicate salespeople.

“It definitely can be difficult to have good conversations with editors when there’s a TV on in the background,” said Mary Ann Veldman, regional sales director at Creators.

What about the war’s impact on domestic vs. international sales? Duffy and Newcombe haven’t seen a difference, at least yet.

A lengthy conflict could stretch newspaper budgets so thin that feature spending gets sliced. It could also further depress advertising – meaning smaller news holes. “If the war continues for a long time,” said Page, “syndicates might be in a bit of a jam.”


Kelly’s Death Mourned by WPWG

Syndicate’s Shearer: ‘We’re All Devastated’

When the head of the Washington Post Writers Group syndicate last spoke with Michael Kelly on April 2, he told him: “Mike, be careful.” Kelly replied: “I’m fine.”

He wasn’t for long. It was reported April 4 that The Washington Post/WPWG columnist was killed in a Humvee accident while embedded with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq. Kelly, 46, was the first American journalist to die in the war.

“We’re all devastated,” said Alan Shearer, editorial director and general manager of WPWG, on April 4. “It’s just tragic.” But he added that Kelly died doing what he wanted to do: “He was really excited to be covering that big story.”

Kelly, a conservative commentator who was also editor at large of The Atlantic Monthly, dictated his Iraq columns to Shearer and WPWG Managing Editor James Hill by satellite phone. His last column, on the U.S. war plan as viewed from the front, was dictated April 2 minutes after the 3rd Infantry Division crossed the Euphrates River.

“Mike was a writer with very strong opinions who brought in a lot of reaction,” said Shearer. “And he took chances with phrasing. Many of his sentences didn’t have the usual structure.”

Shearer added that he personally liked Kelly, who also covered the first Gulf War. “Mike was someone really fun to have a discussion with,” he said. “His mind was so quizzical.”

Kelly’s mother, “Family Almanac” writer Marguerite Kelly, is also a syndicated columnist. His father, Thomas Kelly, was a reporter for the now-defunct Washington Daily News.


‘Boondocks’ Box Irks Some Clients

Cartoonist Used It for Antiwar Message

One newspaper canceled “The Boondocks” and at least three clients ran substitute strips after seeing Aaron McGruder’s March 29 comic.

The strip featured a box, superimposed on the usual cartoon panels, that read: “In order to express the outrage and the disappointment at the situation in the Middle East, as well as an upcoming movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. in which the actor will undoubtedly shame himself and his race, today’s installment of ‘The Boondocks’ will not be appearing. Seriously, folks. Let’s stop the madness. The Bush administration’s hunger for war, and Hollywood’s continued production of movies starring Cuba Gooding Jr., must be stopped.”

McGruder, whose comic appears in 250-plus papers via Universal Press Syndicate, occasionally uses text notes to readers rather than his usual characters to make points. But The Herald-Sun — the Durham, N.C.-based paper that canceled — didn’t like the cartoonist’s latest use of that satirical device. “The issue is less about content than about someone going way out of bounds to express his personal political views outside the confines of the cartoon,” wrote Bill Hawkins, vice president and executive editor of the paper. He noted that if “Blondie” used a text box to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he’d yank that comic, too.

Hawkins reported hearing from “a few dozen” readers who were disappointed or angry about the cancellation. But he also said The Herald-Sun has received “many more” negative than positive comments from readers since it first purchased “The Boondocks.”

A letter appearing in Poynter Online’s Romenesko area disagreed with The Herald-Sun‘s decision. The writer said McGruder’s comic is “brilliant, acerbic, and in little need of Hawkins’ thumbs up or thumbs down,” and added: “Within the world that McGruder creates … his ‘text’ comic was consistent both in its form and content. The same tactic in ‘Blondie’ would be ridiculous and out of character with that particular strip.”

One of the papers pulling the March 29 “Boondocks” was The Boston Globe. Ombudsman Christine Chinlund quoted the paper’s editor, Martin Baron, as saying: “What I saw was not a comic strip. It was a written statement on the war. For such commentary, we have the Op-Ed page and letters. We reserve the comics page for comics.” Chinlund wrote: “I would hate to see the comics page turned into a sea of text-based political messages. But I don’t think there’s any danger of that. Only a few strips … are overtly political. … Allowing ‘Boondocks’ the occasional use of a text note as one way to connect with readers would not threaten the integrity of the comics page.

Chinlun reported that, after the March 29 strip was dropped, “dozens upon dozens of readers called or e-mailed the Globe in protest — an outpouring equal in passion to, and more concentrated than, any that’s been received by this office over the last year, probably longer.”

When asked for a comment about the situation, Universal Director of Communications Kathie Kerr said: “We always believe in an editor’s right to choose what’s in his or her newspaper.”


Art of War Different This Time

Cartoonist Favored Gulf I, Opposes Gulf II

Many editorial cartoonists who favored or opposed the first Gulf War have similar pro or con feelings about the current conflict.

One exception is Nick Anderson of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. He supported the first war but opposes the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. This gives Anderson an interesting perspective on things like reaction from readers, who mostly praised him a dozen years ago but are now on his case.

Anderson received at least a couple dozen e-mails last week, with the comments running about 5 to 1 negative. “People are questioning my patriotism, telling me to move to Baghdad, cursing me, the usual stuff,” he told E&P Online. “I got one letter by snail mail saying ‘This is the most disgraceful political cartoon I’ve ever seen. You make me sick.'”

Anderson who joined The Courier-Journal in early 1991, added: “Before the war actually started, I was getting a lot of response, but it was running about even between positive and negative. With the troops in the field, people have been far less patient with my ‘unpatriotic’ commentary.”

The 36-year-old cartoonist emphasized that he’s not against the troops. “I’m opposed to the war, but I don’t want to see our soldiers killed and I don’t want to see us lose,” he said. “Now that we’re there, we need to win, get rid of this despot, and make sure we follow through on all the incumbent commitments that come with the invasion. I’ve felt some difficulty communicating that ambivalence without feeling like I’m trying to have it both ways. I need to work on some ideas that capture those conflicted feelings.”

Why does Anderson, who also supported every other U.S. military action since the first Gulf War, oppose the current invasion? “The first Gulf War was in response to a provocation — Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait,” he replied. “I think we had clear economic and strategic issues at stake. We assembled a broad coalition, including most of the Persian Gulf countries.

“This time around it’s different. I think this is a massive gamble. If the neoconservatives who dreamed up this invasion are correct — and it’s worth noting they dreamed it up long before Sept. 11 — we will spur a democratic and intellectual renaissance to the Middle East. I must confess that the theory has some appeal to me, but reality always seems to intrude on the best-laid plans in the Middle East.

“I also resent the shifting rationales for the war and the exploitation of Sept. 11 to persuade Americans that Iraq is an imminent threat.” Anderson said Saddam Hussein is a “potential threat,” but a strategy of “aggressive containment” would have been best.

“The cost of failure in rebuilding and democratizing Iraq could be huge,” he continued. “I think we have al-Qaida on the run right now, but a mess in Iraq could reinvigorate them and drive many new, radicalized recruits into their realm. Bush talked about ‘draining the swamp’ of terrorism after Sept. 11. I’m afraid we’re going to refill it.

“I favored other military actions because I felt they advanced our national security goals, and I think I’ve been right. This pre-emptive war in Iraq could dramatically undermine our national interests. I hope I’m wrong.”

Anderson, whose work is syndicated to about 50 newspapers via the Washington Post Writers Group, said The Courier-Journal supports the war. But the cartoonist reported that his opposition to it “hasn’t been much of a problem” because the paper has been “extremely critical of the diplomatic failures of the Bush administration.”


Smart Piece Stirs Firewall Debate

Reporters Wanted Parker Column Killed

Columnist Kathleen Parker received 2,000 e-mails — 95% of them positive — after criticizing the father of Utah kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart.

But Parker also angered some Salt Lake Tribune staffers. Eight of them signed a letter asking the paper’s editorial page editor not to publish the column, setting up a situation where the wall between a newsroom and the opinion section came under debate.

Parker, of The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel and Tribune Media Services, said in her column that Ed Smart had every right to appear before the media while his daughter was missing. But after Elizabeth was found, continued Parker, he should have moved out of the spotlight.

“This guy couldn’t stay away from the cameras,” Parker wrote. “I kept thinking, what’s he auditioning for? Phil Donahue’s empty chair? A second career as a talking head supporting the Amber Alert? Next time a child is abducted, look for Ed Smart to be warming the seat opposite Larry King.

“Smart may be a perfectly lovely guy under normal circumstances, but when he’s in front of a camera, he becomes abnormal. Unlovely. An imitative man performing as he imagines a man should act under such circumstances. How else to explain his tearless whimpering impression of a man grateful for a miracle?”

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Linda Fantin saw a faxed version of the column and was angered by what she considered an “attack on a man who had suffered enough.” She composed a short letter to Tribune Editorial Page Editor Vern Anderson, and got seven fellow staffers to sign it (several others declined). Fantin wrote in the letter that the column was “completely inappropriate for publication” in the Smarts’ hometown newspaper, and added: “After what the Smart family has gone through, they — and the community that rallied around them — should not be subjected to the ‘unlovely’ comments of a half-cocked columnist.”

Anderson said he had already decided not to run the column — which he described as “mean-spirited and in poor taste” – a day before receiving Fantin’s letter.

E&P Online asked Anderson, Parker, and others involved in the situation whether or not the letter — mostly signed by reporters, plus an executive news editor — was an overstepping of bounds.

Anderson said the eight signers were “free to do what they wanted to do” (indeed, Fantin told E&P Online she wasn’t reprimanded). He did add: “I think the letter was somewhat ill-advised. But, from my perspective, it was no different than readers calling in to say, ‘Don’t run the column.'” It was, said Anderson, eight other people offering their opinion.

Fantin said she can understand the reasons (including the perception Salt Lake Tribune reporters were trying to protect a source) why some people felt her letter wasn’t a good idea. But Fantin doesn’t regret her effort. She noted that if an editorial writer tried to advise her what to do as a reporter, “I wouldn’t be offended, but wouldn’t let it influence me.”

Peg McEntee, the executive news editor who signed the letter, said: “I was in complete agreement with Linda. I thought the column was a personal attack on Ed Smart.” She did add: “I had second thoughts about signing my name, but didn’t want to take it back. Under normal circumstances there should be a wall [between the newsroom and editorial page], but this was so egregious.”

Parker said: “Am I surprised that reporters took it upon themselves to protect a legitimate news subject? Do I think that some may have become emotionally involved with the story? Do I think that our new culture of sensitivity is manifest? I think these questions answer themselves.”

She emphasized that the Salt Lake Tribune had every right not to run her column, but defended the piece. “Everywhere I went, people were talking about Smart’s odd behavior. I merely cast a light on that phenomenon,” said Parker, noting that many of the e-mails she received contained comments such as: “Thank you so much for saying what I was thinking. I was afraid I was the only one.”

Did Parker ever receive 2,000 responses to a column before? “I think that’s the most positive e-mail I’ve ever received,” she replied. “Most people don’t take time to write in agreement.” Among the e-mailers, said Parker, were journalists writing to “express disappointment in what some are viewing as censorship.”

Nearly 300 papers run Parker, and the Salt Lake Tribune will remain one of them despite the Smart column. “She has a lot of fans in our readership,” said Anderson.

Parker did the Smart piece just before the start of the Iraq war. “I would not have written it after the fighting began,” she said. “It would have seemed frivolous and inappropriate.”


Cartoonist Jerry Bittle Dies at 53

He Did the ‘Geech’ and ‘Shirley & Son’ Comics

“Geech” and “Shirley & Son” cartoonist Jerry Bittle died of a heart attack April 8 while on a trip to Honduras. The Dallas resident was 53.

The 1982-founded “Geech” took a humorous look at life in a small town, while the 2000-launched “Shirley & Son” focused thoughtfully on life after divorce. United Media syndicated the comics to 175 and 75 newspapers, respectively.

Bittle is survived by his wife and three daughters. The family has created the Jerry Bittle Educational Trust for his daughters’ college education. Donations can be sent to P.O. Box 832271, Richardson, TX 75083.


Et cetera …

Bil Keane drew a “Family Circus” cartoon that delivers a message to the U.S. Armed Forces. He told E&P Online that copies are being sent in various formats (such as posters and stickers) to military leaders, troops, the wounded, and others. The King Features Syndicate creator did the drawing in response to a request from the White House Commission on Remembrance. …

Creators Syndicate is distributing the editorial cartoons Steve Kelley does for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Kelley was formerly syndicated by Copley News Service when with The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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