Monday, December 29, 2008

Future of the Newspaper Comic Strip

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the future of the newspaper comic strip is in doubt. Newspaper circulation has been on the decline for some time, while the primary advertisers in newspapers, department stores and car dealerships, aren’t exactly having banner years. Last year I did a bit of research and wrote a paper about succeeding as an independent creator of comics by distributing them online: the chances of making enough to live even sparsely aren’t good.

Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting article in the business section about the effects of declining newspaper sales on comic distributors and creators. Universal Feature Syndicate, whose comics include
‘Peanuts’ and ‘Dilbert’, has recently released all its archives online for free. Apparently some revenue is drawn from advertising on the site, but it primarily is intended to introduce comics to a new audience.

So the distribution plan for the future includes mobile devices like the iPhone. Though I believe there are some drawbacks to this, most notably the reduced screen size that might cause readers to view panel separately rather than as a whole, this has potential. Yet the ability to raise revenue with such a project is not addressed in the article. In addition, though I am skeptical of the influence of the Kindle, especially as I have never seen one in real life, it wouldn’t be hard to envision that newspapers making the transition to such a platform might include comics as part of their offerings.

Learning more and more about the rhetoric of digital media has driven home the fact that few readers on the web are willing to pay for access to content (that is non-pornographic, I guess). A couple of years ago the Times was forced to scratch their Times Select program that restricted access to columns by staff columnists and other content. Slate found itself unable to survive with a subscription model, and now gives away all its content for free. While signing up to receive a comic like ‘Pearls Before Swine’ on your cell phone would probably be free and carry an advertisement with it, could that possibly generate enough revenue to keep the syndicate model viable?

My research showed that the only way for independent creators to earn money from their sites was to give away the content and then sell products like t-shirts and postcards. (There has been some success with donation drives as well.) So it would seem that a lot of merchandise would need to bring in the revenue that the syndicate needs. This isn’t impossible, especially when you can market comics geared to wards younger readers into shirts and bumper stickers that could be sold at places like Hot Topic. Yet one might ask if it is this easy then why aren’t syndicates doing this now.’

I would submit that the syndicate model is flawed. For one thing, they insist on owning the property, and though creators are usually compensated fairly, their lack of ownership is a real sticking point for many of them. Relinquishing some of the control might be in their best interests. The need for new comics with a greater appeal to younger audiences is an immediate concern. No one I know gets a kick out of Dagwood making giant sandwiches. Perhaps by cutting deals with independent creators to distribute their content while letting them retain ownership would be a shrewd move for both parties.

All this said, it is hard to envision now how the comic strip business model will survive the change from the print medium into the digital one. Yet giving away the content for free has helped quite a bit. Since we haven’t gotten the paper regularly for several years, I have only been introduced to new comics like ‘Frazz’ and ‘Sheldon’ through the blogs of friends and later feeds of my own. The topic has captured my fascination and charting the progress of the changing distribution designs will be something I keep a close watch on.

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