My internet cartoonist buddy, John Curtis, put out a Facebook survey asking cartoonists to comment on why newspapers are cutting the comics. I decided to give John a big answer, below.
1. Many papers have old contracts with syndicates, with automatic price increases each year. Comics can be expensive with these old deals. Syndicates can be reluctant to renegotiate these cash cows. Syndicates also continue to charge for delivery of comic strips, editorial cartoons and columns, even though everything is delivered electronically now. Negotiating with a syndicate can be an unpleasant hassle. Some editors complain that they have a hard time getting syndicates to respond to a phone call. Some complain that syndicate salesmen are like used car salesmen.
2. Comics can’t be edited. The comics page is a part of the newspaper that is not under local editorial direction. Editors hate that. Many editors brag about never reading the comics themselves.
3. Daily comics are sometimes seen as a burden to newspapers because they are not directly related to revenue as other sections of the papers are. Some editors complain that they can’t run ads on the comics page. Editors sometimes have more respect for “income producing” content.
4. For years editors have complained that they have paid to popularize the comics and don’t share in the rewards. Some editors have argued that syndicates should pay the newspapers to run the cartoons, because syndicates use newspapers to popularize characters, then make’ “big bucks” in licensing. Editors don’t have a lot of sympathy for syndicates.
5. Newspapers are reluctant to change the comics on their pages because they know they will receive passionate reader complaints, from readers who are loyal to their old favorite comics. The demographics of newspaper comics readers gets older and older, as timid editors refuse the short term pain of replacing tired, comfortable old strips with new, edgy strips that might appeal to younger readers. It is a vicious circle, with timid, short-term decisions leading to poor performance over the long term.
6. As newspapers turn their focus to their futures on the internet, comics are a problem. Some syndicates charge extra for their print clients to run comics on their web sites. Online syndication is broadly discouraged by Google, which lowers the SEO rankings of sites that run syndicated content and are not the “canonical source” for the content. There are syndicate provided modules or remote hosted pages with comics for newspaper sites, and some look nice, but the traffic to these goes to the syndicates. Many newspaper chains have corporate-wide policies of not running any syndicated content on their web sites, because of the extra charges from syndicates and because syndicated content is not their content. Although comic strips are popular online, it isn’t clear that online comics are a benefit to newspaper Web sites.
Of-course, newspapers should realize that the comics are an important part of the paper and perhaps the most beloved and appreciated part of the newspaper. Surely editors should see that cutting such popular content hastens the demise of newspapers – but for an editor, who is a “word-person,” who is annoyed by expenses, the lack of editorial control, and the unpleasant responses from readers who complain about the comics more than other parts of the newspaper, at a time when newspapers are suffering – it isn’t hard to see why comics are on the chopping block.