This year's Reuben weekend offered a panel discussion titled "The Future of Newspapers and Comics". While I was interested in the various presentations offered in LA, this was the discussion I was most looking forward to. I would also venture to guess it was probably the most well attended. It seems that whenever cartoonists get together, whether in person or on message boards on the web, the topic of the future of cartooning is bound to come up. It often degrades into arguments over various business models and speculation as to the future value of being syndicated as a cartoonist, but there are almost always good points to be made. As the rise of the internet forces newspapers to evaluate their place in the popular culture, and, some would say, their entire relevance to society, cartoonists are forced to evaluate their relationship with newspapers.
The panel consisted of: Brendan Burford - King Features, Ira Yoffe - Parade Magazine, Lisa Klem Wilson - United Media, Daryl Cagle - Cagle Cartoons, Rick Newcombe - Creator's Syndicate, and Dave Blazek - "Loose Parts" and was moderated by Jerry Van Amerongen - "Ballard Street".
There were a lot of interesting points made about the newspaper business in general. According to figures cited by Ira Yoffe and Dave Blazek, newspaper readership is significantly up. Many on the panel agreed that papers have taken their biggest hits in loss of ad revenue and being "overleveraged" - I love that term - it seems to apply to everyone these days - but that the readers are still there and that interest in the comics has never been higher. So the basic question revolves around monetizing the interest readers still have in news and entertainment.
Much of the weekend, if you made your way through the social gatherings, you could hear debates about micro-payment systems on the internet, a bill making its way through congress that will force companies to charge for internet content, current web cartooning business models, the viability of advertising revenue as a support system for online papers, the value (or not) of being syndicated, and all those points were brought up and debated publicly by this panel. There did not seem to be a consensus point of view on ad revenue - some panel members feel it is still viable, others do not. Nor was there much agreement on exactly how micropayment systems and the congressional bill will enter into the picture. But all the panelists seemed to agree that tying the future of cartooning exclusively to newspapers is a thing of the past. I think Brendan Burford probably said it best when he said that syndicates are committed to working with newspapers as they transform themselves, but are also interested in staying as agile as possible to link into all the new digital opportunities for comics. While none of the syndicate reps stated explicitly what their plans for digital media are, they all seemed to be committed to pursuing digital outlets for their comics. It is not surprising that there were so few specifics, as these companies are all trying to position themselves strategically.
While we did not leave the room with much in the way of a specific plan (frankly, I would have been very surprised if there had been a specific plan), I did come away with a brighter view of the future of cartooning. "How is that possible?" you ask in disbelief. Well, most of my hobby reading is history so I have done a lot of reading on the histories of radio, television, movies etc. Within the last 100 years there have been some big shifts in entertainment media. Vaudeville to radio and movies, silent films to "talkies", and radio and movies to television, to name a few. Each time there were entertainers who transitioned to the new media - often to even greater success than they had enjoyed in their previous arena - and those who did not. Jack Benny and Groucho Marx are perfect examples of entertainers that had success in vaudeville, radio, films and TV. They not only were funny enough to remain popular in any medium, they saw the value in embracing each new technology rather than avoiding it.
One of the earliest tools newspapers used to boost circulation was comics and comic strips. There are many excellent books on the history of comics - "The Comics" by Jerry Robinson, "The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics" by Blackbeard and Williams, and "The Comics" by Brian Walker to name a few - and in them is detailed the relationship of comics to newspapers. It seems as though, in recent years, papers have forgotten how important comics still are to circulation - most online versions of newspapers do not even offer comics. Perhaps this comes from the belief that people who want to read comics will simply go to the online comics sites and read them there, so there is no point in including comics in an online paper. While I follow that line of thought, and agree with it to a point, it does not take into account folks who like the wide variety of information and entertainment that a quality newspaper can offer. Those people, while they may read the comics first and rate them their favorite part of the paper, still get a newspaper so that they can read all the other things that are in it as well. It seems silly to offer an incomplete version of one's newspaper online.
This brings me to why I left the presentation feeling hopeful. Both King and Creator's are offering comics packages to online newspapers and those packages are having an effect. (I am not necessarily jazzed about Creator's business model as opposed to King's but that's another discussion) For newspapers to work with syndicates and carry comics in a digital future, those papers have to believe the relationship is still valuable. Something that has seemed lacking in the last 10-20 years. I also left hopeful because, although the syndicates did not elaborate on their non-paper related plans, at least they stated that they have some in the works. I feel it is imperative that comics embrace the new technologies in the same way entertainers embraced radio, films and TV once upon a time as vaudeville died. I also feel that, although the current model of free content is working for some webcartoonists, other business models are not only available but necessary. I don't remember Jack Benny ever working for free.