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The fate of comics after newspapers

From the comic strip "Frazz" by Jef Mallett

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: One reason newspapers are in trouble is that you can so happily get your news other places. It's fun to scan the Web for stories. It's easy to, you know, check your stocks on your phone. But there's one part of newspapers that seems to go best with a cup of coffee and some crinkly newsprint, and that is the comics section. Reporter John Rabe wanted to know: What happens to comics if newspapers die?


John Rabe: Jef Mallet draws Frazz -- a sweet, smart comic strip about an elementary school janitor -- out of his home in Lansing, Mich.

Jef Mallett: You dream right from the start that it could be a living. I was able to feel confident enough to go strictly full-time with Frazz after about a year of syndication.

Mallett grew up reading standbys like Peanuts, and now he's making his living drawing a strip that runs in 150 U.S. newspapers. But these days the Detroit News, which runs Frazz, only delivers three days a week, and other papers are shutting down or going online only.

Mallett: Sometimes I worry that they're just so ingrained and associated with ink on newsprint that they're just not going to fit quite as well into wherever newspapers go next.

All comics are already online, but nobody's found a way yet to get the web to pay enough so that drawing a strip can stay a full-time job.

Cartoonists are worried. At their annual convention last month, they held a seminar on "The Future of Newspapers and Comics," where Jim Borgman, who draws the strip Zits, heard from a lot of frazzled young artists.

Jim Borgman: Yeah, you may have a syndicated strip. You certainly need to keep a Web site up. You're probably blogging. Some of these guys have like stand-up acts. They're in bands that. you know, somehow cross pollinate with their strip. One guy looked up at me today and said, "You need a staff to do this."

Cartoonist Darrin Bell has chronicled the death of newspapers in his strip, Candorville, and he actually has a tip jar on his Web site. He says the money coming in from the Web -- not just in tips -- is only a quarter of his income as a cartoonist. But he's not worried about comics.

Darrin Bell: Comics have been around basically since the first caveman found the first cave wall.

One thing we're fairly sure cave men didn't draw on cave walls is crossword puzzles. They debuted in newspapers in 1913.

Will Shortz is NPR's Puzzlemaster and editor of the New York Times crossword. He says puzzles will survive in books and online even if newspapers go away, and the economic impact on puzzle makers will be minimal.

Will Shortz: Honestly, most people are making puzzles cause they love it -- they just love the process - and they're anxious to see their names in print. They're not doing it for the money.

Shortz pays his freelancers 200-bucks for a daily puzzle and a thousand for a Sunday puzzle, but since he publishes the work of more than a hundred puzzle makers a year, nobody's making a real living at this except him.

In Los Angeles, I'm John Rabe for Marketplace.

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Want to know how to make comics on the web viable? Make it a no-brainer for people to find them. To that end, I suggest the following:

Set up a web site where people can create a "custom comics page", where they can select certain comments they want to read every day. After making their selections they should be given a custom URL where they can see their selected strips with ONE CLICK. Not two clicks, not only after entering a user name and password. They should be able to bookmark the page, click on the bookmark and bam, up comes their selected comics.

Optionally let them select "suggest new comics to me" with a dropdown where they can select, say, between zero and five new comics to preview each day. These would be intelligently picked based on how their selections compare to those of other users - if you subscribe to strips A, B C, and D, and many other users that also subscribe to A, B, C, and D also subscribe to strip E, you'll get strip E in a preview. Each preview would last one week (that is, you'd get to see a full week of a strip before having to decide if you want to read it every day or not) and there should be a single click button to add the strip to your selections. Similarly, every strip should have a button next to it for easy removal, in case you decide you don't like a strip anymore.

Then, the site should offer to send you an IM or a Twitter direct message with a clickable link every day when all of that day's versions of the scripts you've subscribed to have been posted.

The idea is, make it easy to read, easy to make and remove selected strips (and make them all appear on one page), and above all MINIMIZE CLICKING. Assume your readers are lazy bastards who simply will NOT click TWICE to get to anything, and you will be right about a certain percentage (well, maybe not that they are lazy bastards, but that they won't work at getting to their comics). Even in newspapers, publishers know that the comics had better be in roughly the same place every day (often the next to last page of the paper, or of some section) so people can find them easily.

That's a recipe for success. Follow it exactly and it will work. Change ANYTHING and it won't. Require people to enter a username and password and you might was well pour gasoline over the server and light a match, because it's going down in flames!

Want to know how to make comics on the web viable? Make it a no-brainer for people to find them. To that end, I suggest the following:

Set up a web site where people can create a "custom comics page", where they can select certain comments they want to read every day. After making their selections they should be given a custom URL where they can see their selected strips with ONE CLICK. Not two clicks, not only after entering a user name and password. They should be able to bookmark the page, click on the bookmark and bam, up comes their selected comics.

Optionally let them select "suggest new comics to me" with a dropdown where they can select, say, between zero and five new comics to preview each day. These would be intelligently picked based on how their selections compare to those of other users - if you subscribe to strips A, B C, and D, and many other users that also subscribe to A, B, C, and D also subscribe to strip E, you'll get strip E in a preview. Each preview would last one week (that is, you'd get to see a full week of a strip before having to decide if you want to read it every day or not) and there should be a single click button to add the strip to your selections. Similarly, every strip should have a button next to it for easy removal, in case you decide you don't like a strip anymore.

Then, the site should offer to send you an IM or a Twitter direct message with a clickable link every day when all of that day's versions of the scripts you've subscribed to have been posted.

The idea is, make it easy to read, easy to make and remove selected strips (and make them all appear on one page), and above all MINIMIZE CLICKING. Assume your readers are lazy bastards who simply will NOT click TWICE to get to anything, and you will be right about a certain percentage (well, maybe not that they are lazy bastards, but that they won't work at getting to their comics). Even in newspapers, publishers know that the comics had better be in roughly the same place every day (often the next to last page of the paper, or of some section) so people can find them easily.

That's a recipe for success. Follow it exactly and it will work. Change ANYTHING and it won't. Require people to enter a username and password and you might was well pour gasoline over the server and light a match, because it's going down in flames!

This article is why newspapers are dying: uninformed poor journalism.

Go back to school

As one of the few folks to make money through both webcomics and newspaper comics:

Many print comics are owned by the syndicates. It may not be possible for some cartoonists to simply take their work online.

It's not easy to make money in webcomics. There are a lot of success stories listed below, and for every one of them are hundreds that don't. A good comic is necessary for success but not sufficient.

With every one of the webcomics mentioned, there were a few years before they started making money. The only comic I know that was making a noticeable amount of money when it started was Kevin & Kell (which was syndicated to websites, a business model that's no longer viable). If I were a print cartoonist, the idea that I could go online-only and maybe make a living wage in two years would not reassure me.

You won't make money by simply taking your work online. You've got to work on the business and work on the comic. My comics are supported by merchandise, donations, and a wide variety of donor-exclusive content. Other folks have mentioned how they make money, and all the strategies have one thing in common: extra work.

It's not easy to make money in print comics. It's not easy to make money in webcomics either. The only way to do both at once is, pretty much, to be Bill Holbrook.

Candorville was syndicated in 2003. Before that it was a profitable webcomic. Since 1995. In fact, as far as I know it’s the oldest webcomic that made it into syndication and stayed (HSotI was syndicated first but it ended shortly afterward). In 2001 I co-created another feature (Rudy Park) that my partner and I began as a webcomic before we sold it into several magazines and eventually into syndication. So I've made a living online the first half of my career, and since I've been syndicated I've made a living largely from print. So I believe I have some perspective on this weird feud that others might not have.

And it's all BS to me.

I just don’t understand the bad feelings so many self-described “webcartoonists” have against supposed “print cartoonists.” I don't understand it because I don’t believe in those distinctions. Many “Webcartoonists” make an awfully large percentage of their income from PRINT (in the form of book collections and comic books). Nor do I understand the skepticism a lot of “print cartoonists” have toward the Web, because they're all making an increasing percentage of their income from their websites (if they have them), from merchandise bought through their syndicates' websites, from advertising on comics.com and gocomics.com, and from web sales to online publications. Today, before I woke up, my site sold 13 books and signed up six new paying monthly subscribers. On the other hand my syndicate sold my strip into three new papers (and another earlier this month - it's been a good month). Am I a webcartoonist because my site is working for me, or am I a print cartoonist because my syndicate is working for me? Does it matter?

It matters to some. You've got one or two loud-spoken "webcartoonists" who talk others into thinking "print cartoonists" are luddites who hate them all, and you've got one or two syndicated cartoonists who don't view webcomics as anything more than vanity press. But the vast majority, from what I've seen (and that vast majority includes one of the most frequently misinterpreted "print cartoonists") don't agree with either extreme. Why on earth, then, do people pay any attention to the tiny, insignificant number of extremists? So much attention that they'll accuse a busy journalist who barely ever has time to read any cartoons of having some sort of "bias."

We’re all just cartoonists, and this pervasive animosity from people on both "sides" seems like Hatfields & McCoys pointlessness to me.

That said, there is a small distinction, and that distinction is at the heart of all this outrage. I was there at the convention for the entire interview. John Rabe’s interview was about the fate of NEWSPAPER features during a time when it seems newspapers are going under. It wasn’t about the whole universe of cartooning in all its permutations; it was about a specific medium, and how creators whose work appears in that medium were dealing with that medium’s demise. That’s why there was no talk of creators whose features don’t appear in newspapers anyway. That was clear to me, but I can see that it wasn’t clear in the article. So from my perspective, the whole explosion of outrage is based on an unfortunate omission: the article didn’t make it clear exactly who John was talking about.

I agree that it would have been useful to ask the question: why are some indigenous online comics successful and how could syndicated comics adopt those principles? It would've been useful, but even the webcartoonist side of me fails to see how John Rabe's not going there called for all this venom. All it called for IMO was a suggestion that he write a followup article expanding on the original one. That's how this thread began, and it was great. But it quickly degenerated into accusations of bias, laziness, incompetence, and all sorts of other unproductive and unnecessary insults. Everybody needs to chill.

One of the reasons print cartoonists fear a future without print is that they honestly, genuinely believe that there's no money to be made on the web -- and unfortunately articles like this only reinforce their insecurity that cartooning is "doomed". It's not doomed. Some print cartoonists who can't adapt might be doomed, but the artform (and business of the artform) is thriving online.

The truth is, there are a good three to four dozen cartoonists (possibly twice that) making a living online in just the last few years. It just happens that these are not traditional strips you would find in syndication, so it flies under the radar of journalists who haven't looked past the funny pages.

I myself am making 10-15% more than my old corporate job as a senior creative for Mattel Toys, creating my webcomic "Sheldon", http://www.sheldoncomics.com.

Third-party reporting to that effect from Forbes, should you wish:
http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/27/couples-relationships-careers-forbes-wo...

I think it's fair to say that this item is just not about webcomics — it's about print comics going to the web. And it IS true that syndicates have not figured out how to make money off comics on the web. The transition of old media to the web has been rocky across the board.

But I do think it's a real omission to ignore webcomics in this discussion. (Hence the angry comments.) But a key thing to note about web cartoonists: they are all free agents. It's very different from being a syndicated cartoonist. They also all started out in web comics.

Telling a print cartoonist to follow the webcomics model is like telling a person with a corporate job that they should be a freelancer. Perhaps they should; perhaps they would make better money that way. But they can be forgiven for not wanting to go that route.

(I speak here as a web cartoonist with a corporate day job that I am about to lose. Without going into more detail, I am sensitive to all sides of this issue.)

I basically agree with all comments that were stated before me. To repeat it again would be beating a dead horse, but I just had to say that while I absolutely adore Randal Millholland and his amazing comic something positive, I was floored to see that only ONE other person mentioned Least I Could Do!

I have never been more impressed by the way a webcomic has been run then I have with the works of Ryan Sohmer and Lar Desouza. Sohmer has got his business and advertizing down to an artform.
If only other comics would follow in his example.

Any one who has ever seen the LICD booth at a convention alone would be blown away. I remember the New England Webcomics Weekend where at the end of the convention every person in the building was carrying a huge durable free Least I Could Do bag with the web address clearly marked on the side.
Genius, and yet another example of a comic that is still making money, and will be for a long time to come.

- Amber

Zach Weiner from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, checking in. My comic is online-only. www.smbc-comics.com

I make a comparable amount to Mr. Mulholland. I'm about 80% ad revenue and 20% merch right now, and my income has increased during the recession. I have a part time employee, and a business manager, and am read by about a million unique IPs per month.

Yes, we do make a living at this, and there are more of us than you think.

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