THE CRISIS IN THE NEWSPAPER COMIC STRIP KINGDOM: PART TWO
I’ve written briefly on this topic before, but every time I am confronted anew by yet another chorus of “comic strips are a dying artform,” I’m compelled to rush to the barricades again. To begin with, I don’t think comic strips are a dying artform; nor do I think newspapers are dying — the proposition upon which the death of comic strips is predicated. Why my stubborn failure to subscribe to a notion the rest of the world seems to endorse?
To start near the root of the matter, it is the plight of metropolitan newspapers that has precipitated visions of the death of comic strips. Newspapers are in financial trouble, and because they are the platform for comic strips, comic strips must also be in trouble. And there’s some evidence to support both contentions. Some but not enough.
First, consider the source of the stories about the death of newspapers. That news is lofted mostly by large, metropolitan newspapers. Small city newspapers (dailies and weeklies) aren’t complaining. Why not? Because they’re not in the kind of trouble big city papers are in. They still get sufficient revenue from advertising: local businesses have no place else to advertise. In big cities with hordes of national chain stores (rather than small town Mom ‘n’ Pop establishments), businesses advertise nationally via television. Newspapers lose out. And classified advertising has all but disappeared. Newspapers lose out big time.
Finally, to drive the nail in the coffin, readership is evaporating. The most populous newspaper reading demographic is the 55-to-75-year-old category. And newspapers appear too busy wringing their hands at the loss of the 18-35 age group to find ways to exploit the other demographic. I’ll come back to this in Part Three. But before I leave small city newspapers, their apparent fiscal health is small comfort to us: few of them run comic strips, and those that do, don’t run many. The continued existence of small town papers serves simply to make my point: the newspapers that are in trouble financially in this country are big city papers.
Still considering the source of all the dire information: until classified advertising disappeared into the Internet, newspapers generally — and particularly those in big cities — had profit margins of roughly 30%. No other American business had profits so bountiful. And in the flush years before, say, 1999, newspapers did two things that proved disastrous. First, they modernized their printing plants and built new offices and expanded their circulation areas — all things underwritten by that robust 30% profit. When the profit margin dropped (due to loss of advertising and subscribers to the Internet), the papers were left with the huge debts (or expensive circulation obligations) they’d rung up during their financial heydays. And their revenue was no longer great enough to service their debts handily. So they started complaining.
The second disaster that newspapers made for themselves is that they went public: they became corporations with shareholders whose avaricious appetite for more and more income was virtually insatiable.
Newspapers, then — mostly the big city papers — were caught in a contradictory conundrum: dwindling income could not satisfy the shareholders’ growing demand for greater and greater profit.
The first reaction was to reduce expenses — cut staff, shrink the circulation area. A secondary response was to shift content to the Internet, creating digital editions to attract the young readers who don’t buy print papers anymore. This maneuver seems doomed since the revenue from Internet subscribers is never likely to make up for the loss of print subscribers and advertising revenue. But papers are doing it anyhow.
How this affects the funnies is the subject of Part Three.