Is the print newspaper’s comic book page in trouble?
And the Omaha World-Herald reported on September 13 that “to operate more efficiently, we are streamlining the comics, puzzles, and features that we and other Lee Enterprises newspapers have provided.”
The change made headlines when cartoonists such as “Bizarro” creator Dan Piraro and “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams said they had lost Lee’s client diaries. Adams said he lost 77 items. The creators are still working to determine the full impact of these changes, including how their bands’ online presence is affected.
Lee’s announcement comes shortly after News Corp Australia said its dozens of newspapers would drop their comics.
Comic book sections at many newspapers have been shrinking for years, but Piraro says changes across the chain by Lee Enterprises seem less incremental. “To see the dominoes start falling at such an accelerated rate is frightening,” says Piraro, noting that he still depends on the income he receives from printed newspapers. “I will now have to put more energy into generating income elsewhere.”
Piraro adds, “I see this as the inevitable result of people choosing to get their news online.”
In their explanation of the changes to their comics section, Lee’s newspapers such as the World Herald, Waco Tribune and Richmond Times-Dispatch cited the industry’s continued move towards digital readership – as some outlets offer access to hundreds of tapes online. “It’s both exciting and somewhat nerve-wracking to migrate from traditional print into a somewhat unexplored digital world,” wrote the Tribune, “but that’s exactly what we’re doing, one step at a time.” (Disclosure: This author’s comic appears on the GoComics online platform.)
The Post-Dispatch announcement stated that “the company’s goal with these changes is to ensure that it can still devote resources to local news coverage and strong journalism.”
Lee Enterprises did not respond to requests for comment.
Other Lee newspapers will drop their print comics sections entirely. The bi-weekly Franklin News-Post in Virginia wrote that beginning September 14, it would stop publishing comics and puzzles.
The News-Post noted that streamlining comics in Lee’s dailies will help “reduce costs and help maintain resources for reporting. But it also means that [Lee] Newspapers published weekly or bi-weekly will no longer feature comics and puzzles.
The seismic impact of such a change shocks the readers, and the cartoonists whose strips are concerned.
“Sad,” tweeted a Post-Dispatch reader, showing how the printed paper had shrunk “two pages of comics to a measly half-page” and adding, “Just kill the section entirely if it’s the best you can do.”
FFS @stltoday… It’s sad. Shrink two pages of comics down to a miserable half page, but then you’re going to waste that little bit of real estate on comics that are reprints… Just kill the section entirely if that’s the best you can do. 😡😡😡😡😡 pic.twitter.com/fEDVoAwEpF
—Scott Ladewig (@Ladewig) September 17, 2022
Rick Kirkman, co-creator of the “Baby Blues” comic, views this top-down standardization and rationalization as a waste for creators and readers.
“I long for the time when all publishers could make their own decisions about their comic book lines,” says Kirkman. “There are fewer and fewer these days.”
Moves such as Lee’s “make” it’s harder for new bands to gain traction with new audiences on their merits, which is sad,” the cartoonist continues. “And it robs readers of their ability to participate meaningfully in what they want to see in their local papers and promotes homogenization.”
And Patrick McDonnell, creator of the ‘Mutts’ comic, highlights why the comics are a staple of the newspaper, with readers developing long-term relationships with their favorite comics: “Over time, the characters are like family. Newspapers should consider this link before deciding to make drastic changes.
This shrinking of American “fun pages” comes more than a century after the rise of the printed comics section. “The comics were created – by editors and publishers – for a very good business reason: to attract and retain readers in order to beat the competition”, explains Wiley Miller, creator of the comic strip “Non Sequitur”. “The diversity of comic book features – and the creation of the best comics for exclusivity by individual newspapers – created a large competitive market that was largely responsible for building the powerful newspaper industry of in the old days.”
Sara Duke, curator of popular and applied graphic art at the Library of Congress, highlights how American comics have become a commercial engine.
“Since the time the first popular sequential feature was released in [Joseph] In Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895, the Yellow Kid, as he became known, was a marketable character: bicycle races, flip books, stage performances and even whiskey. Its presence on products ensured that Americans — no matter where they lived — were offered the same features in their newspapers and the same products to consume,” Duke said.
Such competitive commercialism has not only enriched the best designers; it also placed comic books at the center of the national daily conversation – a cultural perch that peaked in the middle of the century.
Today, however, “the age of mass consumption is fracturing,” Duke notes. “While the country might have spoken collectively about Farley’s death in Lynn Johnston’s ‘For Better or Worse’ on the day it was featured in the newspaper, now the world is changing as more and more consumers interact with digital content.”
The World Herald writes of its change that “for our print readers, our digital offerings are the perfect complement”. Another Lee newspaper, the Martinsville Bulletin in Virginia, wrote on September 12 that “comic book characters are often on their phones, computers and social media – and now it’s time for their newspapers to catch up with the inevitable direction as well. “.
Some readers, however, are not ready to migrate. The Post-Dispatch published letters from its readers about the changes. One reader wrote, “90% of the comics I loved are gone.” Another wrote that comics are often “a child’s first introduction to a journal.”
A subplot to the Lee channel changes is the response from Adams, who told Fox News that his loss of Lee customers “is part of a larger overhaul, I believe, of the comics, but why they decided what was in it and what was not, is not known to anyone but them, I suppose.
Some outlets characterized the dropping of “Dilbert” as the band becoming victims of “cancel culture”. Adams had recently satirized environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies and workplace diversity efforts, and featured a black character named Dave who identifies as white.
“I don’t know why it happened,” Adams told The Washington Post of Lee’s massive loss of customers, “but ever since I predicted the cancellation of my ESG and Dave character content, it’s was a huge coincidence.”
“The argument that this was a general downsizing that wasn’t directed at me is nonsense,” Adams continues, “because obviously each comic was judged separately for being in or out” of the printed sections. (Some newspapers run “Dilbert” on their business pages instead of their comic book pages.)
That’s not how it works. No matter how much they cut in general, they still make individual decisions about what to keep. Others were cut for being unpopular.
— Scott Adams (@ScottAdamsSays) September 21, 2022
The bigger issue is assessing the future of the print comics page — and whether what’s left will be a carefully curated reading experience.
“Cartoonists can create a daily story and have to rely on other sources of income, where those in the heyday of newspapers had a salary, a pension and maybe even benefits,” says Duke. “The mass consumerism of comics is still there, [and] the products are still there, but the need to engage that content on paper is gone.
Miller, meanwhile, was skeptical even before this month’s changes.
“What Lee Enterprises is doing with this cookie-cutter approach is the opposite” of newspapers curating their own interesting and extensive comic book sections, says the “Non Sequitur” creator. “But I think that horse left the log barn a long time ago.”