Fri. Mar 31st, 2023

Is this the beginning of the end for the daily printed comics page in many American towns and cities?

Some cartoonists and readers fear such a trend as Lee Enterprises, an Iowa-based media company that owns nearly 80 daily newspapers, is transitioning to a “uniform set of offerings” with its comics, puzzles and advice columns, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a Lee paper. The newspaper reported Sept. 11 that as a result, its print section would cut back to “a half-page of comics” Mondays through Saturdays.

And the Omaha World-Herald reported Sept. 13 that “to operate more efficiently, we’re streamlining the comics, puzzles and features that we and other Lee Enterprises newspapers have been providing.”

The shift made headlines when cartoonists such as “Bizarro” creator Dan Piraro and “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams said that they had lost Lee client newspapers. Adams said he had lost 77 papers. Creators are still working to determine the full impact of these changes, including how their strips’ online presence is affected.

The Lee announcement comes shortly after News Corp Australia said its scores of newspapers will drop their comic strips.

Comics sections in many papers have been shrinking for years, but Piraro says the across-the-chain changes by Lee Enterprises feel less gradual. “Seeing the dominoes begin to fall at such an accelerated pace is scary,” says Piraro, noting that he still depends on the income he receives from print newspapers. “I’ll now need to put more energy into generating income elsewhere.”

Adds Piraro: “I’m seeing this as the inevitable result of people choosing to get their news online.”

In their explanations for their comics-section changes, Lee papers such as the World Herald, the Waco Tribune and the Richmond Times-Dispatch cited the industry’s larger ongoing move to digital readership — as some outlets offer access to hundreds of strips online. “It is both exciting, and somewhat nerve-wracking, to migrate from the traditional print to the somewhat uncharted digital world,” the Tribune wrote, “but that is exactly what we are doing, one step at a time.” (Disclosure: This author’s comic strip appears on the online GoComics platform.)

The Post-Dispatch’s announcement said that “the company’s goal with these changes is to make sure 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 biweekly Franklin News-Post in Virginia wrote that as of Sept. 14, it would cease to publish comics and puzzles.

The News-Post noted that streamlining comics in Lee’s daily newspapers will help “reduce costs and enable resources to be maintained for reporting. But it also means that [Lee] newspapers that are published weekly or biweekly will no longer carry comics and puzzles.”

The seismic impact of such a change is shocking readers, and cartoonists whose strips are affected.

“This is sad,” tweeted a Post-Dispatch reader, showing how the print paper had cut “two pages of comics down to a measly half page” and adding: “Just kill the section entirely if this is the best you can do.”

Rick Kirkman, co-creator of the syndicated strip “Baby Blues,” views such top-down standardization and streamlining as a loss for creators and readers alike.

“I long for the days when all editors could make their own decisions about their comics lineups,” Kirkman says. “They number fewer and fewer these days.”

Moves such as Lee’s “make it harder for new strips to gain footing with new audiences on their merits, which is sad,” the cartoonist continues. “And it robs readers of their ability to have any meaningful participation in what they want to see in their local papers and furthers homogenization.”

And Patrick McDonnell, creator of the strip “Mutts,” underscores why comics are a popular 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 bond before they decide to make drastic changes.”

This shrinking of American “funny pages” comes more than a century after the rise of the print comics section. “Comic strips were created — by editors and publishers — for a very good business reason: to attract and hold readership in order to beat out the competition,” says Wiley Miller, creator of the syndicated strip “Non Sequitur.” “Diversity of the comic features — and building the best comics for exclusivity by individual newspapers — created a great competitive market that was largely responsible for building the powerful newspaper industry of yore.”

Sara Duke, curator of popular and applied graphic art at the Library of Congress, highlights how American comics became a commercial engine.

“From the time the first popular sequential feature ran in [Joseph] 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. His 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 says.

Such competitive commercialism not only made top cartoonists wealthy; it also put comic strips at the center of national daily conversation — a cultural perch that peaked by mid-century.

Today, though, “the era of mass consumerism is fracturing,” Duke notes. “Where the country might have collectively talked about the death of Farley in Lynn Johnston’s ‘For Better or For Worse’ the day it was featured in the newspaper, now that world is changing as more consumers engage with content digitally.”

The World Herald writes of its shift that “for our print readers, our digital offerings are the perfect complement.” Another Lee paper, the Martinsville Bulletin in Virginia, wrote Sept. 12 that “comics characters are often on their phones and computers and social media — and now it’s time their newspapers are catching up to the inevitable direction, too.”

Some readers, though, are not ready to migrate. The Post-Dispatch has been publishing letters from its readers about the changes. One reader wrote: “90% of the comics I liked are gone.” Another wrote that comics are often “a child’s first introduction to a newspaper.”

One subplot to the Lee chain’s changes is the response of Adams, who told Fox News that his loss of Lee clients “was part of a larger overhaul, I believe, of comics, but why they decided what was in and what was out, that’s not known to anybody except them, I guess.”

Some outlets characterized the dropping of “Dilbert” as the strip’s having become a victim of “cancel culture.” Adams had recently satirized environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies and workplace diversity efforts, and had introduced a Black character named Dave who identifies as White.

“I don’t know why it happened,” Adams tells The Washington Post about the massive loss of Lee clients, “but since I predicted cancellation for my ESG and Dave character content, it was a huge coincidence.”

“The argument that it was a general downsizing not directed at me is nonsense,” Adams continues, “because obviously each comic was judged separately to be in or out” of the print sections. (Some newspapers run “Dilbert” on their business pages instead of their comics pages.)

The larger issue is assessing the future of the printed comics page — and whether what’s left will be a thoughtfully curated reading experience.

“Cartoonists may create a daily feature and need to rely on other sources of income, where those in the golden age of newspapers had a salary, a pension and perhaps even benefits,” Duke says. “The mass consumerism of the comic strips is still there, [and] 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 papers curating their own interesting and extensive comics sections, the “Non Sequitur” creator says. “But I think this horse left the newspaper barn long ago.”

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