Media Monday, Newspaper's Love/Hate relationship with Comic Strips

Mar 16, 2015


Newspapers have a love/hate relationship with comic strips....they used to love 'em but now they love to hate 'em. Most newspapers don't understand them, where they came from or why they are even in their newspapers. The largest newspapers in America don't hate comic strips but that is because they don't publish them. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today have decided they can write about comic strips just not publish them.

Comic strips started in American newspapers at the end of the 19th century. The media landscape back in the day was very different than it is today. Media meant one thing and one thing only- newsprint. Electronic anything was still generations away from society. 

Joseph Pulitzer's New York World published the first full-color cartoon which was intended to entertain instead of editorialize. It was created by Richard Outcault and it was popular, very popular, it was lightning in a bottle. People were buying the World newspaper just to read this new cartoon that would eventually become our modern day 'comic strip'. This Outcault bottled lightning cartoon was making Mr. Pulitzer a lot of money. Pulitzer's rival newspaper was the the New York Journal owned by Mr. Hearst. and he liked money, too. So he bought Mr. Outcault and his talents to his newspaper and he started selling more newspapers. These were smart publishers, they knew to make money you needed to spend money... on the bottled lightning.  

These entertaining cartoons were so popular newspapers quickly started running all kinds entertaining cartoons. America's appetite for graphic entertainment was insaisissable which led newspapers to increase the number of comic strips. There was a media war for readers attention and the comic strip was their super high tech drones. Comic strips were published full page in a broad sheet format. 

Soon syndicates started appearing making these popular comic strips even more valuable because now  a newspaper didn't have to develop their own bottled lightning. They could buy the rights to reprint the entertaining graphics in their newspaper. TV was still decades away and most cities had more than two competing newspapers. So, the most popular comic strips went to the highest bidder newspaper in each market... exclusivity being the heart of competition. 

When WWII started, American newspapers did their bit for the war effort by downsizing their Sunday comic strips from full page to a fraction of a page. This war effort of rationing of commodities saved newsprint, ink and printing costs for newspapers. Once the war was over the smaller size of Sunday comic strips had become the new norm and the full page Sunday comic strip never regained what it once was. The great shrinking was on for newspapers and comic strips.

As soldiers returned home from the war the suburbs were there to greet them with a television set. As the daily commute times grew the number of daily newspapers shrank. Electronic media was creating new habits of news gathering....and it didn't have anything to do with newsprint.....other than the TV guide. The newspapers that remained were now competing in reverse by continuing to eliminate quantity and quality of the features they offered their customers.

For generations the Sunday comic strip section was the bait that used to draw young people into the newspaper habit. As electronic media continued it's societal expanse from a passive to an interactive platform the newspaper comic strip became an anchor for the older generation's newspaper habit. The people who run newspapers realized their loyal customers were aging and their eyesight was starting to fade so they made their comic strips even smaller so it was harder for their customers to read them. Go figure. Other consumer products (phones, cards, etc.) enlarge the type for their aging customers newspapers make their's smaller.

After awhile shrinking the strips wasn't enough....newspapers decided to shrink the entire comic strip section. Sometimes they just dropped a strip or two and just hoped nobody would notice. That would usually generate hate mail and a lot of pissed off readers.  In addition the editors didn't know a good strip from a not so good this is what gave birth to the reader's comics poll. This way editor's could blame the readers themselves for a certain strip being dropped. Still, the polling of comic strips results didn't ensure no hate mail from disappointed fans of a certain feature. 

This shrinking of the art form came to a head in the 90's after Calvin and Hobbs creator Bill Watterson came back from a sabbatical and stated that his comic strip would not be run any smaller than a certain size. Newspaper editors went crazy with the new size restrictions that would stop them from shrinking his popular strip. How dare an artist dictate to them how they'll run their operations. Nearly every comic strip section in the country had to be redesigned. The new size requirements were NOT obsessive, Watterson wasn't demanding his strip take an entire page as in pre-war days. He was just trying to ensure a minimum work area to create his magic. Watterson told newspaper editors, this is my strip, this is the size....take it or leave it. Calvin and Hobbs was so popular with the American public he had the power to stop newspapers from shrinking his strip. He didn't need the money but the editor's needed the Calvin and Hobbs strip back in their papers. Watterson was doing the strip because of his love 'n' passion for the art form.....and where it was published.

The general public is surprised to learn how much newspapers hate comic strips. Besides the shrinking, dropping and inability of understanding the art just have to look at it from the newspaper's point of view. Space in a print newspaper is valuable and it doesn't matter how popular a strip is to it's readers. A print newspaper is a advertising medium and if that space is not generating income it represents lost income. So, comic strips do not represent money coming in....since papers have to pay for the rights to run comic strips, that comic strips space means money going out.

Money talks, everything else walks, even if it's a thing that contributes to the product that makes the money.


-Milt Priggee

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