Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Little Comic Relief

First off, to correct an error in the last post, Durango isn’t on the Front Range – obviously I know nothing about Colorado geography. Got it confused with Pueblo. Reminder: Copy edit your own blog!

The question was, can newspapers reach 18-to-30-year-olds? Here on the East Coast we have the Metro chain in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, survivors of the brief free-sheet spurt around the world before getting news on the Internet really took off.  (It also publishes in nine cities in Canada.) It tries to answer that question in the affirmative.

Our Metro runs only a few stories each day – typically the most important city government story, brief national and foreign entries, entertainment news, and very little sports. Although it is distributed around town, it is mostly associated with rail commuters (they tried it on buses, but it just led to cluttered buses). While serious stories are written seriously, much of the paper, including its entertainment coverage, is far more conversational than even the most conversational traditional newspaper. It does not try to break news to any extent, though I'm sure here and there it has gotten something first. Much is written in first person or as a Q and A. It runs stories on careers, education, and the like aimed at people coming up in the world, not people already there or planning for their children’s education. It has lots of advertising -- some days it makes my own paper look comparatively adless, though I'm sure the ad rates would barely support a pigeon.

Do young people read it? Sure. It’s free. It’s on the train. Do masses of young people read it? I have no idea. In Europe, however, where Metro is under different ownership, it has become, at least in one survey, the most-read free newspaper among the wealthy. I guess watching every euro counts.

Metro used to have a couple of comics, but no more -- interesting in view of the comics cutbacks at the Denver Post, including “Doonesbury,” which is as close to a sacred totem among journalists as any comic except “Pogo” has ever been. It turns out that few readers of the Post were initially discomfited by these cuts, which took out some low-hanging fruit ("Scary Gary"? "F-Minus"?) and some very costly comics while leaving the “Beetle Bailey”s of the world. (Perhaps resentment has grown since then.) The thinking seems to have been, the only people who read comics are the seniors, and all they want is the strips they’ve had their whole lives. Many of them have had “Doonesbury” for much of their lives, of course. But we’re talking, for that generation, of repeats of “Peanuts,” plus things like “The Family Circus,” “Hi and Lois,” and “Beetle” – most of which could be called repeats even if they are new. (Two of the most venerable strips, “Blondie” and “Nancy,” have been reimagined over the years and while not cutting-edge fare at least are not in an endless “Groundhog Day” loop.)

(Locally, the Philadelphia Daily News this week went to one tabloid page of comic strips, after going down to two a couple of years back from three... with some panels on a facing page.)

Add to this that the three largest papers in the U.S. for the last three decades do not run comics, and one starts to wonder whether the role of comics has been overblown for years by people who will howl if you give them a choice about taking away their daily visit with Sgt. Snorkel but who, if the comic was simply retired by its authors, would just say, Oh, well, guess I'll read something else. "Steve Canyon" had a huge readership, and then it disappeared and there was no more to be learned about Stalky Schweisenberger and almost no one canceled. When I was a kid papers didn’t have massive numbers of comics; big papers would have a page, small papers might run four. An editor might get into a financial fight with a syndicate and all of a sudden "Li'l Abner" no longer ran, and people might have been discomfited but they found something else. It was only when competing papers started going out of business that newspapers ended up with multiple pages of comics, fearing that someone who read an afternoon paper would only adjust his or her biorhythms enough to take a morning paper if it let him or her keep up with “Hagar the Horrible.”

Many older readers still see the comics as the equivalent of Jay’s monologue, a humorous or heartwarming fillip to the depressing state of the world. But it seems to be becoming clearer that trying to fill the pages with 30 comics is spending a lot of money to chase few people.

Young readers do not come to the paper through the colorful Sunday comics in the way they did when nearly everything except comics was black and white. (How would young readers relate to “Funky Winkerbean,” “Rhymes With Orange” or “The Piranha Club” anyway? There's this to say for “Garfield” -- even though it seems mainly an exercise in filling contracted space, at least it’s new to a 7-year-old. ) Young readers are hardly going to wait for a once-a-week session with the Sunday funnies, and the dailies are scrunched into minuscule space so that we can keep running strips that debuted in papers dead for decades.

Perhaps young readers would be better satisfied by having one or two strips that were actually relevant and funny to their lives. But burying them amid the Beetles and Flagstons would not work.

And perhaps, as with stock listings, newspapers should think about just blowing the whistle on comics – I say this with trepidation, I love newspaper comics and have always read most of them that weren’t “The Girls in Apartment 3-G” – and, like college papers, finding one or two locally or regionally drawn features that would provide a break from the news that would be exclusive to them. If people were only taking the paper to find out what that hilarious Lt. Fuzz was up to today, perhaps those are customers who are no longer essential to us at that price of keeping them.
Still more to come.

No comments: