Papers Dropping Lousy Comic Strips
When The Dallas Morning News pruned its stock tables, sports results and television listings this year, a consequence of sluggish advertising revenue and sharply rising paper costs, few readers felt aggrieved enough to complain. But when the paper later staged a “Survivor”-style contest to cut a dozen of its 53 comic-strip offerings to save a precious half-page of space in the weekday paper, more than 40,000 readers voted their passions. They lobbied successfully for comic comfort food like “Peanuts” and “For Better or For Worse,” though other chestnuts like “Mary Worth” and “Steve Roper and Mike Nomad” faced a grimmer fate. They also railed against a newer strip aimed at a younger audience, “La Cucaracha,” about a group of 20-somethings living in East Los Angeles, while exhibiting indifference toward another, “Jump Start,” about a black family. Both comic strips were ultimately cut.
While the excisions in Dallas are among the most severe involving the funnies in recent memory, newspapers across the country have been engaging in similarly agonizing discussions about whether their current rosters of comics (sometimes four pages a day) are a luxury, given the current dreary economics of the newspaper business. A handful of big daily newspapers – including The Salt Lake Tribune – have, like The Morning News, recently cut the number of comics they run, or shrunk the size of some strips so that they fit into a smaller space. Others, including The Houston Chronicle, have in recent months mounted or at least contemplated surveys like The Morning News’s to gauge reader preferences – a precursor, they acknowledge, to possible future cuts.
In grudgingly taking up such questions, editors and publishers face a choice that has long been agonizing for papers that dared to replace longtime favorites. By cutting strips like “Brenda Starr” and “Judge Parker,” as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did this year as part of a comics shuffling, editors run the risk of alienating older readers, who are their core constituency. (Indeed, after a write-in campaign, The Journal-Constitution decided to give “Judge Parker” a reprieve.) But if editors instead choose to cut newer strips like “La Cucaracha,” or fail to make room for more cutting-edge work, they realize they may be bobbling a prime opportunity to lure the younger people who are critical to newspapers’ future – and whose love for animated entertainment has been demonstrated by the television programs (including “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill”) and movies (“Finding Nemo”) that they watch and the books (graphic novels) that they read. “I think newspapers need some percentage of attraction to young readers to get them interested, get them hooked, get them off the Internet,” said Scott Adams, the creator of “Dilbert,” the 15-year-old chronicle of cubicle culture that appears in 2,000 papers worldwide. “The comics page is their portal. And right now, they risk having no portal.”
It amazes me that the soap opera strips survived as long as they did. “Mary Worth” and similar strips were godawful thirty years ago when I was first reading newspaper comic strips. Indeed, I’m not sure that papers could fill a single weekday page with comics if they only published strips, like “Dilbert,” that are usually actually funny.