Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Webcomics Solution for Newspapers

Comics were the first thing to go in 2003 when I was asked to convert the daily Turlock Journal into a twice-weekly publication. The syndicates were too expensive for a small paper's budget, for starters. But even without the cost factor, it just didn't make sense for us. We were attempting to project a new image for the paper, and carrying those stale titles -- Charles Schultz died three years prior but for some reason we were still publishing both Peanuts and Peanuts Classic -- didn't fit our plans for the new version of the Journal. So they got chopped. B.C. was history. Hagar the Horrible was sunk. The Born Loser? Lost.

With the exception of one editorial cartoon on the Journal's Perspectives page, there were no comics in the paper. And it was noticeable. I was haunted by my own conscience, having learned to love newspapers years earlier by reading the comics each morning at my parents' kitchen table. The paper just didn't feel complete without that page of four-paneled irreverency. And of course, readers complained.

Without a budget to pay for new features, I took a chance and dashed off e-mails to two of my favorite web cartoonists at the time: Scott Kurtz of the strip PVP, and Chris Crosby, author of Superosity and founder of the web comics consortium Keenspot. I outlined the Journal's situation, and asked if either would be willing to let my little paper republish their comic strips in some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement. Kurtz, who at the time was supposedly offering his comic for free to whatever newspaper wanted to run it, never responded. Crosby did, months later. Crosby liked the idea of helping out the paper while offering his stable of cartoonists a chance to get published in print. He proposed what eventually became the Keenspot Comics Page, a pre-paginated full page of comic strips offered free to the paper in exchange for a strip of ad space at the top. Likewise, there was a strip available at the bottom of the page for the newspaper to sell its own advertising.

The Keenspot Comcics Page debuted Sept. 25, 2004, with 15 offerings ranging from the clever one-panel "Rumblestrip" to the charming "Count Your Sheep." It was the most innovative comics page to hit newsprint since MediaNews' ANG added color to its dailies a decade earlier. And of course, readers complained.

Where were the comics they grew up with? No Sally Forth? No Wizard of ID? No Garfield? When it comes to comics, I learned readers are creatures of habit who don't handle that kind of shock particularly well. Things settled down after a few editions, and we kept the page running for more than a year.

Even though it was not a success, The Keenspot Comics Page ranks as one of my favorite newspaper experiments -- And I still think there's merit to the idea, even if it didn't work for our little twice-weekly paper.

I don't think the paper's management or advertising staff knew what to do with it. I remember our group publisher at the time describing the page as "a good space filler." That was the first bad sign. Our ad manager was slightly more enthusiastic, and upon the page's debut he had secured four sponsors for the six-column banner at the bottom of the page for $300 a pop. But one by one, those advertisers dropped out and weren't replaced-- and even though the Keenspot features were being offered for free, it was hard to convince the finance people to keep a whole page open when there weren't ads to support it.

Likewise, I know it took a lot of effort from Crosby and the Keenspot crew to put that page together twice a week, and though a few other newspapers also eventually picked up the page, I don't think it ever got near the numbers needed to attract the type of advertisers they were seeking. The Keenspot page suffered from a lack of consistency. Comics would occasionally disappear from print, replaced by new strips with little indication about what happened. While this was probably a good way to give more exposure to the dozens of comic strip artists at Keenspot, it served to irritate many readers, who, as stated earlier, tend to loathe the new and unfamiliar.

To make it work, both sides could have benefited from more flexibility. A couple of size options, for instance, would have made it easier to fit into the paper. It was probably too ambitious to think we could get away with a full page -- print space was at a premium even in 2004. A half page or quarter page would have been easier to budget. Similarly, I think the layout was overwhelming for the Keenspot folks, but offering their comics to newspapers on an a la carte basis would have been easier on everyone -- and perhaps more appealing to other newspapers who wanted to experiment with new comics without devoting an entire page of space to the idea.

I'm still convinced there's potential to Keenspot's newspaper experiment. Perhaps today it work better as branded content on a newspaper website with some kind of revenue-sharing agreement, or as a print insert supported by advertising. I'd love to see somebody make this work -- and laugh all the way to the bank.

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