Sunday, February 1, 2009

Elephant Diaries: Funny Pages

(Editor's Note: This is the third filler post I'm writing while I try and figure out my Anti-Racism Sermon post. I hope you don't mind the relatively lighter content)

"Elephant Diaries" is the term John Fleck has been using over on his blog to describe the problem facing print media - it's dying, fewer people are subscribing, and where does that leave journalists? Perhaps just as importantly, where does that leave journalism itself? He's been hitting all the big points himself, and I was certain that what would draw me to write about this was Sarkozy and the State sponsorship of newspapers in France. But no - not even that would bring me into the discussion of print. What could compel me more than french government?


Whenever I'm given a newspaper that has them, it's the first thing I read. Childhood habit, nostalgia, early morning brain needing pictures before words, whatever it is, that's where I turn. And I am almost always disappointed. Comics today, as wonderfully satirized by The Comics Curmudgeon, are a mess of slow-progressing story, the trials and tribulations of rich white anglo saxon protestants, jokes that eight-year-olds are sick of, and the unending cancer-rama of Funky Winkerbean.

Sure, there are exceptions, but for every Get Fuzzy there are about seven strips no one would go out of their way to read. And that's the model that has sustained comics for years - hit everyone with a batch of non-offensive stuff, hope they like some of it, and then make sure you never get rid of the comic they liked when they were eight. For some people, and for some length of time, this worked out great. Jim Davis owes his very existence to nostalgia formed in childhood transforming into marketing opportunities instead of dissipating.

But for many people, that market was awful. The comics they wrote were too niche-audience, or too adult, or were mature and sophisticated while not being boring, or characters had things like opinions or politics. These comics creators went online, and if you check back at the early news posts of webcomics starting from 1997 to 2003, there is a lot of hope expressed that the comic could jump from the internet to print. Scott Kurtz of iconic PvP famously campaigned for entrance into the privileged halls of print comics. For his trouble, in 2004 he was mocked by one of the lesser mainstays of print comicdom for being "internet famous" and thus irrelevant to the real world. There's foreshadowing here.

Then, in 2007, webcomic Diesel Sweeties actually made the jump. The creator opted to create a separate print version, so as to keep his main comic and main revenue stream separate from the confines of print. Read that sentence again. This guy, who's job primarily (though certainly not exclusively) consists of making a comic and putting it online, was making more from that than he was going to make from the previous holy-grail of webcartoonists: syndication. And in late 2008, he canceled his print comic. Too much work, his primary income was suffering, he was actually losing money, and it just wasn't worth it to him. That club which Scotty had been kept out of four years prior? Totally not cool anymore.

In the space of their existence online, some webcomics (not all, and certainly not most), managed to flourish and create independent revenue streams. They could appeal to niche audiences, they could address more mature issues, they could afford to be actually interesting, and they were free to do this all without any restrictions placed upon them by a syndicate. And for those who succeeded, they created a successful business model in an environment whose challenges syndicate cartoonists are just now facing.

Jeph Jacques of the fantastic Questionable Content has a great takedown of a newspaper comic writer looking tentatively at the internet, and being afraid to take the plunge. It's fitting that the post being responded to is titled "The End of Alternative Comics" - being alternative comics is what drove webcomics into an awkward sort-of genre. Really, it's the end of comics sold as part of newsprint, and that's a death worth mourning. It overlooks, however, the whole world of comics that exists outside of print. And that world is huge, dynamic, and populated.

Which is really just to say: Print Media may be dying, but comics are going strong. It's not much, but it certainly is something.


Kristi said...

Hello, there. I follow you on Twitter, and I was looking for the Gaza post you mentioned a while back and found this. I know you're talking about comics, mainly, but your question, "what will happen to journalists," got my imagination going. It's been a while since I took a moment to consider what will happen to quality journalism, and I'm less worried than I was. I've been actively seeking new blogs to read on a daily basis, and now that I stop to think about it again--journalist would be great bloggers, I'm thinking. They're used to providing regular content, fact-checking, and seeking multiple sources. I wonder what the hold up is in moving to the blaag format? Are media masterminds really still stymied by creating a new business model, or is this already shifting? What do you think?

Kelsey Atherton said...

Kristi - in my experience, journalists are great bloggers (Jon fleck, mentioned in this post, is one of my favorite of both). So people can do it, and be really good at it. The problem for the industry is turning the online content into revenue.

Webcomics made the jump and were successful because they found ways to make income online - ads are part of that, certainly, and being successful at attracting traffic certainly means making more ad revenue. Added to that, however, are the merchandising opportunities afforded by creating proprietor-owned intellectual property to put on t-shirts, posters, mugs, stickers, and to sell in book form. Comics moved to the internet and changed their business model from syndicated features large newspapers paid to print, and ended up as hybrid comic-producing t-shirt-making enterprises. It's a pretty radical shift, but it relies on providing two products people want - comics and shirts. The personalized preferences tied into this allow comics (xkcd especially, others like Questionable Content and Scary Go Round) to sell merchandise tied to in-jokes (which feeds the comic) and which work as community identifiers. I'm much more likely to talk to someone with a shirt from a webcomic I like than a stranger, and that sense of community helps this industry.

All that said, the prospect for brilliant journalistic writing online as self-supported is shaky. People like Nate Silver (of fame) can do a lot on high traffic, topical writing, and playing with numbers in an incredibly valuable and unique way. But he does his political stuff on the side of his paying job (online stats stuff of a similar variety for baseball), and he's both a newcomer and an exception. I don't know how most journalists are going to adapt to the transition, but a trial by fire seems likely to make at least some survive.

Comics went online because of barriers to working in print, and comics online have developed independently and successfully based largely on limited other options. And the online world doesn't actually support all that many comic writers. Comics were one of the easier transitions.

I think print can do it - I just don't think comics have right now a lot to offer them, except the reality that a print medium can flourish online. And I'm more optimistic than this sounds.

Kristi said...

I've been a while getting back to respond to you, mainly because I was trying to come up with a new business model for online journalism. Ha, kidding. Sort of.

I thought it would be nice to post the link here about some things that newspapers are trying, which I originally sent you on Twitter: By the way, I so want to work for Duo someday.

It seems that The Guardian has hit on a working model of the inkling I was having after I posted here; maybe newspapers can offer another product besides the news. And so now my thought is, “Okay, but what goes with the news better than online dating?” Are dating sites and in-depth coverage truly the next PB&J? Feel free to tell me if that seems snotty.

I heard a piece on NPR recently about new nonprofit and shoestring wire services. While I am loathe to link to that link hog, NPR, I’ll do it anyway. Actually, while looking for that link, I turned up a few other good pieces and blog that I’m definitely going to start reading by Jim Romenesko. I suppose that an endowment is one way to add another news service to the mix, but it should only be one of many tools in the toolkit.

One more thing. I read an article some time last year about Chinese web design that mentioned a Chinese business practice called Quanxi. Sorry, I’ve looked for the link and can’t find it. In a nutshell, it is extensive networking with potential customers and business partners before doing business. The example that was given was an auction site in China that had no plans to charge for its service until late 2009. This reminds me of companies using blogs to contribute to online communities, which in turn brings them “inbound leads.” But if a news site is all blog and no purchase, what then? What is the income generating complement to news content? I hope it’s not advertising, or paid content, because people are resisting those, don’t you think?