May 4, 2009
Comics, newspapers bite the hand that feeds 'em...
Ah, the many problems of running a newspaper: Circulation dropping, staff cuts, pages shrinking; then 24-hour cable winning the immediacy battle every damn day. Now even cable loses as the internet takes ownership of the new in news. What's left to tell or sell when even legislators tweet their every thought during budget hearings?
Today, a different problem for the dead tree media, illustrated by the excerpt from Sunday's Pearls before swine comic strip, above: Newspaper editors buy a harmless, although really dumb! syndicated comic strip about zeebas (sic), rats and pigs, and then open their own Sunday paper and find it mocking the newspaper itself! (Portraying newspaper magnates as rats is fairly close to the truth, however.) Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. The full strip is here.
Censoring the strip would only have made bigger news. Damned if you do; damned if you don't.
Dare I say the unthinkable, based not so much on this comic strip but on a lifetime of reading them: The comics stopped being funny ages ago. It was 1945, for Heaven's sake, when New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia read the comics over the radio during a newspaper strike. (Radio?) Remember when Dad used to sit at the family breakfast table on Sunday morning reading the "funnies" to the kids, starting them on a lifelong newspaper-reading habit? Not any more. (Family breakfast table?)
What to do? Simple. Drop the comics. Then take another step: Eliminate "features" like the patently bogus horoscope that demeans the accuracy of any newspaper that carries it. Drop Sudoku, word games, bridge, poker and videogame columns, and Crossword puzzles and all the other filler -- Dr. Gott's psycho-viral disease-of-the-day? the current Ann Landers sibling wannabe? -- that take up a larger and larger percentage of the space not sold (damn!) to advertisers. Surely, nobody buys a newspaper for this stuff. And who has time for it, anyway?
I haven't measured the newshole in the papers I still read, but it's obviously shrinking. Early in this current newspaper decline, the Chicago Tribune very publicly cut its newshole to no more than 50 percent of total space. (Buy an ad; make room for another story!) Others do it by stealth. Meanwhile, all those "features" continue to hang on. Unlike the daily stock tables, which finally disappeared years after their utility had passed, the daily TV grid has doubled in size despite its content being handier on the tube itself. Meanwhile, the space for "real" news is shrinking; even the Wall Street Journal -- the only gainer in the most recent ABC circulation reports -- is roiled by a dictum to shorten stories.
Of course, I could be totally missing the point here. Perhaps those features are meant to fill that remaining space, now that local news staffs have been cut, and cut again at newspaper after newspaper. And in some ways they are comfort food as the world goes to Hell: Nothing about your miserable existence in this Word Game here! Never mind the fact that their elimination would free up money and newshole that could be devoted to ...oh, I don't know, another reporter, more details? Daily coverage of schools or state government or our reps in Washington.
Meanwhile, newspapers across the country have discovered another way to bandage their bleeding balance sheets, taking a page from those droll satellite TV commercials (Watch 'em all; they're really funny.). You know the one I mean: The cable TV boss says, "DIRECTV is doing very well in customer satisfaction. What do we do?" and an executive responds, "We can't improve our service, but we can improve the price. We can make it higher!"
Newspapers don't get the joke. The New York Times is about to raise the price of its daily paper to $2; its Sunday edition, already at $5, will soon climb to $6, nearly the price of a cheap paperback novel but without nearly as much suspense, or romance. (The Times costs more than that for home delivery here, and no comics!) The weekday-only Wall Street Journal is $2; the Financial Times is $2.50. Just last week, some major newspapers reported circulation declines of 20% last year... is this really the time for price hikes?
The already-endangered Boston Globe, which went from 50 cents to 75 cents last year, was due to raise its daily price again, to a buck. But now it appears that price increase may not take place -- for the worst of reasons: the Globe's owner, the New York Times, said Sunday night it is notifying federal authorities of its plans to close down the Globe -- because negotiations with the Globe's unions didn't produce the $20 million in savings the Times wanted (to help reduce some $85 million a year in losses).
No Globe in Boston? The mind boggles. It would be like tearing the Liberty Bell from Philadelphia, the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Babe Ruth from the Red Sox ... oh, yes, let's not forget the Curse of the Bambino. But this time, the Curse of the Globe would be visited on New York.
And on newspaper readers everywhere.