Why your comics page has changed a bit

Jan. 04, 2014 @ 01:15 PM

The person who left a message on my voice mail New Year’s Day pulled no punches.

“I know you are always screwing around with the comics,” declared the caller, who otherwise seemed gracious and refined. “It is probably the best way to make people mad. There is no reason to mess around with comics, ever.”

We did, predictably, make some people mad. It probably didn’t help our cause that the change came on New Years’ Day, but since syndicate contracts for comic strips often are pegged to the beginning of a month, we were sort of stuck with that date.

Many of you who have called or emailed have asked a variation of “how could you?”

Let me try to explain.

From time to time, we reevaluate our comics lineup in an effort to keep it fresh and to offer readers an opportunity to enjoy different strips.

Several strips had become somewhat stale – the original artists, for example, had passed on for Shoe and Peanuts. Peanuts has been in “reruns” since Charles Schultz’s death in 2000. (His final daily strip appeared 14 years ago last Friday, about a month before his death). The strips published these days were drawn long ago -- sometimes decades ago. 

The popularity of continuity or “soap opera” strips such as Judge Parker has declined steadily in recent years. Four decades ago, the Durham Morning Herald and the Durham Sun combined carried more than half a dozen of those strips, some of which are no longer drawn at all.

Moreover, we have long looked for an opportunity to introduce to our readers some strips that have been very popular in other papers, such as Pickles and Fort Knox.

That said, we do understand that long-time strips remain very popular, and we still publish many of them.  Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Wizard of Id, all graced these pages when I graduated from Duke in 1970 – as were B.C. and Hi and Lois, two long-time favorites we put back in this line-up.

Cost – and prudently using our resources at a time of tremendous challenges to traditional newspaper revenue sources – did play a part. Some comics distributors were more willing to adjust rates than others. By concentrating most of our comics purchases with the most accommodating provider, we could negotiate lower costs. Money saved there can be used to bolster our core mission of providing local news and information for our readers.

While that was a factor in the decision, it was not overriding. Garfield and Dilbert, for example, were not part of the negotiated package but we elected to keep them because of their popularity.

Nothing is ever set in stone. We constantly reevaluate our comics lineup, and we appreciate your feedback. It’s unlikely we’ll make any quick changes – over time, we’ve found that after the initial disappointment with losing a favored comic, readers come to enjoy and expect the new strip or strips. But hearing from folks helps us to gauge what decision we should make over time.

The whole experience has been a good reminder that while people read newspapers for many reasons, one of the most prominent ones is comics.  Our goal is to include a range of comics – from long-timers like Dennis the Menace to newcomers like Pickles. I know we’ve disappointed some folks but hope that in a few weeks many of you will have new favorites.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.