How I used Stephan Pastis to advocate for more than comics

As I hinted in my last post, when I went about defending newer comics strips in newspapers, I’ve come to realize I was writing about more than comic strips.

I was really talking about the struggles of journalism as a whole, and how readers could become one of the great catalysts of change – should they choose to be.

Honestly, is there any better analogy for the issues facing print journalism today than the comics page? Look at a typical comics page. You’ll find three or four strips that are relatively new, edgy, dare say controversial at times. A Pearls Before Swine or a Lio or, when it was still being published, a Boondocks. And they’ll often be placed right next to a comic that Methuselah would have read as a child. A Blondie or Alley Oop or, quite possibly, you read one of the newspapers out there still carrying Gasoline Alley or Snuffy Smith, which have both been around for over 90 years.

Think about that. How many businesses out there are performing the exact same service the exact same way in the 2010s that they were in the 1910s?

Not many. And yes, even an industry with a reputation of being as mobile as molasses to change as the newspaper industry recognizes that, some more than others. Even the biggest entrenching, paywalling, online comment-despising newsroom Luddites recognize this, even if it is begrudgingly.

So, change has to happen. That means taking risks. That means the possibility of failure. That means there absolutely will be failure along the line. I’ve lost count of the projects I tried to start and wound up crashing and burning. That sounds bad, but it’s no different than a story idea not working out for a reporter. You’re bummed, but you move on because the beast demands to be fed.

Coming back to comics, any change to a comics page is really similar to any sort of new media experimentation. Let’s say a paper has been running Mark Trail on the comics page for 30-plus years, but one day, the editor decides enough is enough and trades in his nature photographer for a grade school custodian by swapping out Mark Trail for Frazz. If this is a typical comics page transaction, a move like this would likely draw howls of angry, infuriating protest from many readers.

That’s not hyperbole. People will go ballistic over a comic strip change in a newspaper. Somebody told a previous editor of my current newspaper that pulling Alley Oop a few years back caused their cancer to get worse.

That’s what newspaper trying to reinvent have to face. A significant portion of its customers that are openly hostile to change to their routine. It’s uncomfortable having to stereotype in this situation, but let’s face it: Part of this is due to the fact that such a large chunk of newspaper subscribers are old, and older people are much more likely to be less agreeable to change. And a whole hell of a lot more stubborn in their outright resistance to it. Very stubborn. I have a grandfather turning 89 next month who grew up in Missouri. I know of what I speak.

Just as new comic strips never get their chance, how many potentially great journalism ideas die on the cutting room floor because financial resources can’t be diverted from popular features? Did a potentially great new social journalism tool wither away in a Middle Americans newsroom from want of a bridge column or keeping Dear Abby?

In some ways, newspapers and their reader base are in a standoff. Newspapers know their future is doomed if they don’t get the Gen-X’ers and Gen-Y’ers back on board by becoming relevant to their lives again. However, the baby boomers control most of the industry’s current revenue and hold the constant threat of walking if their interests aren’t being served. So, if the papers try to build the future and the boomers get peeved and walk away en masse, the papers could just wind up dead sooner rather than later.

But, there is one scenario where this wouldn’t happen. What if those readers gave the green light for gambling? What if they said, “OK, we’ll give some wiggle room and let you try some new stuff, because we recognize that you don’t have a real future if you don’t. We’ll give up a little bit of what we like now, and you can try to bring some new people in.”

So I’ve come to realize, that’s really what I was fighting for when I wrote that column. I wanted to see if people would allow change to comics. Then maybe they’d go for one more thing. Then another, and another, until eventually newsrooms just like mine had a readership that wasn’t ready to jump down their throats every time some bold new experiment didn’t necessarily work.

Yes, that’s incredibly anti-capitalist of me, and makes a total mockery of the consumer-controlled free market. But isn’t another capitalist term “If you’re not growing, you’re dying”? In that case, how long have newspapers been dying already? If a dying person has one last shot at being healthy again and they have the means and ability to try it, isn’t this the country where they’re supposed to get that chance? Why should newspapers be any different?

It might actually work. Or maybe we’ll just keep getting letters from sexagenerians about how stupid and worthless they think Get Fuzzy is and that we should bring back B.C.

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