Matt Bors
Comics, Politics & Ridicule

Bors Blog

The Future of Alt-Weekly Cartoons

If you follow the blogs of my colleagues in the alt-weekly cartooning world, you are probably aware of the panic that is taking hold due to the continued loss of paying clients. It feels like the industry is in free fall. (If you are not up to speed, see Tom Tomorrow, Max Cannon, Derf, and Jen Sorensen for starters.)

Predictions range from the grim to the apocalyptic. We know we aren't near the bottom yet, but the biggest fear is that we haven't even reached the point that print will bounce back to once the economy recovers. Print newspapers will continue to exist, but there's the sad realization that all of us are fighting for a piece of an ever-shrinking pie. It means less income for all of us and I'm not sure we'll see everyone producing their strip on the other side of this recession.

What follows is an interview with Kevin Allman, editor of The Gambit, an alt-weekly out of New Orleans. He reached out to express his sympathies to us ink slingers and agreed to answer some questions to put this all into perspective and see where the industry is headed.


Matt Bors: Editor and Publisher had an article about 10 alt-weeklies that grew in 2008. I'm seeing a lot of small independent papers on that list. What are they doing right?

Kevin Allman: If you look at that list, you'll notice two things: the papers that are OK are in smaller markets and they're locally owned. In smaller markets, the advertisers that make up the bulk of alt-weekly ads have no other place to put their ads. And being locally owned is a big advantage right now, since the alt-media conglomerates almost all uniformly overbought. VVM, Creative Loafing, etc. -- they've all made some of the same mistakes that the big newspaper chains like Tribune have made.

But those growth papers aren't immune from the hurt, either. If you read the list, you'll find that many of them have grown with ancillary products (bridal guides, special supplements, "annual manuals" and the like). It doesn't mean that the page count or the profits on their weekly papers, where you would appear, are growing or even holding steady. It means they've found new vehicles for advertising, not editorial.

MB: We cartoonists are biased as to the importance of our craft, but having a good amount of comics in your paper seems like a no-brainer. They are widely read and relatively cheap. The Boise Weekly and Seven Days carry a ton. Many don't run more than two. And it seems like they are some of the first things to be held or canceled when there's cuts in the page count and budget. The recent VVM suspension of cartoons has us worried about it becoming widespread. As Jen Sorensen put it, "Heaven help us if the cost of cartoons makes or breaks the industry." How do comics figure into the budget of alt-weeklies--and how important do you think they are to the makeup of a paper?

KA: First: I love "Slowpoke" and would carry Jen if I could. I really, really like her work. So Jen has a big fan here. (I also love Keith Knight and "Big Fat Whale" and several others that I won't mention so I don't hurt anybody's feelings. But I hope you get the idea: I do read comics and think they're important.)

The cutback in cartoons has less to do with the budget than it does with page counts going down. Let's face it: you guys aren't paid shit for what you do, and it's got to be infuriating to feel like your measly $25 is the first place editors look to cut. We don't. It's a space issue.

The two big expenses are newsprint and salaries. My paper (Gambit in New Orleans) reduced its trim size in January by about an inch at the top. That actually saved jobs, I believe. But it means that stories are shorter, listings are briefer, and a lot of content ends up web-only.

The factor that's not mentioned enough is ad-edit ratio. Most papers try to operate on a ratio of 55-60% of ads to 45-40% of edit. In good times, there is some wiggle room -- editors can plead with their publishers for some extra space when the money is coming in. When it's not, the ad ratios get more strict, and the papers get skimpier, and the editorial space contracts even more.

So we have smaller pages and less editorial space vis-a-vis ads. We cut, and the best editors (I believe) don't make wholesale cuts in one department, but spread the pain. Drama reviews go down a couple hundred words. An art review might turn into an extended listing. Cover stories go from 2500 words to 1750. A third-news item moves to the Web. You get the idea.

And in that equation, cartoons are lost.

How do we make that decision? In my case, I went with the local guys: Greg Peters and Bunny Matthews. They both do New Orleans-specific stuff that our readers get, but wouldn't translate outside our market. Their drawings are the equivalent of local news stories. And I try to treat them with as much respect as I do the columnists, but they have to suffer too with the smaller page layouts.

It's less a matter of money than it is space. That's the hard truth. What you see as $25 for a cartoon, the publishers see as potential ad space that could sell for 10x that amount.

MB: The VVM comic suspension is only supposed to last for the first quarter of 09. Papers that have dropped me all cited money and space and said they would like to have me back if they could. (Not including the ones that went out of business.) I think the biggest worry is that they won't bounce back when the economy eventually does. Once the dust settles, what do you think the future of alt-weeklies will look like?

KA: I have no idea. I do think the ones that will survive (physically and as legit news sources) will be the ones that spent wisely when times were good and were not overextended when the bad times arrived. Those with strong local relationships -- with writers, with readers, with advertisers -- will fare better, as they will still have a unique niche that neither the Web nor the dinosaur dailies can fill.

As for VVM, I would never make a promise like that, but I hope they stick to it. If you have a good relationship with your editor, then I hope you trust him or her to bring you back as soon as possible.

MB: When you think about your comics lineup, what do you look for?

KA: Local and funny. I'm lucky in that I have some seriously talented cartoonists who produce city-specific stuff that cracks me up and makes me think. If I had a whole page to run nothing but cartoons, I would...and I would probably look for a combination of complementary drawing styles and points of view. And I would ROTATE them once in a while and let some new voices get a chance to be heard and judged on their own merits.

MB: When I first met you, it was after an AAN panel in Portland where, oddly enough, Arianna Huffington spoke about the future of alt-weeklies. The business model she espouses doesn't quite fill me with excitement.

Her news aggregator/gossip site is very popular but it relies on linking to the reporting of others and not paying for most of its original content. (blog posts by Deepak Chopra and Jamie Lee Curtis.) She also suggested that alt-weeklies let her run their content on her website for free; you get a link back to your site. Cartoonists are finding it hard to find paying clients on the web as this mentality takes hold. What's your take on the "working for exposure" model?

KA: You know I think it's bullshit. It's less related to an internship (which at least provides some practical knowledge and experience) than it is an exploitation of labor that not even a Walmart would countenance.

As for "exposure" -- let's get real. Where does a writer stand a better chance of being noticed: on his/her own well-done Website, or on an aggregator site with 500 other contributors, 495 of whom are probably better known than you are?

And further on "exposure" -- please name one person who has used HuffPo successfully to make money or otherwise leverage the work to get more work. Just one.

MB: Much of the problem is that ad rates on the net can't sustain a newsroom the way print ads used to. A newspaper's website may get 10 times the eyeballs that the print version gets but only generate a tenth of the revenue. How do alt-weeklies make the internet pay more than peanuts?

KA: That will change, eventually -- the NYT is making a profit off Web ads. Alt-weeklies need to look at ways to use the Web in other ways besides just putting an ad banner on the site and selling it in the same way as a paper ad. That makes sense to me, but I'm not the best person to answer the question, since I stay away from that end of the business.

We had a party last year and the marketing director sold a sponsorship to a car company. I don't know all the financials, but I do know they paid for the party and then some in exchange for a clearly sponsored Web video about the event.

MB: Alt-weeklies like the Tri-City News in New Jersey doesn't put their content online, preferring to focus on the dead tree edition. Other papers look like they are gearing up to go entirely digital someday. You've been big on developing your paper's website while keeping the print edition worth picking up every week. And you've done an almost unheard of thing: paying your bloggers. How are you beefing up online content while paying contributors and still staying afloat? What's to be said for a paper in this day and age forgoing the internet altogether?

KA: Bloggers have to be paid; it's content with value. If we couldn't pay a few freelance bloggers, we'd just have to have an all-staff-written blog. Otherwise we'd be hypocrites and no better than Arianna.

I can see where various business models make sense for various markets. The all-Web papers seem to be struggling (with the exception of the mega-sites like The Daily Beast, which aren't city publications anyway). I think the Beachwood Reporter in Chicago is an excellent all-Web publication, but I don't know its financial picture.

And if it works for papers NOT to put their content on the Net -- well, good for them. I would question where their next generation of readers is coming from, though. The average age of an alt-weekly reader is (I think) mid-40s. Younger people have made it clear they'd prefer to get the same news on their computers. I'd be afraid of having my print publication's demographic becoming even more restricted without a decent Web site. And - let's face it - the Web is a far better way of searching listings than the print paper is...and listings are a big reason people pick up alt-weeklies.

Image credits: Shannon Wheeler, Me, Ted Rall, Me, Jen Sorensen. Used with permission.
02.03.2009 |