And the Omaha World-Herald reported September 13 that “to work more efficiently, we are optimizing the comics, puzzles and features that we and other Lee Enterprises newspapers have provided.”
The postponement made headlines when cartoonists like “Bizarro” creator Dan Piraro and “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams said they’d lost newspapers from Lee customers. Adams said he lost 77 papers. The creators are still working to determine the full impact of these changes, including the impact on their strips’ online presence.
Lee’s announcement comes shortly after News Corp Australia announced that its many newspapers will be shutting down their comic strips.
Comic sections in many newspapers have been shrinking for years, but Piraro says Lee Enterprises’ cross-chain changes feel less gradual. “To see the dominoes falling at such an accelerated pace is scary,” says Piraro, noting that he still relies on the income he gets from print newspapers. “I now have to put more energy into generating revenue elsewhere.”
Piraro adds, “I see this as the inevitable result of people choosing to get their news online.”
In their explanations for their changes in the comics section, Lee newspapers like the World Herald, the Waco Tribune and the Richmond Times-Dispatch cited the industry’s larger, ongoing transition to digital readership — as some outlets offer online access to hundreds of strips. “It’s both exciting and a bit unnerving to migrate from the traditional print to the somewhat unexplored digital world,” wrote the Tribune, “but that’s what we’re doing, step by step.” (Disclosure: This author’s comic appears on the online platform GoComics.)
Post-Dispatch’s announcement said that “the company’s goal with these changes is to ensure it can continue to devote resources to local reporting and strong journalism.”
Lee Enterprises did not respond to requests for comment.
Other Lee newspapers will drop their printed comic sections entirely. The bi-weekly The Franklin News post in Virginia wrote that starting September 14 it would no longer be publishing comics and puzzles.
The News-Post noted that streamlining comics in Lee’s dailies will help “reduce costs and free up resources for reporting.” But it also means that [Lee] Newspapers that come out weekly or bi-weekly no longer have comics and puzzles.”
The seismic effects of such a change shock readers and cartoonists whose strips are affected.
“This is sad,” tweeted a Post-Dispatch reader, showing how the print newspaper had “cropped two pages of comics into a measly half-page,” adding, “Just delete the section entirely if that’s for the best, What you can do. ”
FFS @stltoday… That’s sad. Cutting two pages of comics down to a meager half-page is bad enough, but then you’re wasting that tiny bit of space on comics that are reprints… Just kill the section altogether if that’s the best you can do. 😡😡😡😡😡 pic.twitter.com/fEDVoAwEpF
— Scott Ladewig (@Ladewig) 09/17/2022
Rick Kirkman, co-creator of the syndicated flick Baby Blues, sees such top-down standardization and streamlining as a loss for creators and readers alike.
“I long for the days when all editors could make their own decisions about their comic series,” says Kirkman. “They are becoming fewer and fewer these days.”
Moves like Lee’s “make It’s harder for new films to gain a foothold with new audiences based on their merits, which is sad,” the cartoonist continues. “And it robs readers of their ability to meaningfully participate in what they want to see in their local papers and encourages homogenization.”
And Patrick McDonnell, creator of Mutts, underscores why comics are a popular part of the newspaper, with readers forming lasting relationships with their favorite comics: “Over time, the characters are like family. Newspapers should consider this bond before making drastic changes.”
This shrinking of America’s “funny sides” comes more than a century after the rise of the print comic section. “Comics were made – by editors and publishers – for a very good business reason: to attract and retain readership in order to beat the competition,” says Wiley Miller, creator of syndicated flick Non Sequitur. “The variety of comic features – and creating the best comics for individual newspaper exclusivity – created a large competitive market that was instrumental in building the powerful newspaper industry of yore.”
Sara Duke, Curator of Popular and Applied Graphics at the Library of Congress, charts how American comics became a commercial engine.
“Since the introduction of the first popular sequential feature [Joseph] Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895, the Yellow Kid, as he became known, was a marketable figure: bicycle racing, flip books, stage performances, and even whiskey. Its presence on products ensured that Americans—no matter where they lived—were offered the same features in their newspapers and the same products to consume,” says Duke.
Such competitive commerce not only made top cartoonists rich; it also placed comic strips at the center of national daily conversation – a cultural peak that peaked in mid-century.
Today, however, “the era of mass consumption is collapsing,” notes Duke. “Where the country may have spoken collectively about the death of Farley in Lynn Johnston’s ‘For Better or For Worse’ on the day it appeared in the paper, that world is now changing as more consumers engage with content digitally .”
“For our print readers, our digital offerings are the perfect complement,” writes the World Herald. Another Lee newspaper, the Martinsville Bulletin in Virginia, wrote on Sept. 12 that “comic book characters are often on their phones, computers, and social media — and now it’s time for their newspapers to catch up with the inevitable direction, too.”
However, some readers are not yet ready for a migration. The Post-Dispatch has published letters to the editor about the changes. One reader wrote, “90% of the comics I liked are gone.” Another wrote that comics are often “a child’s first exposure to a newspaper.”
A subplot to the Lee chain changes is Adams’s response, who told Fox News that his loss of Lee customers “was part of a bigger overhaul of comics, I think, but why they decided what was in and what wasn’t was, no one knows that but them, I guess.”
Some outlets have labeled the hiring of “Dilbert” as a victim of “abandonment culture.” Adams had recently mocked environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies and workplace diversity efforts, introducing a black character named Dave who identifies as white.
“I don’t know why it happened,” Adams tells The Washington Post of the massive loss of Lee clients, “but since I predicted the cancellation for my ESG and Dave character content, it was a huge coincidence.”
“The argument that it was a general diminutive, not aimed at me, is nonsense,” Adams continues, “because obviously each comic was judged individually as to whether it came in or out of the print sections. (Some newspapers list “Dilbert” on their business pages instead of their comic pages.)
That’s not how it works. Regardless of how much they cut down in general, they still make individual choices about what to keep. Others were cut because they were unpopular.
— Scott Adams (@ScottAdamsSays) September 21, 2022
The bigger problem is assessing the future of the printed comics page – and whether what’s left will be a carefully curated reading experience.
“Caricaturists may create a daily feature and have to rely on other sources of income where those in the golden age of newspapers had a salary, a pension, and maybe even benefits,” says Duke. “The mass consumption of comic strips is still there, [and] Products are still there, but the need to put that content on paper is gone.”
Miller, on the other hand, was skeptical even before this month’s changes.
“What Lee Enterprises is doing with this cookie-cutter approach is the opposite” of newspapers curating their own interesting and voluminous comic sections, says the creator of Non Sequitur. “But I think that horse left the newspaper barn a long time ago.”