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The Online Comics Gap 
Comic strips are still trying to find their place online among the jumble of concerns about money, popularity, syndication and aggregation

I discovered the crisis in newspaper comic strips while trying to solve my Mary Worth problem. It was in the heat of a gripping storyline: In an effort to rescue lovable doofus Wilbur Weston from the clutches of the heartless golddigger Liz Hoag, young Woody Pine and Weston's daughter, Dawn, had cooked up an elaborate fraud involving a bogus job offer, fake phone numbers, a nail-biting gigolo routine. Even the normally staid Professor Cameron had gotten in on the action.

Just one problem: The King Features site for Mary Worth -- the only extensive online destination for this underappreciated three-frame classic and the top Mary site in Google's rankings -- is two weeks out of date. None of the dailies in my local newspaper market carry Mary Worth -- a total news blackout for all practical purposes. I'm left keeping up with two-week old issues, and in the fast-paced world of Mary Worth anything can happen in a fortnight. (In the event, the past two weeks have seen the bloodsucking Hoag exiled from The Charterstone Condominium Complex, with Woody Pine now preparing to deliver a long-awaited coup de grace.) Even maintaining an occasional correspondence with Mary writer John Saunders can't keep me up to date regularly.

The problems of reproducing these items online tend to outweigh the advantages of making them available

My story has a happy ending. While trying to get to the bottom of the problem, I discovered that both the Houston Chronicle and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer carry Mary Worth in real time on their sites. But what about less fortunate or more comic recondite comic-strip fetishists? What recourse is available for the isolated fan of Classic Henry or the still-running Katzenjammer Kids? Who speaks for fans of Jim Keefe's terribly underrated Flash Gordon, which appears only on the King site and is currently featuring a suspense-filled confrontation with the Lizard King (or at least was two weeks ago)?

It's not clear that Flash -- an excellent comic in a despised genre, the weekly adventure strip -- is carried by any online paper in the world.

These less celebrated comic strips point to a larger issue in online journalism, and specifically to the no-longer-young experiment in giving print newspapers a substantial Web presence. No regional newspaper can be considered full service without a healthy page of comics, and related syndicated material such as crossword puzzles, the never-popular Jumble, the late Henry Boltinoff's Hocus Focus, the chess column by "Goren," Omar Sharif's bridge tips and so on. But the problems of reproducing these items online tend to outweigh the advantages of making them available.

We are not speaking here of the many fine Web-based comics -- such as those at Comicon -- currently in circulation; this article is limited to comic strips syndicated in print newspapers.

Among U.S. newspapers, three -- the Post-Intelligencer, the Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News -- set out to provide extensive comics sections (far more extensive than those in the print versions of the papers) on their Web sites. The Mercury News has since shuffled all its online comics work back to Knight Ridder as part of the overall demolition of its ambitious Mercury Center project last year. A spokeswoman for Universal Press Syndicate cites another 250 papers that buy syndicated comics through Universal's uclick distribution service. And there are wide swaths of comic-free papers online or papers like the Boston Herald, which carries only two of its strips on its site.

Part of the problem is simple cost. The big three cartoon syndicates, King, Universal, and United Feature Syndicate, charge separate fees for online syndication, beyond the standard fee for a weekly or Sunday strip. These fees, according to some sources, can run from $5 to $10 per week, per strip. A Sunday comic can cost as much again. Transmission costs can roughly double these prices.

These are relatively cheap compared to fees for print syndication, which can be twice or four times as much. But for newspaper editors who would prefer to ignore the Web, it's a considerable outlay.

There is no clear way to profit from comic strips online. "The revenue from banner ads relative to syndication costs doesn't make it cost effective," says Scott Clark, vice president of HoustonChronicle.com, which posts 105 comics to its site. "The comics as a stand-alone piece are not a huge profit center. The potential is there, but that would be as part of a scheme of overall marketing ...Long-term, we see the comics package as one of the areas where we could get registration and subscriptions."

"Nobody has come to me and said 'Here's how we monetize this,'" says Lee Rozen, general manager for New Media at the Post-Intelligencer, another powerhouse with 73 comics on its site. "Right now our goal is not specifically to turn it into a profit center but to build pageviews and unique users."

On that last count, both papers have had considerable success with their comics sections. According to Rozen, the comics and games section of the PI's site draws 940,000 page views per month, out of 12 million page views for the site as a whole. Clark does not give out traffic figures, but says the comics account for 10% of the Chron's Web traffic.

But attempts to capitalize on this traffic run into the reality that online traffic has little to do with the overall package a publication offers. Readers from all over the world may be checking out Mallard Fillmore at the PI's site, but that's unlikely to make them any more interested in Tacoma school board news. On the Web, a paper is the sum of its line items, and it's unlikely bloggers will start passing around the latest Cathy unless Cathy takes up blogging. (Not an impossibility, actually.)

This leads inevitably to the prospect of "a la carte" service for particular comics; this is one area where that old hobgoblin "micropayments" still gets a respectful hearing, and many observers point to the success The New York Times has had in getting people to pay for its crossword puzzle as a model.

Michael Jantze, author of the daily strip The Norm, likens this idea to going into a coffee shop and being charged extra for the cream and sugar. "People are accustomed to reading the comics, kind of, for free," he says. "The power of a great comics artist, or a great sports page, is to get people to change their newspaper habits ... But you can't create an electronic habit the way you can a paper habit."

Nor is it likely anybody will pony up even a half-penny for a comic that is available from multiple papers. You can get today's Luann from any number of sources, including United's own site. Although the three syndicates initially put their comics sites on a delay, both United and Universal now post their strips on a same-day basis. Only King still observes a two-week moratorium. (Requests for interviews at King were put on their own multi-week delay before being turned down entirely.)

While this is good news for comics fans, it would seem to dilute the value of an online syndication deal. Not so, says Kathie Kerr, Universal's  director of communications. "We started running online comics the same day as the print version about a year and a half ago and there was not a great outcry from the print side of the newspaper," says Kerr. "I think newspaper management today understands the importance of keeping and maintaining a good online readership base with fresh material."

"The Norm runs on my site, and at the same time in papers around the country, and on their sites," says Jantze. "That kind of exclusivity died when the JOAs (Joint Operating Agreements), and non-competitive markets came along in the eighties."

"You have to figure out a way to add value to a product that people can get anywhere else," says the Post-Intelligencer's Rozen, "unless they can't go anywhere else." Clark notes that the Chronicle offers a very convenient personalized comics page and the largest comics selection online. "The competitive advantage we have is the comprehensive nature of our comics," he says. "At one time I tried to find all our comics in other places. I could find about half, but not all in one place. There is some value in aggregation."

It's telling that neither the PI nor the Chronicle made any concerted effort to become leaders in online comics syndication. "It wasn't a conscious decision to build up a huge comics section online," says Clark. "This was really a side effect of our having a reputation as one of the most robust comics papers in the country." Rozen seemed surprised to learn that the PI had emerged as a leader in online comics. "It just seemed to us that the comics were part of the paper, and we were putting the paper online," he says. "Since then, we've added a lot that weren't in the paper."

One advantage of running comics online is the potential guidance it provides in selecting strips for the paper. Rozen's tour of comics performance online is intriguing: Funky Winkerbean and Zits lead the pack at the Post-Intelligencer, followed by 9 Chickweeed Lane, Sherman's Lagoon and Mallard Fillmore. (Mary Worth is "slightly below the middle of the pack," with 7500 page views per month.) Sadly, Ziggy and Zippy the Pinhead are in last place popularly as well as alphabetically, with 4,900 and 4,500 page views respectively. And a strong tenth-place showing by Wildwood, the Christian-themed, Walt Kelly-inspired strip drawn by Dan Wright and penned by OJR contributor Tom Spurgeon, indicates that strip's potential for growth and underscores the tragedy of Wright's recent decision to pull the plug on it.

Nevertheless, Web performance is an inexact barometer for paper performance, both because of the split in demographics between younger Web surfers and older readers and because page views can come from all over the world and provide little guidance in local markets. "I tell [the features editors] how it ranks, but I say 'But...' Editors run on editorial judgment rather than on what's most popular."

Despite technical difficulties and lack of interest from both editors and syndicators, the Web has proved to be a useful tool for promoting comic strips. Aaron McGruder helped generate some heat for The Boondocks through the strip's site, and Jantze's TheNorm.com provides ancillary material like a daily-updated Norm diary and a Norm store.

"There are two purposes of the site," he says. "The first is a feature like Norm's journal. The other is as a marketing tool. I don't try to hide that. I encourage people to write to their papers and look for the strip in local papers. I do that because The Norm's not in hundreds and hundreds of papers." For an artist like Flash Gordon's Keefe, working for hire on a property owned by King Features, there is far less potential for marketing or promoting the strip on his site or anywhere else.

Nor has a market for comics online led to any increase in the number of artists who get syndicated. The Web may be fully loaded with self-published cartoonists, but the syndicates still sign a mere handful of new strips every year. "More new cartoonists, I believe, do show up online than what you see introduced in print syndication, simply because of the non-restricted space issues," says Universal's Kerr. "It does not necessarily mean we syndicate these cartoonists, but we do show their work online and that can be on a temporary or long-term basis."

The three-panel comic strip is not an art form native to the web, and the greatest challenge in adapting it may be that readers bring different expectations and habits to online readership. Although Heather Havrilesky and Terry Colon's Filler made considerable progress in adapting the form to the delivery medium, the question of what web comic strips will look like remains unsolved. "I have thought about what the perfect format for a Web cartoon would be, and I've looked around at what others are doing," says Jantze. "But comic strips are a unique form. They have to be short and concise, play with themes, and depend on what you don't see between the comics. If you expand a comic strip, it becomes something else."

If there is one aspect in which newspapers largely have managed to reproduce their comic strip experience online, it may be this: Newspaper editors have famously tended to view comics as being, at best an annoying afterthought. With few exceptions, comics get treated with the same concerted disinterest when they come online. "A lot of papers would prefer just to drop the comics," Jantze says.