It’s no secret that print journalism has been in decline for some time now. Print newspapers’ overall revenue declined by 2.6% in 2013, despite gains in their online advertising profits. Many critics even say that newspapers are on their way out.
As a journalist, this deeply concerns me, but that angle has been played out to no end. Instead of fretting about the perils of trying to find a job in journalism, I’d like to look at this from a consumer’s perspective. As a consumer, I enjoy reading print newspapers for several reasons, but first and foremost among these are the daily comic strips.
Drawn cartoons have existed longer than anyone can say, but serialized comic strips first started appearing in newspapers in the late 19th century. They grew in popularity throughout the 20th century, usually operating under a syndicate business model in which artists contract with a firm that sells newspapers packages of nationally-targeted content. This content includes comics as well as various columns and often their own advertisements, to print alongside local news. Comic strips are humorous, serialized cartoons, usually only a few panels in length (in comparison to comic books, which tend to have longer-form stories). They
The arrival of the internet opened up new avenues for cartoonists to publish their work. Webcomics started to emerge as early as the late 1990’s. Webcomics grant a little more freedom to creators than their syndicated counterparts do—creators of newspaper strips often find themselves censored by their audiences and the papers they contract with, particularly when talking about social or political issues.
Free online comics, however, represent a difficult to sustain enterprise. Most webcomics begin their runs with little or no profitability as a necessity: advertising provides some revenue, but usually pays very little until a comic’s readership takes off. Even then, the advent of RSS feeds and ad-blocking browser extensions severely dilute the profitability of advertisement. Many webcomic artists, like other online creators, make the majority of their revenue from merchandising. Randall Munroe’s xkcd, a “nerd-culture” non-serial webcomic whose crossover appeal has garnered it several awards as well as places on countless Whitman professors’ doors, has no advertising at all on his site. Other cartoonists, like Girls with Slingshots’ Danielle Corsetto and Scenes from a Multiverse’s Jon Rosenberg, use crowd-funding systems like Patreon to support themselves—often offering bonus material or personalized sketches as incentives for contributors. Cartooning conventions serve as excellent exposure for artists as well as opportunities to make merchandising revenue, so it’s unsurprising that such conventions occur practically year-round.
The fact that most webcomic artists are self-employed makes revenue estimation difficult, but for artists entering the market, there is a guaranteed period of little to no revenue as they establish a following. This process is uncertain, and many comics never get off the ground. Those who do must find a way to monetize without alienating their fan base, most of whose willingness to pay is negligible. As such, webcomics’ position as a common resource creates the bulk of the industry’s problems, and is the reason that most successful online comics are at least a decade old. It’s an easy market to enter, but not a profitable one, so newspaper cartoonists can rest easy knowing that their obsolescence will not be the end of them.