Dilbert points to future of self-supporting comics

A new media marketing lesson was offered in the comics pages of newspapers, of all places, last week. Scott Adams' "Dilbert" strip featured a story line in which Dilbert is so bored at work that he created his own company, Dilbertfiles.com. The first mention last Monday didn't raise and red flags for me, but by Wednesday's strip, which seemed a bit forced, I decided to check out the URL to see if it was a real company. It was. Adams has licensed Dilbert and Dogbert to a Dutch online storage and file transfer company, and used three of last week's strips to promote it.

By mid-week, comics purists were up in arms, according to Editor and Publisher magazine. Product placement in a comic strip? Blasphemy. Or is it? As newsprint, far and away the dominant channel for comics, makes way for online presentation, expect more of this. Those who draw strips will earn far less from digital presentation, where they'll likely only appear in a few (or maybe only one) spots, than they do from newspaper syndication, where they appear in hundreds. Not everyone is like Adams, with the ability to sell endless numbers of licenced products and books, so artists will need to look to other revenue streams to survive.

At some point, the evolution of this process will likely mean the end of syndicates. If there are no newspapers in which to place your strip, why syndicate? Better to have your own site where you can do your own marketing, sell your own products and talk directly with your audience. For the time being, however, it's still probably smart to align with a syndicate. Much like small bands that sign with major record labels with no hope of seeing much money during the course of the contract, they'll benefit from the elevated exposure. Milk the system until you become a household name, then go out on your own where you'll make much more per unit and have significantly lowered overhead costs.

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White House starts blog: is it enough?

It felt strange/exhilarating/preordained that when I added the feed for the White House blog to my RSS reader yesterday. Of course the Obama White House has a blog. That seems a given. Of course, the Bush White House may also have had one, but I didn't ever hear of one and was never compelled to check for myself. Politics aside, it simply didn't seem like something an administration that had such a contentious relationship with the press would think to have, never mind the ability if would afford to speak directly to the public without, in the words of Sarah Palin, the filter of the mainstream media.

But as I added the feed, I wondered what I would really gain. Will I learn anything I won't already have heard many other places by the time it hits this blog? Will it simply be propaganda? Without a comment function, and thus a chance to engage in dialogue with the populace, does it even count as a blog or is it really a press release machine? It feels like a good start, but just that -- a start. If Obama is serious about transparency and collaboration and accepting the best idea regardless of origin, then this needs to be the first of many online and interactive initiatives. The White House has caught up with the technology available when Bush took office; it shouldn't wait long to catch up with the rest of us here in 2009.

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Hirschorn to Times: Drop dead (by May)

Michael Hirschorn's provocative article in this month's Atlantic, "End Times," is the piece to read this week. In it, he suggests that the print edition of the New York Times, and thus, the Times as we know it, could be gone by May. Regardless of the math involved, that's a startling supposition.

My gut reaction is to rebel and worry. How could that be? But of course, business decisions that have nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the paper are likely to sink it (and many others). I joked with someone today that my sound financial advice is "don't spend what you don't have." Sadly, a lot of media entities are going to go under in 2009 because they failed to follow that simple rule.

I'll get my main beef with Hirschorn's piece out of the way now. It's this ridiculous sentence: "It will also mean the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind." Bold words from a former VH1 exec and Spin magazine editor. Ever worked in a real newsroom, Michael? I doubt it, or you wouldn't call the grueling work of a good beat writer "a quasi-bohemain" existence that is part of a "semi-charmed life of the mind." Sure, having an inside look at the world and being able to flex creative muscles as you convey your view of it to the masses can seem like a pretty sweet gig, but it's hard work like any other, and to dismiss it is to be blinded by the tall buildings obscuring your view from Manhattan. I've long railed against opponents of "the media" who are really talking about the Post, the Times, the Journal and the networks -- not the thousands of papers and TV stations in smaller markets. It's sad when someone from one of those larger markets paints his own industry with the same broad brush.

That aside, there are thought-provoking aspects to Hirschorn's piece, but he doesn't take them anywhere. He throws his bomb by declaring the Times near dead, and then seems content to sit back and watch for the fallout. There is an entire analysis to be spun off from this short paragraph alone:
The conundrum, of course, is that those 1 million print readers, who pay actual cash money for the privilege of consuming the paper, and who are worth about five figures a page to advertisers, are far more profitable than the 20 million unique Web users, who don’t and aren’t. Common estimates suggest that a Web-driven product could support only 20 percent of the current staff; such a drop in personnel would (in the short run) devastate The Times’ news-gathering capacity.
I don't read the Times in print, but I do read the local daily that is also the subject of much "kill print, move online" talk. But media companies will die an even quicker death if they simply ditch paper and move to bits and bytes, for web ads draw a fraction of that earned from print ads, and no one pays for a subscription to a web site (the Journal notwithstanding). Some editors, like the Gazette's Steve Buttry, have interesting notions about what people pay for with a subscription (he argues it's simply the paper and the delivery, I argue that while that might be what they are actually paying for, most subscribers would say they're buying the news carried on those pages. No one pays to have blank paper delivered to their door). Why kill the one thing actually making money for you in a rush to move online, knowing it'll probably kill your product thanks to the resulting cuts in the process?

Why not, to get back to the central tenet of this blog, offer choice? If people want something to read at the breakfast table, why not offer it until it becomes economically unfeasible to do so? Of course, some may say we're already there, but if papers didn't need to pay off billions of dollars in debt accrued by executives whose eyes were bigger than their wallets, that might be a long ways off.

One last point: I read Hirschorn's piece online, not in print. I might not have done so had it not been among the shortest things I've ever seen in the Atlantic. had it been one of the magazine's typical 20-pagers, I would have printed it out or sought out a copy of the magazine. Not everything works online; some things, gasp, actually work better on paper. 'Nuf said.

Ultimately, Hirschorn's piece is the latest in a long line from those on the sidelines telling newspapers how things ought to be.

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2008 will be seen as a transition

It seems a day can't go by without bad economic news here in the Corridor. Just this week, Cryovac announced a plant closing in Cedar Rapids that will idle 260, while Lee Enterprises over in Davenport is close to delisting on the NYSE because it's stock is trading for too little. These are just the latest in a string of bad news.

Moving into a new year, I'm guessing that 2008 will ultimately be seen as a transitional year. It was tough -- and early 2009 promises to be as much so or more -- but likely marks the beginning of the true transition to a new economy. Looking at what suffered, it seems to be old, established entities, from newspaper companies to music labels to car companies. At the same time, however, the new things that are springing up to take their place (in the case of the first two, anyway), aren't exactly lighting up the skies just yet. Yes, the web has overtaken print as a place where people get their news (both still far behind TV, however) for example, but few are actually making any money at it.

But things will change. The hardship of 2008 will see to that. Those uneager to do so have little choice now. If 2008 will be remembered for all of the bad news, it is also likely to be recalled as the beginning of something new. What that is remains to be seen. There are plenty of people ready to say that print will die, record labels will fold, that anything not intensely local will move away. They may be right. It will be interesting to look back at this time next year to see.

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