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Print Idols and Digital Icons

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Everyone not living in a remote mountain monastery knows that print news is in trouble. All year we’ve been watching newspapers collapse, from modest local tribunes to big-name broadsheets. While the hemorrhaging is most dramatic in news media, the book market has been affected as well.

A dwindling number of Americans are buying books—56% last year, down from 61% in 2002, according to the Washington Post. With the heavy chords of the funeral organ almost audible, everyone in print media is belatedly asking one question: how can we make money off the internet?

Everyone, that is, except for folks in the comics industry. Because we started having this conversation ten years ago.

The first (extremely unpaid) job I ever held in the biz was at a digital comics company. When it launched, the company, called Komikwerks, was a kind of proto-Zuda: the idea was that people would read comics for free online, get excited about them, and eventually buy them in print. In response to the question “Do you really think people will pay for something they can get for free?” the progenitors of KW answered “Yes.”

         

Well, they were right. Digital history has proven that if you present, package and market your material properly, people will volunteer to pay for it. Some of the biggest blogs make money solely off of donations—sometimes hundreds of dollars a month. Not enough to turn a blog into a Fortune 500 company, but a promising sign of the way a wired economy might work in the future.

Zuda, the digital arm of DC Comics, has had success with a similar strategy: publish comics online, cultivate a following, and when you send the most popular titles to print—bam, instant paying fan base. BAYOU, the lushly drawn Zuda title set in a fantastical Deep South, has gone on to win awards once reserved solely for straight-to-print comics.

The rise of the smartphone has opened up even more horizons for digital art. Launched earlier this year, Robot Comics provides a range of titles designed specifically for viewing on mobile devices. Comics are now available on the Amazon Kindle. As the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, comics are available on almost every digital platform there is.

So what do comics folk understand that major book and newspaper publishers don’t? Simple: they know the internet is not simply a medium of information exchange—it’s also a social structure. Readers are only willing to pay for internet content (or pay for print content they get for free online) if they have access to the people who create it. All inter-net inter-action began with listservs, closely followed by blogs. There is a very specific culture that goes along with this kind of media; readers expect not just information, but conversation.

This is what differentiates the internet from print media as a method of info-delivery. You can’t argue with a newspaper. You can argue with a blogger. The same is true of digital comics—and of print comics, for that matter. Print comics have a far better chance of survival in the 21st century if their creators have an internet presence, allowing fans—and critics—to interact with them directly.

This is the reason Rupert Murdoch’s ham-fisted content crackdown won’t work. It misses half of the reason the internet exists: people are becoming smarter, more socially invested consumers of information. If they can’t engage the professionals who produce what they read, they’re not going to pay for it.

Until the paleopundits figure out what the comics industry has known for years, things are unlikely to improve for print media.

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Comments

  • Fletch Adams

    Fletch Adams Sep 7, 2009 at 4:51pm

    It seems to me a lot of the struggles behind the shifting nature of all media in the 21st century, is in figuring out the difference between "accepting" and "embracing" new technology. For as many digital comic successes there have been, there's been just as many misses. As you point out, there's the difference between just posting newspaper articles on a website and charging, vs. creating some sort of interactive forum. I don't think we'll see "the end" of newspapers, but we're certainly seeing which ones have the courage to evolve into something new.

  • Fletch Adams

    Fletch Adams Sep 7, 2009 at 4:52pm

    btw - welcome to the Frontier!

  • Mike NY

    Mike NY Sep 7, 2009 at 8:19pm

    I think what you say is true, however, I also think that comics are a completely different entity than just "print" media. They've been successful, and unsuccessful, for the excact same reasons they are in print. There's a collectible value to comics that you don't see in newspapers. You see it some in books because there are collectible to a certain extent, but they are rare to warrant some of the resales and back issue bins you see in comics.

    Don't get me wrong, I do think that the subculture surrounding comics, be it blogs, chats, cons or just simple twittering helps them succeed where newspapers can't. I think that comics would survive being a print media even if digital became the best source of reaching the most people. After all, how are you going to get the creators and artists to sign your Iphone...

  • willow

    willow Sep 7, 2009 at 8:33pm

    Thanks for the welcome Fletch! Mike, I think you're right that there are other facets of the comics business that help determine the health of the industry...good point about collectibility.

    David Lapham (author of Young Liars and Silverfish) had some really good thoughts in response to this...he posted them in Twitter so they read kind of like a sonnet:

    DavidALapham@g_willow YES! People WANT to support stuff they like. For example, the availability of "free music" online. Is this stealing? Hmm...
    DavidALapham@g_willow Sharing music with others and...um...sampling an album or two now and again has increased my SPENDING at least 10x.
    DavidALapham@g_willow Letting people read comics for free say, interacting with people is essential. FAns/people understand that this is how we--
    DavidALapham@g_willow --make our living. They will eventually buy IF they like. I think these people see that a thousand looked at this thing--
    DavidALapham@g_willow --for freea dn we lost a thousand sales. Well no, you got a thousand people to try something if a few like and buy the next--
    DavidALapham@g_willow --thing then you're building a following, AND you didn't piss off the other 998 people because you made them spend $5.
    DavidALapham@g_willow God, 140 characters is not a lot, is it?
    DavidALapham@g_willow I didn't realize how desperate the newspaper dinosaurs are. Wanting to charge for news people can get elsewhere--
    DavidALapham@g_willow --is like charging for air. They lash out like feeble old men, even blaming Craigslist for Crikey's sake.
    DavidALapham@g_willow It would be sad to see newspapers go, but guess what something else would take their place so fast i doubt anyone would notice.

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Sep 8, 2009 at 9:03am

    And a hearty welcome from "BF London" as well... I think you're very right in focusing on that level of social interactivity/connectivity as the lynchpin in the working webcomics model and an impetus for the transition to re-investing in a future printed edition. What does bring a slight smile to my face is that, for those who *don't* buy a follow-up printed version, the webcomics mini-revolution has, in a certain way, actually brought comics back to a position they were in pre-the direct market: re-establishing them as potentially ephemeral and disposable entertainment to a whole new generation of readers. Kind of like an electronic version of a rolled-up copy of SPIDER-MAN in a nine-year-old?s back pocket?

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Sep 8, 2009 at 9:05am

    Not sure why some of my apostrophes turned into question marks there... ;)

  • Steve Kanaras

    Steve Kanaras Sep 8, 2009 at 9:53am

    Welcome Willow! I believe your insight into the "accessibility" to creators is spot on, that sort of model might be fundamentally deadly on a news level. The lines are already dangerously blurred on television, where many folks get their news from Glenn Beck or John Stewart, and receive a pseudo-news, heavily slanted view of events. I don't think there has ever been a purely unbiased media, but there was at least a conscious effort to achieve one (I heard Tom Brokaw speaking about this, and he said he's never uttered verbally who he has ever voted for). So for entertainment purposes, I think this kind of social interaction is fine, especially where most digital content has very little in the way of editorial interference, I think news requires that wall of separation. I actually think alot about this...the availability vs. selection of information that people receive and the vicious polarization that has ensued in this country. People are debating the same issue, but armed with very different, equally propagandized information. It leaves little chance for a meaningful debate. Its pretty scary really.

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Sep 9, 2009 at 4:52am

    Welcome to the Frontier, Willow! I think I'm on Steve Kanaras' side here. The model of accessibility to writers of journalism seems to thrive on a sensation-mode of thinking that does not seem to press forward an objective level of news reporting. The net already polarises people to an extreme due to its opinionated nature and incorporating this model into news sites is just wrong. That's why they have a 'Opinion' feature in a newspaper I guess but on the net, with its many commenting features, every item of political nature seems to disappear in this flurry of opinions ...

  • willow

    willow Sep 9, 2009 at 12:56pm

    I disagree. News media shouldn't be a monolith, staffed by people that consumers of news can neither question nor keep honest. In the old news model, you picked up your newspaper every morning, and what was on the front page was what you knew. There was no alternative source of news that provided a different perspective. There was no way to question what you were being told. Today, with torrents of information (and, yes, propaganda) available, people are getting smarter about news consumption. Even on blogs you see people pressing amateur authors for their sources, their information, questioning their train of logic. Is it chaotic? Yes, but chaotic is better than asleep. Even if it gives rise to greater partisanship, I'd rather see millions of people holding news media accountable for what it prints and states than dumbly consuming their daily dose of information from a single (or a few) unquestionable source(s). And accessibility is a huge part of that.

    "Rome is the mob" as Senator Graccus says in Gladiator. :) And he's right. This is the nature of democracy, and thus the nature of a more democratic production and consumption of information.

    Keep in mind, if print news was flourishing, we wouldn't need to have this conversation. Clearly people want something they're not getting.

  • Steve Kanaras

    Steve Kanaras Sep 9, 2009 at 2:16pm

    good points. Although I think the business of newspapers is declining because several of the "other" reasons people bought the papers for is irrelevant/outdated. People used to buy papers to see what movies were playing, the crossword, astrology, the comics, sports scores, recipes,etc...All these things were cheap to provide and the increased sales help to fund the "news" apparatus. As these ancillary reasons for purchasing the paper became more easily accessible online, circulation figures plummetted. It wasn't the choice to get the "news" elsewhere, but rather to get these information bits. That, in addition to e-bay and craigslist which makes newspaper classified ads obsolete and you have the deadly recipe. Real estate moving online too.

    So I think the drop in sales necessitates a new model for news not because people rejected the old "objective" model, but rather because the economic foundation was blown out from under it. The danger with a blurred line between opinion and factual reporting is that people usually gravitate or believe information that reinforces already held opinions (and some are completely the opposite, like me, who consumes much more conservative press just to check out what the enemy is doing).

    Very interesting and brave new world we have entered.

  • willow

    willow Sep 9, 2009 at 6:24pm

    I agree with you that the line between opinion and fact has been dangerously blurred, and I am certainly not arguing to blur it further. I'm arguing for more accountability, not more biased commentary. I think people need to feel they can hold journalists personally accountable to a rigorous standard of fact-checking and thorough analysis--this is where accessibility comes in in a positive way. Sadly it seems that after the advent of the war in Iraq, when many prestigious newspapers simply ran digested versions of White House press releases instead of doing their own investigative journalism, people grew distrustful of the fourth estate in general. Its credibility, along with the whole premise of journalistic objectivity, was badly damaged. I feel that the rise of the so-called 'citizen journalist' is an attempt to rebalance the scales using the more democratic platforms of blogging, listservs etc. So to sum: I am not, nor was I ever, suggesting we needed more empty, biased commentary out there. I'm suggesting that if print media wants to survive the transition to the internet, it has to adopt a culture of greater transparency. These days, people will only pay for information if they feel invested in it.

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Sep 10, 2009 at 3:33am

    @Steve "people usually gravitate or believe information that reinforces already held opinions" and @willow "I'm arguing for more accountability, not more biased commentary." This is a great discussion and I am left without nothing to say. Steve and Willow, your last two posts really sum it up very eloquently and ... I agree completely. I was indeed keeping a distance from the 'wrongfully' opinionated commentator, not advocating a ban on commenting or calls for transparency. I am really loving this digital environment we all inhabit and the way it influences the world. The best recent example I can think off are ofcourse the uprisings and demonstrations in Iran that distributed information through Twitter and blogs. Btw I finally got around to reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, I would recommend this as a nice postulation on how bad/good things can get with info transferral.

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