Early in my stint as editor of the News & Record, I decided the comics pages needed updating. We ran an in-paper readership survey and replaced three or four old, tired strips with fresher ones. Two we dropped were Gasoline Alley and Mark Trail.
One time I pulled a comic strip because a character referred to being SOL. I tried to imagine a parent explain to an 8-year-old what that meant. But at about the same time, I watched my own children quickly toss aside the comics page without reading it. Cartoons on TV were more interesting. What I had always heard — comics were a gateway for young people to get into the newspaper habit — had run its course.
I soon decided that messing with the comics was a fool’s game; there’s nothing to gain. And newspapers still haven’t learned this lesson. Want some current reader reaction? Here are two letters published in today’s News & Record relating to this. The first line of one: “Read my lips: Just leave the comics pages alone.”
In my day, I did. I didn’t change a comic strip again unless the strip itself stopped publishing.
So I was intrigued by a tweet earlier this week from my colleague Andy Bechtel.
Hilarity ensued. Well, a long thread did, ending with twitterati promoting or trashing specific strips, games and puzzles. But some light pierced through the fog.
Robyn Tomlin, the editor of the N&O, has had the same experience with comic strips as I.
Brooke Cain, a reporter for the N&O, responded to a comment I made with a smart observation that hadn’t occurred to me.
For one, you want to be the kind of paper where people still pay for the paper. I hear from a lot of readers who read us online but still get print bc they like puzzles & comics. I don’t think people who read comics DON’T read the news. It doesn’t have to be one or the other
— Brooke Cain (@brookecain) February 13, 2019
That’s exactly why my neighbor subscribes. She needs the Sudoku. If my paper canceled the Jumble and bridge column — and Carolina has a bad season — my wife would be finished with the paper.
I don’t read the comics page. I saw Andy’s tweet and instinctively agreed. But that was me wearing my private citizen hat. Brooke reminded me that editors wear a different one. And readers value comics and puzzles in the same way that they prefer ice cream to broccoli.
Mess with the comics at your own peril.