Nothing fires up newspaper readers like changes to the comics section.
That's something former Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple acknowledged in "The Funnies Aren't Funny Anymore," our 2007 state-of-the-art critique. And his words were borne out the next year, when the Rocky dared to toss "Garfield" in the litter box -- only to back off mere weeks later due to the volume of complaints from people still amused by thirty-year-old lasagna jokes.
The Denver Post played it safer when making changes this week. For one thing, its Monday announcement didn't mention the strips it had cut -- a whopping 22 in all. Moreover, it hung onto most of the longest running strips, with a few exceptions -- like the divisive cult fave "Zippy the Pinhead." Here's the list of canceled comics, in the order shared by Post managing editor/administration Jeanette Chavez.
"The Argyle Sweater"
"Dog Eat Doug"
"The Flying McCoys"
"The Fusco Brothers"
"Cul De Sac"
"Little Dog Lost"
"Zippy the Pinhead"
Why so many removals? Cost seems to be the obvious reason. In last Friday's edition, comics and puzzles took up four broadsheet pages, with no allotment for advertising. On Monday, in contrast, these features filled just under three-and-a-half pages that were padded out with three large house ads -- space that can now be sold in the new configuration.
Still, Chavez stresses that no single factor motivated the move.
"I think it's a variety of things," she says. "Certainly, the comics do cost us money. But in addition, at a certain point you have to start looking at whether you have the right mix, or too many comics -- because certain things can get lost when you have as many as we've had. And certain people in our survey actually told us we had too many comics. That's very unusual."
Indeed, the Post's comics section has been huge -- in all likelihood the largest at any daily newspaper in the country -- thanks to the closure of the Rocky. At the press conference announcing the paper's final issue last February, Post publisher/MediaNews Group boss Dean Singleton reassured Rocky readers that the Post would run all the comics that had previously appeared in the tabloid. And in the weeks that followed, the comics were used as a major selling point in getting Rocky subscribers to take the Post.
But over the past year, the newspaper business hasn't gotten any healthier, and neither has MediaNews Group, whose holding company recently filed for bankruptcy protection. Moreover, the Post retained a much higher percentage of Rocky loyalists than anyone other than Singleton anticipated.
Chavez doesn't mention any of these developments in regard to the pink-slipped comics (many of which had been Rocky staples) -- but she does emphasize how deliberately the Post went about the process of determining what should stay and what should go. Readers were surveyed on their favorite strips and puzzles, she notes, and more than 18,000 responded. Of that number, she says approximately 8,000 responses were cut out of the physical paper and snail-mailed to the Post. In all likelihood, the latter group was made up of older readers who still enjoy strips that many younger folks see as hopelessly stale. For instance, both "Blondie" and "Beetle Bailey" were among the top fifteen favorite comics among survey-takers.
As of late yesterday afternoon, Chavez says the number of gripes about the excisions had been quite modest.
"Certainly we've gotten calls," she admits. "But the general feeling I've gotten from the first day is that while we have some people who feel passionately about a certain comic or puzzle, it's not an extraordinary outpouring given the changes that we've made."
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Nonetheless, she's not ready to declare this particular bullet dodged.
"Let's wait a few days to see what people think," she says.
A good idea, particularly given the Rocky's "Garfield" experience. Here's a roster of top vote-getters from the Post's poll:
5. "For Better or Worse"
7. "Baby Blues"
9. "Beetle Bailey"
10. "Classic Peanuts"
12. "Sherman's Lagoon"
14. "The Family Circus"
15. "Mother Goose and Grimm"