Changing the funny pages is no laughing matter

They don’t pass out an instructional manual to people who run newspapers. If they did, one of the top rules would surely be to avoid changing the comics.

For every strip cherished by a reader, there’s likely to be someone who hates, hates, hates the same comic.

That’s why there was a collective holding of breath here at the Herald this week when the strip “Zits” replaced “Cul De Sac.” Today “Zits” will run in the Sunday comics for the first time.

“Cul de Sac” wasn’t dropped because of its content. Creator Richard Thompson retired.

If readers disliked the change, for the most part they kept it to themselves. Or maybe many readers just liked the new addition.

“‘Zits’ is really well known and very popular,” said Neal Pattison, Herald’s executive editor. “Almost all of the reaction has been positive.”

Still editors and publishers know to tread carefully when making any changes — major or minor — to the comics. The last major overhaul of the comics in the Herald came under former executive editor Stan Strick, who conducted a readers poll.

He found opinions all over the board.

In the poll, readers gave positive marks for comics they enjoyed and negative marks for ones they didn’t. “Dilbert” turned out to be a polarizing strip. Among young men, “Dilbert” received the highest positive marks. Among women readers and men in other age groups, the comic received a high number of negative marks.

And it was like that for many of the other comics that run in the Herald. Strick’s decision in the end was to try to give each distinct group some of the comics that they seemed to enjoy.

When Strick retired, he advised Pattison to pass on making any major changes to the comics.

Five or six syndicates produce almost all of the comics that run in newspapers. And those syndicates shop new comics to newspaper editors continuously. Most of the comics fade away although some stick.

If changes are needed, Pattison has assembled some journalists in the newsroom who have given him some opinions on what should be selected. Those journalists nominated “Zits.”

Of course, one change that is affecting all newspapers — and all media — is the Internet. For the most part, the Herald puts all of its content onto the web.

The exception is comic strips.

Pattison says there’s a higher cost for publishing comics online. He hasn’t been able to justify the added cost, because most comics are available on other websites.

Syndicates have been trying to lure editors into buying online comics. The groups have gone so far as to animate some comics and hiring voice actors to read the lines. Pattison said he believes that changes the experience — and maybe not for the better.

“I think the industry knows they have to make these things popular and accessible on the web,” Pattison said. “We just haven’t seen a formula that makes that happen.”

As more readers migrate to mobile phones to get their news, newspapers may look at providing comics in that format. But that’s something that’s still in the future.

For the present, the comics will still be delivered with the newspaper at the front porch.

“Regular features in newspapers are there to help people build a habit and we’ve always known that’s one of the things comics do,” Pattison said. “Maybe I can go without knowing what the city council voted for last night, but I can’t go without seeing my favorite comic strip today or doing my crossword puzzle.”

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