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Who reads the comics anymore?

Newspapers, readers, cartoonists caught in tug-of-war

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Newspaper and Magazines

(CNN) -- You can't please everybody, but Frank Rizzo tries.

Rizzo, assistant features editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is responsible for overseeing that paper's comics and puzzles, which include several so-called "legacy" comics -- "Blondie," "Peanuts," "Family Circus," "Mary Worth" -- and several younger-skewing strips, including "Get Fuzzy," "Pearls Before Swine" and "Rhymes with Orange."

"It's sort of like programming for a TV network," he says. "You can't target just one audience."

However, those audiences don't necessarily agree.

Younger readers complain about older-skewing strips, says Rizzo, and older readers don't understand the humor of something like "Pearls." Meanwhile, his newspaper, like most in this time of shrinking circulations and aging newspaper demographics (the average age of a newspaper reader is 55, according to a 2005 Carnegie Corp. study), is trying to attract new readers -- an area in which comics can play a key role.

"They do help sell newspapers," says Rizzo, pointing to surveys ranking the importance of newspaper features to readers. "[Comics] are one way of having readers get attached to the paper."

But some newspapers are nervous about taking on edgier strips, says "Get Fuzzy" cartoonist Darby Conley. He observes that he's received complaints from papers about using the word "butt" in his strip, "but then you turn on 'South Park,' and you go, what? It's a really weird situation," he says.

"Newspapers are, in my guess, in 1959 in terms of morality," he says. "They'd rather have a dead comics page than have people writing in."

Tom Daning, the managing editor for syndicator United Media -- and, as such, the final arbiter over the strips United Media puts out -- says newspapers are caught "between a rock and a hard place.

"They're looking for something new and edgy, but many of their readers are over 35," he says. "The whole newspaper industry is antsy. Many are scared to do anything to hurt circulation." It's easier to drop a new comic, he says, than something like "Peanuts," which has an established following.

Some strips have made inroads: Aaron McGruder's "The Boondocks," in the midst of a six-month hiatus, caught on immediately despite its controversial content. Moreover, syndicates (and cartoonists) now have the Internet to expose their wares to a wide audience, says Daning.

Still, "Pearls' " Stephan Pastis worries that the moment for newspaper comics is passing. Sure, strips can be viewed over the Web, but cartoonists (and syndicates) still make their money off newspapers.

"If you ask 20 people in their 20s and 30s if they get a daily newspaper, I'd bet 18 would say they don't," he says. "It may be too late [to attract them]. And if you cancel us [younger strips] because we're edgy, in 12 years, will you say, 'What happened?' "

"It's a tightrope," says the AJC's Rizzo. "How [can you] be cutting edge for one generation but not upset the sensibilities for other readers? There's got to be a balance."

However, as a longtime fan of the genre -- as well as a newspaper editor -- he's hopeful about the future.

"As long as there are newspapers, people will want comics and puzzles. It's a medium pretty specific to newspapers," Rizzo says. "You can get it online, but it's not the same as the printed page."

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