Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A Day in the Life of a Company That Traces Its Roots Back to 1902 -- and Tries to Offer Features Relevant to 2004

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A Day in the Life of a Company That Traces Its Roots Back to 1902 -- and Tries to Offer Features Relevant to 2004

Article excerpt

At the company that distributes "Get Fuzzy," no one needs to tell the 120 staffers to "Get Busy." There's much to do at a large syndicator like United Media -- as E&P found during a daylong visit to its New York City headquarters.

"Peanuts" remains United's biggest money-maker four years after Charles Schulz's death. About 2,400 papers carry "Peanuts" reruns, and licensed products continue to abound. But United also has 150 other features, including two more comics -- Lynn Johnston's "For Better or For Worse" and Scott Adams' "Dilbert" -- with 2,000-plus subscribers.

Clients are always on the mind of Customer Service Manager Carmen Puello, the first person visited by E&P. She and two other customer-service reps in New York field dozens of e-mails and calls a day from newspaper people, readers, and others. "We answer a little bit of everything -- from billing questions to delivery problems," says Puello, who joined United in 1983. That was five years after the 1922-founded United Feature Syndicate (UFS) and 1902-founded Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) syndicate came together under the United Media umbrella.

As she talks, Puello reads an e-mail asking whether a New York state paper is free to buy a feature or whether the feature is locked up by a competitive daily. Puello checks. "The coast is clear," she says. Puello opens another e-mail from a client who switched computers and lost the password enabling it to electronically access United features. Puello steers the request to the correct department. "We try to get back to people within an hour," notes Puello. "We don't let it go to the next day. That annoys people, and they might go somewhere else" -- such as another syndicate.

Now, Puello goes somewhere else, a conference room where she and seven other executives are about to start a meeting. Five of the eight are women, meaning United's upper echelon has more gender diversity than many syndicates.

Senior Vice President/General Manager Lisa Klem Wilson opens the session by reporting that two new features are attracting interest. One is the multicultural "Silo Roberts" comic by multiethnic cartoonist Rob Cabrera, and the other is the "Low Carb for Life" food column by Dana Carpender.

Wilson says potential "Silo" clients include papers looking for something kinder and gentler than "The Boondocks." And the low-carb approach is one being embraced by a rising number of Americans. "It's a lifestyle, not a diet," Wilson says wryly. "It's a religion," adds Managing Editor for Comics Jake Morrissey even more wryly.

Then Executive Director of Editorial Marianne Goldstein gives a preliminary report on United's poll of the NEA package's 600-plus clients, which are asked things like which features they use and don't use.

"'Moderately Confused' is doing very well in the 'Berry's World' spot," Goldstein says, referring to the Jeff Stahler comic that replaced Jim Berry's in the package. Among other features getting good pick-up are editorial cartoons by Stahler and Ed Stein, op-ed columns by Nat Hentoff and Morton Kondracke, medical advice by Dr. Peter Gott, "The Village Idiot" humor column by Jim Mullen, "Everyday Cheapskate" by Mary Hunt, and bridge, crossword, and astrology offerings.

Clients aren't happy with everything. "We received requests for more liberal columnists," says Managing Editor for Editorial Neil Gladstone, while noting that NEA was adding liberal writer Gene Lyons.

Goldstein mentions that "Sense & Sensitivity" advice columnist Harriette Cole of UFS has a paperback due out later this year that United's salespeople would like copies of to show current and prospective Cole clients.

Talk turns to what the syndicate business might be like in 2004 -- and Wilson thinks things will be better than they were in 2003. "Last year, newspapers were holding back on comic changes," she says. "They were preoccupied with the war or had no resources. …

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