Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Retention Tension: It's Getting Harder to Keep Features Going

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Retention Tension: It's Getting Harder to Keep Features Going

Article excerpt

The biggest syndicates receive 7,500 to 10,000 submissions a year, and sign fewer than 10 of them.

Cartoonists and columnists who beat those incredible odds are home free, right?

Not exactly.

Once a feature is launched, there's no guarantee it will last. Indeed, some syndicates are happy to have 50% of their new offerings stick around for at least five years. Sometimes, the half-decade success rate is more like 20% or 33%.

And retention is harder than ever.

"A smaller percentage of features are making it than 10 or 15 years ago," said Los Angeles Times Syndicate vice president, U.S. syndication Anita Tobias, referring to the industry as a whole.

"It's a tough business that's getting tougher," added Creators Syndicate executive vice president/COO Mike Santiago. "It's no secret that the number of daily newspapers -- and the space for columns and comics -- is declining."

King Features Syndicate editor in chief Jay Kennedy also cited the decrease in cities with competitive dailies and the rise in chain-owned papers, which often have tight feature budgets mandated from corporate headquarters.

"All this has to affect the success ratio of features," said United Media vice president, sales and marketing Lisa Klem Wilson.

Meanwhile, syndicates have lowered their expectations for what constitutes a "keeper." Now, year-old comics with 100 papers are considered quite successful. And columns, which cost less to produce, are doing well when they have 25 or so papers by their first anniversary.

Since rates are based on circulation, most comics and columns need some larger clients to be profitable enough to stay in syndication.

But a new feature with few papers of any size might be retained for a while if there is "buzz" and potential sales growth.

Syndication history is full of features that started slowly and then took off. Witness Scott Adams' "Dilbert," which had less than 100 clients for several years before exploding in the mid-1990s. It now runs in over 1,900 papers, according to United.

The flip side of this is a feature that starts with hundreds of papers -- such as the "Muppets" comic in the early 1980s -- but then fizzles out.

The quality and mass-market appeal of a feature obviously help determine its longevity. But a strong syndicate sales force and self-promotion by the creator certainly doesn't hurt.

And syndicates, knowing how tough today's market is, are choosing features carefully and signing fewer than before.

For instance, the Washington Post Writers Group has launched only about 20 features since 1990, with about 75% of them still in syndication.

"We really take a long time trying to decide what to offer," said WPWG editorial director/general manager Alan Shearer. "One year we introduced just one feature. There's never a quota. We're totally guided by what we think will work."

Tobias believes the feature success rate, while declining, may still be over 50% for the industry as a whole. Why? "Syndicates do a pretty good job of selecting material that's marketable and adds value to newspapers," she said.

What's more likely to last: comics, columns or editorial cartoons?

Shearer said it might be harder to keep comics going because there are so many out there.

Santiago added that an increasing number of papers rotate op-ed columns and editorial cartoons, which can make them easier to sell than comics. …

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