A rule of thumb most community newspaper publishers follow holds that one does not want to mess with the comic line-up. It seems that readers have extreme loyalty with the cartoon strips they choose to read. That is why when we started studying ways in which we could improve our largest and most read newspaper of the week, the Sunday edition, we went directly to the readers and asked for your opinion.
We published a survey ballot in the Bulletin in March and asked you to rate the 14 strips in the Sunday color comic section. We asked if a particular comic strip was a favorite, whether we should keep it, or drop it, and there was also a box on the ballot to mark if one was ambivalent. I am not sure if the results support the rule of thumb, but a considerable number of ballots were returned to us. Only two of the strips, Dilbert and Frank & Ernest received an unfavorable rating by more than half of the respondents and even their numbers were close enough to warrant keeping them.
The motivation behind the survey was not cost cutting but rather how can we better serve the Brown County audience.
The Bulletin purchases the color comics from a large commercial printer that prints several different generic sized sections for newspapers all over the country. The one-size-fits-all approach has allowed small community newspapers like the Bulletin to get the economy of scale and be able to afford a color comic section. The contract with the printer has been in existence for over 25 years. The technology today affords us the opportunity to look at other options and to not have to settle for the same comic strips as hundreds of other newspapers. Part of the comic cost is the royalty rights paid to the cartoonist and the syndicate that distributes them. The syndicates can digitally transmit them to the Bulletin as easily as they do the printer in New York. Printing a color comic section in house, and eliminating the freight costs, would allow us to add new strips, perhaps some other features as well.
The comic section is just one of the areas we are exploring in an attempt to target new and different audiences and better serve existing ones on Sunday. On the heels of the response we received to the comic survey, we hope readers will be as generous with their time and give us their thoughts on the television section. There did not used to be as many options available as there are today, when television viewing primarily involved network programming.
In addition to the networks, there are cable stations, satellites that provide pay-for-view programming, sports events, movies many of which have multiple viewing times during the day. If a viewer does not find one of the times convenient, there are multiple devices on the market to capture the program for later viewing. The survey will be designed to help us provide the type of information in a television section that readers use. For instance, are movie reviews and ratings important? What about celebrity profiles or Soduku puzzles?
In this fast-paced environment, some believe businesses cannot maintain the status quo, if they are not moving forward they are falling behind. I am not sure if that is accurate, but introducing a Saturday edition of the Bulletin three years ago and changing the publishing cycle to a.m. 18 months later were major changes for the newspaper, and the feedback indicates they have been well received by readers. The Sunday edition has remained virtually unchanged for quite some time; there are four sections, main news, sports, lifestyles and classifieds. The technology that allows us to consider producing our own comic section also affords us the opportunity to ramp up the entertainment package on Sundays.
Monday through Saturday the Bulletin carries a crossword puzzle. But the only puzzle in Sunday is the one in the television guide. Should there be another? What about other types of puzzles? There is a growing interest in wine and wineries in the area of Central Texas what about a wine column in the newspaper? Or recipes and handy hints for do it yourselfers?
I think you get the idea. We thank the readers who took the time to fill out the comic survey and helped provide us with valuable data. We hope you will take the same approach with the television guide and feature survey.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.