Q: On the Facebook group Leonard Starr Appreciation Society James Gauthier, who was friends with Starr, played a role in On Stage being collected and runs the group has been posting On Stage promotional pieces, not only to herald the impending start of the strip or a newspaper picking it up but to tease a new storyline. He has also posted some promotional pieces from when Starr took over Annie plus some storyline teasers for early storylines.
Do you have a sense to what extent client papers printed this sort of stuff? Gauthier has even shared photos of On Stage being promoted by at least one paper with a display window at the newspaper headquarters onto the street and banners on the side of delivery trucks. Comic Strips were a big deal for attracting readers in the golden age so it is plausible some papers would ballyhoo adding one or promoting a news storyline. Did some papers have a reputation for running promos more so than others?
A: That’s a good question, and yes, there definitely was an era when newspapers promoted their comics, some with great vigor. That era is long over, but back in the 1920s through 1970s or so you could count on quite a few papers — not all by any means — actively promoting the comics they ran through promos in the paper and even sometimes in their outside advertising.
Because many people in charge at newspapers are embarrassed by the pulling power of their comics, promos from the syndicates often went straight into the circular file. But in big cities where there was intense competition between papers, one way to set yourself apart and attract readers was with a good line-up of comics, and you ignored that at your peril. Smart marketers realized that their paper might cover the news somewhat better than the competition, or offer a different editorial slant, but for many readers the decision about which paper to buy was based more on the features the newspaper offered. Some might buy a particular paper for a good columnist, or a movie reviewer, or a better crossword puzzle, but plenty of people (not to mention their kids) chose a newspaper at least in part because of the comic strips that were offered.
The question then, is why did this end? The answer is lack of competition. When most cities became one-newspaper towns, why should those papers waste column-inches or outside advertising trying to sell you on a particular comic strip — you have no other option. Your only choice is whether to buy a paper every day or not. If you really despise the local paper, then your other options — USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times — don’t carry comic strips. So like it or lump it, what they print is what you get.
A secondary factor worth mentioning is the computerization of newspaper layout. This began in the 1970s, and as software got better and better, the machine version of the layout man got really good at solving layout problems. Rare was theoccasion now when a page would be laid out and a hole would need to be filled with in-house content. When those holes became scarce, one of the things that used to fill them — comic strip and other promos — became rare.
The syndicates can take a tiny slice of the blame, too. When newspapers curtailed their use of promotional materials, it was natural for the syndicates to become more and more lax about producing them. Nowadays even if a newspaper wanted to run promotional material, they’d find that the syndicates are so out of the habit of producing it that there’s little available, and not much energy for producing some of it for them.