The Wheeler-Nicholson Syndicate, Part VIII

 Yesterday I said that the big rebirth of the Wheeler-Nicholson syndicate would occur in July, and that is the case. But the newspaper world got a preview of the newly invigorated syndicate in June. 

Usually the Editor & Publisher Syndicate Directories are published in July or August, but for some reason in 1926 the directory appeared much earlier, in the June 6 issue. The Major couldn’t have asked for better timing. With his big well-funded plunge into the syndicate market to begin in July, the annual syndicate directory was the ideal venue to announce his venture. And wow, did he announce it. 

Armed with $185,000 to spend on revitalizing the tiny struggling company, he had plenty of money to take on the big boys of the syndicate world. In fact, with that kind of money he could have taken an easy and well-trod road — poach some big syndication stars and assure himself of a good income stream while he continued to build. That’s not what the Major had in mind, though. No, his intention was to set the whole syndicate world on its ear. Perhaps it was his ‘revolutionary’ idea that attracted the money in the first place, so I shouldn’t second-guess him, but the Major was about to embark down a bold but strategically questionable path. 

The 1926 E&P Syndicate Directory printed this full page Wheeler-Nicholson advertisement:


This ad lays out the whole story describing how the Wheeler-Nicholson syndicate was going to subvert the supposedly broken syndicate system. The image is quite blurry, so I’ll reproduce all the pertinent text from the ad below (since replaced by a less blurry image, courtesy of Jim Davidson). Let’s start with the ad copy in the middle: 

At Last, The Feature Paper for Newspapers!

The SYNDICATOR is launched today as the final solution to the syndicate problem. The SYNDICATOR provides the finest syndicate service at the lowest cost on the market.

It smashes custom and prices! It makes syndicate service scientific and certain and ends the chaos in the syndicate field.

The SYNDICATOR cuts cost by doing away with expensive sales force and expensive mail promotion, with costly advertising of separate features and expensive preparation of separate editorial copy. It further cuts costs by carrying advertising.

The SYNDICATOR raises quality by buying fresh, timely material on the open market as does any other periodical. It will end the condition of dry rot and sterility of ideas inflicting the syndicate field.
The paper that subscribes to the SYNDICATOR service will inevitably be the brightest and most sparkling paper in its community.

Watch for your copy of the SYNDICATOR, a standard size paper printed on regular newsprint in eight columns.

Reflect on the vast possibilities that such a service opens up to an editor heretofore shackled by the limitations of old fashioned syndicate methods.

Only one paper in each community can have SYNDICATOR service.


Wheeler-Nicholson, Inc.
Maclom Wheeler-Nicholson, President
373 Fourth Avenue
New York City

In the right-hand column of the advertisement, essentially one long quote from the Major himself, the idea for the syndicate is laid out in more detail. Because of the way the ad is formatted, the start of each line is obscured, so I have either filled in with what was likely there, or when it was unclear, indicated missing text with [-]. 

Publication Radically Lowers Cost and Raises Quality of 

Features — Unique Combination of Clip Service and Mats



Wheeler-Nicholson In Announcement Provides Details of System 

Expected to Revolutionize Feature Marketing

New York, June 5 — Major Malcom Wheeler-Nicholson, President, Wheeler-Nicholson, Inc., today announced the inauguration of a new syndicate service. The debut number of the new weekly feature paper, The Syndicator, was issued today. “Syndicate service as [-] newspapers up to now is basically faulty,” he stated, “There is no reason in the world why syndicate material must continue to be so low in quality and so high in [-] only the newspapers of this nation are well able to acquire material at lower cost if someone will inaugurate a better system.

“Wheeler-Nicholson, Inc., offers this system. This offer is worthy of serious study and hearty cooperation. [-] newspapers is publishing the Syndicator which starts as a weekly [-] but will eventually be converted into a daily syndicate paper, packed and crammed with a wealth of artistic [-] material of highest quality, sold at absolutely the lowest price in the market.

Old Evils Corrected

“The Syndicator at one blow removes all the very [-] evils of the present syndicate system. These evils [-]. As regards the syndicates, they have become [-] entities rather than creative forces. They [-] lacking in originality. Their prices are outlandish. There are too many syndicates bidding up the writers and artists. Too many expensive salesmen maintained. Syndicates indulge too much in costly advertising promotion. They should devote vastly more energy [-] and originating. They have not yet grasped the meaning of the word ‘service’. They indulge in wastefulness, missing [-] of features in trying out unsalable matter and [-]ing poor material. It is difficult for a syndicate, under the old plan, to show originality. It is too expensive a matter to try out new features. Syndicates are [-] with the best artists and writers who will not [-] syndicate work, preferring to sell outright to [-]. Syndicates cannot afford to buy good stuff for [-]s, not knowing whether costs will be met by sufficient revenues. These are a few evils from the syndicate side. On the editorial side are the evils of high prices and the workmanship they receive from the syndicates, the smudgy mimeographed copy, the slip shod work, the harping on one [-]. Editors give syndicate writers and artists publicity and then are forced to pay higher prices because of this publicity. Editors do not receive first rights on good material and are forced to tag along behind even mediocre magazines. The editor is dependent upon syndicates and can only choose the least of the evils offered. Syndicates raise prices whenever and however they can. After a feature has been established by one paper it is very liable to be sold out at a higher price to a competitor. The whole wasteful, clumsy game reacts to the newspaper in the form of mediocre material at the highest price. Today, throughout the country, the newspaper reading public is subjected to third and fourth rate material whereas they are entitled to the best that can be found in the market period.

“Wheeler-Nicholson, Inc. has broken entirely away from old syndicate methods. It strives for originality. It knows from experience that good material will sell itself without heavy sales expense. It specializes on high quality rather than an expensive sales force and returns the savings to the editor in phenomenally low prices. By publishing a syndicate paper it immediately frees itself from the necessity of depending upon the itinerate and inept or the artist and writer who demand long contracts and heavy percentages. It buys new, timely, interesting material in the open market, in the same manner as Life, Judge, Liberty, The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and other publications.

“Not being committed irretrievably to any artist, writer, or feature, except of course such continuous serials or strips as are sold on contract, it can offer an immense assortment of good material to its subscribing papers. The service is kept growing and improving by discarding those features that do not meet with favor and by providing a constant new selection. Wheeler-Nicholson, Inc. features are designed to aid the editor by making his pages sparkle with the best literary and artistic work to be found in America.

Mediocrity is Shunned

“We steadfastly refuse to handle the trite, the banal, and the mediocre. To give a well-rounded service it is necessary for us to handle some stock features but even these are marked with an unusual freshness and vigor. None of our features is retained after it is past its prime but the service is constantly freshened with new ideas. We are constantly on the lookout for new things.

“We shamelessly admit that our best ideas come from where they should come – the newspaper editors themselves. We have developed a most ideally flexible system, a system that is slowly but surely building up a group of selected features, the finest in America. This is due to the fact that we put the burden of selection on the editors of our subscribing papers. We do the preliminary work choosing a few of the best from hundreds of features offered us every week. These are listed as trial features in the Syndicator and are sent out to the editors for their approval or disapproval. “

Okay, so that is pretty strong stuff, and gives us a lot to discuss. But before we do, here’s a transcription of two additional ‘articles’; the first one we can only see the second half of the article text:

. . . Wheeler-Nicholson picturization series include:

“The Adventurers of Vivian Vanity”
“The Gold Bug,” and
“Treasure Island”

Wheeler-Nicholson’s daily comics including:

“Ambitious Ambrose”
“Little Otto”
“Cheerful Charlie”
“Duckville Doings”
“Mike O’kay”
“Looney Land”
“Uncle Eph”
“Squirrel Food”
“College Comics”

“The Syndicator” also contains six pages of features for women, a daily fashion feature for men, two complete pages of sports features, a page of daily editorials with editorial cartoon, a crossword puzzle page, and a page of news pictures.

Subscribers using “The Syndicator” service will clip printed matter, two copies being sent each subscriber for this purpose.

Mats of picturized novels and short stories, as well as mats of all other cuts or illustrations, are forwarded promptly to all subscribers, and mats of the daily picture service are sent daily by fast mail.

“The Syndicator”, one of the most important innovations in the syndicate field in years, is a permanent institution. It provides you with a comprehensive service of the highest class at a minimum of cost.

Wire immediately for price quotation on exclusive rights in your city. The terms will astonish you.

Finally, a short article tells of the syndicate’s new capitalization:

Capital Stock is Increased $185,000

Wheeler-Nicholson, Inc., is solidly founded on a secure financial basis. It recently has increased its capital stock by $185,000 to finance the publication of “The Syndicator”. It banks with the Guaranteed Trust Company of New York where inquiries in reference to it can be made. It already has a large and ever growing list of papers using its various features, listed in “The Syndicator”.

There’s a lot to digest in this advertisement, or perhaps we should call it a manifesto. Wheeler-Nicholson indicts the whole syndicate system in a passionate tirade. His arguments against the “evils” in the system aren’t exactly the stuff of reasoned debate, but he certainly comes across as a man who has diagnosed a problem and has formulated a solution. 

His argument against the “present system” is that the features offered are low in quality and priced too high. He takes this as a given, and what newspaper editor is likely to argue a point like that. He offers his take regarding the cause of the pricing problem: first, there are too many syndicates, which allows creators to command high prices for their wares by pitting one against the other. Second, syndicates spend too much on marketing in order to compete against this surfeit of competition. 

One could say that these so-called problems are simply the result of a healthy competitive marketplace, and ultimately, the capitalist system as it is intended to work. Turning the argument around, if the syndicate system was limited to a small number of players, and those syndicates paid low prices for their wares so that they could sell them cheaply, then good writers and artists would not be attracted and features might be cheaper, but they also wouldn’t be very good. This scenario is paradoxical anyway, because if there were very few syndicates, the law of supply and demand tells us that prices will be high, not low, no matter the quality. 

Setting aside the veracity of Wheeler-Nicholson’s accusations, what is his proposed solution? While he has us all hepped up to reinvent the syndicate model, he ends up offering very little if anything that is new. His promise that he’ll send out a plethora of material of all types, all for one low price, is exactly the same plan as his already existing blanket service. The blanket, or budget service, had been created by the NEA syndicate in the 1900s, and it met with great success. This concept was most definitely not an innovation by any means, and going up against NEA, which offered an astounding amount of material for a very low price, was brave bordering on foolhardy.

The other supposedly innovative  aspect of the new service is that the features would all be sent to subscribing newspapers inside a weekly (promised to be eventually daily) publication titled The Syndicator. The only real difference between this and the proof sheets that NEA sends is that Wheeler-Nicholson’s publication will be printed two-sided, which necessitates sending two copies to each subscriber so as they cut out items they don’t lose what was on the back. This might be innovative if the intended effect is to annoy busy editors who have to juggle two copies and review both for material after they have started turning into so much confetti. 

The final innovation Wheeler-Nicholson claims is that he will pay rock-bottom prices to his contributors, and except in extreme cases, will offer them no contract or guarantee of future work. This, he apparently believes, will stimulate his contributors to offer their best efforts on a consistent basis so as not to get cut. Clients will benefit because he will pass along the savings he realizes by treating his contributors like dirt. I won’t waste your reading time explaining the fallacy of this argument. 

I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading this advertisement trying to figure out what is going on. If we assume that Major Wheeler-Nicholson was a complete ninny and he came up with an absolutely absurd plan, how do we explain that $200,000 backing? How would he have gotten investors on board of this express train to nowhere? I kept thinking there had to be an angle. And finally, I think I figured it out. 

The key, I think, is this unobtrusive sentence used in the midst of all the gushing praise for The Syndicator — “it further cuts costs by carrying advertising.” Now what would be the point of publishing advertisements in a publication only seen by the editors and typesetters at subscribing newspapers? Are they going to defray costs with industry ads from the wood flong and typeface suppliers? 

I think not. My belief is that The Syndicator was not meant just for newspapers, but was also going to somehow be leveraged as a newsstand publication. After all, if a blanket service offers fiction, funnies, puzzles, horoscopes, editorials, and columns on every subject, it has everything readers want. So why not offer it directly to those readers? I think that the Major had newsstand aspirations long before his foray into comic books a decade later.

Further evidence that points toward this theory is that if you are selling on the newsstand, you have to print your publication two-sided. Thus Wheeler-Nicholson’s ulterior motive requires them to produce the publication in a format that is a big negative to the newspaper office. I can think of no other reason for them to force editors to work with such an awkward package. 

 For the record, let me restate that the above is purely conjecture. Proof would have to come by way of a copy of The Syndicator sporting a newstand price, and no such thing is known to exist. In fact, I have never encountered, nor have I seen in any library holdings, a single copy of this publication in trade or newsstand guise. Anyone who has one to sell will find me a most generous buyer! 🙂

~ ~ ~ ~

I’m taking the rest of the week off from Stripper’s Guide duties, but this series on Wheeler-Nicholson will continue on Monday with a discussion of the features Wheeler-Nicholson promised in the 1926 Editor & Publisher Syndicate Directory. See you then.

3 comments on “The Wheeler-Nicholson Syndicate, Part VIII

  1. Is it possible that "The Syndicator" might have been meant as some kind of an insert in a newspaper, a la the "Mini Page" of the 1970s? In other words, the newspaper gets a master it uses to produce the insert, which it then puts inside the paper? This might explain why it would never been on a newsstand, on its own.

  2. One thing (of the many) I don't understand about this. I thought newspapers of the time couldn't just shoot plate negatives from a proof sheet. Would each subscribing paper have to re-set text features using The Syndicator as a guide? The Major suggests the syndicate will send out mats for selected items. So is the workflow: Editor receives The Syndicator > Editor chooses features to run and notifies the Major > The Major sends out mats? Sounds like this would add extra lead time for daily papers. In any case, I agree that buying talent at the lowest rates and no contract would not attract the best contributors.

  3. EO — I think that if the Major had meant for the publication to be an insert he would have said so. It's a pretty good idea, and apparently one that didn't occur to him. Too bad you weren't on his board.

    Smurf — Many (all?) papers could make their own mats based on proof sheets, but they also seem to have preferred to have them made by the syndicate — it was extra work they didn't really have the time to do.

    As for sending mats on request, I agree that sounds VERY cumbersome and slow. But if W-N sent mats for everything they claimed they were going to make available each week that would be a lot of mats to send out, so I can see them not wanting to do that (except for a price of course).

    I wish I knew how NEA did this, but I don't. Surely they didn't send out mats for their big weekly packages, but maybe they did???

    Maybe someone else has some insight about how this worked in the way back when? It is a question I've always wondered about, but never seem to get around to researching. Syndicate sales literature seldom makes much mention of such things, which I assume means that everyone in the newspaper biz just knew what the standard practices were and didn't need to be reminded.


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