Rule No. 1 for a newspaper editor: Don’t mess with the comics.Rule No. 2 for a newspaper editor: If you ever contemplate changing the comics pages, see rule No. 1. I’ve been editor of the Star-Telegram for 18 years at the end of this summer, and I can tell you from personal experience those two rules are good ones to follow (not that I’ve always done it!).The Star-Telegram publishes 40 different comic strips and panels on two pages (and one on our Business pages) at a time when many newspapers run only one page and half as many strips. It costs us about $300,000 in fees and another $200,000 in newsprint annually to deliver those “funnies” to our readers every day, and as I’ve discovered, every single strip has an audience.I’m a comics reader too, and I look at almost all of ours. Some I like more than others, but Sherman’s Lagoon is probably my favorite.It isn’t, however, one of yours. We recently asked our readers to participate in an online poll and vote for their favorite comics , and Sherman’s Lagoon only finished 24th. Nearly 3,000 readers — about 95 percent of them regular subscribers who get their paper delivered at home, not at single-copy retail locations — voted. We asked them to give an opinion on every comic: Is it one of your favorites? Should we keep or drop it, or do you not care?The top five favorites, in order, were Pickles with 1,830 “likes,” then Zits, Luann, Baby Blues and For Better or For Worse.The bottom five, in descending order, were Mutts, Curtis, Piranha Club, Get Fuzzy and then Prickly City, which garnered only 211 “likes.”But in terms of “keep it,” Hi and Lois came in first with 1,240 votes, followed in the top five by Wizard of Id, Hagar the Horrible, B.C. and Beetle Bailey. Prickly City led the “drop it” votes with 1,238, followed by Get Fuzzy, Piranha Club, Pearls Before Swine and Curtis. The votes for “don’t care” were identical to “drop it,” although Close to Home bumped out Piranha Club for fifth place.Although the comics pages are sometimes thought of as something for children, the demographics of our voters certainly didn’t reflect that. The median age was 68, and 57 percent of them were 65 and older. Only 4 percent were under 45.The gender split was 51 percent male, and 34 percent described themselves as Republican, 18 percent as Democrat and the rest declared they were independent.Now comes the hard part: Deciding what to do with this information.Past experience has taught me that no matter how a comic finishes in our poll, if we kill it we will get a substantial number of phone calls and emails from readers threatening to cancel their subscription if we don’t reinstate it immediately.Once, years ago, we canceled three strips and got more than 3,000 angry phone calls (this was in the days before email). So we reconsidered.But things seem to be a little different these days. We recently dropped Doonesbury from the editorial pages when artist Garry Trudeau announced he wouldn’t be doing any new daily strips, and canceled Mallard Fillmore at the same time since we only started running that strip because some readers complained that we weren’t being fair by running a liberal strip with no conservative one.We only got a handful of phone calls and emails after that.We want to keep our comic pages fresh and offer new strips that are becoming popular around the country, but to do that we have to drop some we currently run. Peanuts, for instance, has been in re-runs for nearly 15 years since Charles Schulz died. Even though it’s a “favorite” of our voters, should we retire it?Or should we look at killing some of the strips that ranked at the bottom of our survey (one of which I know is a personal favorite of a retired Star-Telegram publisher, so I know he’ll call).There are no easy answers, but later this year you can look for us to ignore rules Nos. 1 and 2!
Jim Witt is executive editor of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7704 Twitter: @jimelvis