Could Doonesbury Learn Anything From XKCD?

from the help,-I'm-trapped-in-a-newspaper-factory-with-no-business-model dept

Via Poynter Online, there’s a recent interview with Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau where he talks about his post-newspaper media plans and what he sees as his future options while newspapers face significant declines in their circulation numbers.

"Doonesbury" has been on the Web for 15 years, and the site actually makes a little money — unheard-of for media sites. But it’s not really a plan, just a presence. I don’t believe there’s anything I can do personally to prepare for a post-newspaper future, other than hope that the large media companies will come to their senses and form a gated Web collective along the lines of cable TV. They need to form a news utility, financed by subscription or micropayments because going it alone has been disastrous for all of them.

Trudeau continues on, saying that he believes that e-readers are promising because so many people are happy to pay for iPhone apps and Kindle content. He also says that his livelihood doesn’t seem to be threatened in the short-term because only “big newspapers” with loads of debt are really going under — and most small newspapers are still getting by and can support his line of work for the foreseeable future. But, essentially, Trudeau sounds like he’s given up on his own plans for making Doonesbury into a business outside of syndication. (Or he’s being much too modest about the “little money” he earns from his website, and he doesn’t want to offend his current newspaper benefactors.) In any case, he seems to envision a giant news consortium that will be able to retain subscribers due to a form of monopoly advantage. And if that’s really the future of journalism, that doesn’t sound too promising.

Additionally, though, Trudeau asserts that the “Web is a lost cause” because everyone thinks content on the web should be free. But that statement directly contradicts the work of online cartoonists such as Randall Munroe and his xkcd webcomic (which just happens to be one of my favorite examples of a “free” online comic strip). Munroe has a significant following for xkcd and has proven that “free” can be a sustainable way to promote and publish his work. So can we help enlighten Trudeau? Munroe sells prints, t-shirts, a book, and even sponsored comics. Is there a path to becoming the “Trent Reznor of webcomics” for Trudeau? Or is there something unique about Doonesbury that makes it impossible for it to take advantage of “free” distribution?

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Comments on “Could Doonesbury Learn Anything From XKCD?”

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lavi d (profile) says:


Or is there something unique about Doonesbury that makes it impossible for it to take advantage of “free” distribution?

Doonesbury was/is not funny. Ever. I doubt you could make much of a business with it or Family Circus or Drabble or any of the horrible, wretched, unfunny wastes of ink which populate most of current newsprint.

The only newsaper comics in recent memory that were funny were written by realists – Gary Larson, Sam Watterson, Berke Breathed – people who got in, made funny and got out while people were still laughing.

Garfield should be taken out and drowned.

Designerfx (profile) says:

damn, beaten

“Or is there something unique about Doonesbury that makes it impossible for it to take advantage of “free” distribution?”

The problem is the creator is an old, old guy, and change for him is like fear of death. He’s had the easy life, and he doesn’t want to have to put in more work now to have an easy rest of his life.

Matthew Cruse (profile) says:

Other Examples

Another example of “free” webcomics is Sluggy Freelance ( which has been around for years (since 1997) and is pretty succesful. There are to many others to list, but there are lots and lots of them, and they also sell looooooots of t-shirts (and books, mugs, plushes, games, other stuff) as well as exclusive access to some aspects for subscribers. All in all a pretty good business model, for “free” stuff.

Alan Gerow (profile) says:

If he wants to look at a closer source, Scott Adams has done a lot with getting Dilbert on-line. In fact, Dilbert is one of the only comic strips I read regularly because of how accessible Scott Adams has made the strip. With the amount of marketing he throws around with the strip hawking Dilbert on just about everything, I can only image he’s making a decent amount of money off of “free”.

Fracture says:

Re: Re:

I agree that Dilbert’s accessibility is great, and that it is the one cause of my visiting’s entire domain. I was especially pleased to see Yahoo rennovate their online comics section, which was a huge boon by removing the need to reload the page to see previously published comics. Good move! BTW – Doonesbury is the only “Commentary” or “Political Humor” comic I DON’T read.

lavi d (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I believe many of the artists in the article you link to have jobs outside of their online media.

This goes back to the whole question of “value” and the end of super-stardom.

Technology has made it so that anyone can put out a movie/comic/song/etc. It is now truly up to the market which will survive and how much they will make.

To put it another way, is Sylvester Stallone’s acting ability worth millions of dollars?

Is anyone’s acting ability worth millions in a world where anyone can put out a movie and get it seen without the whole studio structure behind it?

Ben Matthews (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

This goes back to the whole question of “value” and the end of super-stardom.

No, I don’t think thats the question brought up. I was just trying to define what we mean by self sufficient. I am wondering if Michael is saying that webcomics are now a hobby due to the market change, and not someone does for a living. Or he means self sufficient to include the artist and not just the comic.

I think it’s an important distinction. Neither one is necessarily right or wrong, but we have to understand that if the former, a comic with a new “free” business model, can only support the comic and not the artist, the artist loses some value in return for his work. If great comics are still being produced this way, thats great for the readers, but it removes a lot of the potential value for an artist outside of loving what they do; you have people being comic artists as a hobby instead of a living.

Like I said none of this is bad if it’s what the market dictates, but you can’t ignore the impact.

lavi d (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I took this sentence:

I believe many of the artists in the article you link to have jobs outside of their online media.

to mean that exactly. In that, perhaps nowadays just being “published” is not enough for a cartoonist anymore, he/she may also need to find other work.

And because of that reality, the true “value” of many things we have come to believe are worth “millions” may be discovered.

Matthew Cruse (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

So trying to answer your question, the answer is “Yes”. i.e “Yes” in some cases the financial return from the artists investment is enough to support himself/herself in a manner they are comfortable with and supports the comic infrastructure. Now remember I said in “some” cases. in others the answer is “Yes” it is just enough to support the comic itself. With mister Trudeau’s back catalog and other works, he is poised to set himself up online and make money like others are already doing, and I would argue he could probably make considerably more than others are based on that same back catalog and name recognition. But it seems he doesn’t want to adapt. Which is fine, his choice. But he shouldn’t be surprised when the changes run him over and he becomes a part of history, like the newspapers are and for the same reasons…a failure to change with the changing technology.

Stirling Westrup (profile) says:

Bad Commercialization.

While I don’t find Doonesbury ‘funny’ in the Ha Ha sense, I do find it an interesting and wry look at the history of American Politics.

Recently, I decided I wanted to read the entire archive from the beginning, but I discovered that, unlike most online comics, one cannot buy a convenient dead-tree version of the entire opus. The best one can get are selected excerpts, so he never got my money because I couldn’t find any way to pay him to get what I wanted.

If he can’t even manage to commercialize himself in the most obvious of manners, I’m not surprised his web site makes only a modest amount of money.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Bad Commercialization.

I guess this warrants the obligatory jab at the “old media” way of doing things”. He may not be able to “commercialize” himself because of his agreements with publishers. Contractually, they call the shots, since they actually publish the materials (and pay the costs to do so). As things change, what was once a good deal may now be changing to a Faustian bargain. Instead of beating up folks who successfully figured out how to succeed based on the terms available to them at the time, it might be wise to think of ways to help them transition into the new way of doing things. (And I don’t mean blogging about it on websites telling them to sell lots of T-shirts. I mean people that might have ideas for mutually beneficial business relationships to replace the ones that have become obsolete.)

Ima Fish (profile) says:

Garry Trudeau is arguing that our news (information about our nations, our towns, our laws, our lives) should be locked up behind a gate. That competition in the news industry is to be tossed away. That we should allow for a single monopolistic collective to filter and disseminate what we read and learn. And lastly that we have to pay for that privilege.

Trudeau’s plan would completely screw us over, we’d get less news, we’d get less diverse news, we’d get highly filtered news, and it would cost us more.

One question for Garry Trudeau: What the frick do we get out of this deal besides an ass reaming?!

chris (profile) says:

penny arcade

penny arcade has parleyed a free webcomic into a video game franchise, an annual expo, and a huge collection of merchandise.

penny arcade is the best example of how to leverage a community to support your work. PA doesn’t have a fanbase, it has a standing army of soldiers who will click on and buy pretty much anything tycho and gabe endorse. talk about money for the taking.

Jim O (profile) says:

Re: Re: penny arcade

“…Penny Arcade is far and away the exception and not the rule.”

Is that because their content is so good? Or is it because they are really good at building a community?

This is an important distinction. Doonesbury may be that bee’s knees, but if the author can’t build and capitalize off of a dedicated fan a base, then he is truly just a slave to the “old way”.

Ben Matthews (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: penny arcade

That is an excellent point. Penny Arcade has done an incredible job as using that rabid following to create a medium that supports itself and themselves, but I think it goes without saying that their talent as comics was the pivotal factor in that. So I guess we weed the possible successful fulltime comics down even further to those who are very talented and those who can market themselves well.

Once again, not a bad thing at all if thats what the market decides. But it’s always good to reflect on possible impacts.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 penny arcade

Which is really the point of most of Mike’s articles. The market decides what succeeds and what doesn’t, good businesses know how to succeed in the changing market, and whining to everyone that the market needs to stop changing is stupid.

I don’t think Mike really cares about who succeeds and fails, at least on an individual basis (though I’m sure he’d get some pleasure from seeing certain businesses collapse).

Ken says:

He gets it...

GT has been ahead of the tech curve since his first public strip in the early 70’s “still a few bugs in the system”. I read him online and his website is well done. The papers need, as he suggests, a gated community to add credibility to the news — now anyone can publish. When we are forced to rely on the blogasphere we will only get an interpretation of the news. I rest my case on the comments to this very post. Who has read his stuff, knows his impact on the Nixon administration, influence on the perception of a generation. As one pointed out GT has had more impact than most and clearly sees the value of an informed press…

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: He gets it...

“The papers need, as he suggests, a gated community to add credibility to the news — now anyone can publish.”

Being in a gated community does not add credibility to news. If anything, it takes away from it.

You know what would give credibility to the news? Actual journalism, which is something very few corporate news sources engage in, and even then, they do it rarely.

People aren’t flocking to alternate news sources because that news is free — they’re flocking to alternate sources because they are looking for real journalism.

jsf (profile) says:

Here are a couple of other things to keep in mind as well.

First, the list of 40 self supporting web comics only lists English language web comics. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were an equal, or even larger, number of non-English web comics that are self supporting.

Second, historically the vast majority of “comic” type artists never made a living off of a single title. For example most comic book artists, including writers, pencilers, letterers and inkers worked on multiple books. Only the hottest creators worked on only a single title, and that wasn’t at all common until the 90’s.

Web comics are still in their infancy and have yet to become anywhere near as “mainstream”, and thus as profitable, as the newspaper comics strip industry which has been around for 80+ years. Give it another 10-15 years and I am sure we will see hundreds if not thousands of artists making a living off of online “comic” properties.

Oh yeah, did anyone mention that historically the majority of newspaper comic strips were done as works for hire and were never owned by the people that drew them?

Nat Gertler says:

Trudeau's monetization

There is not currently a complete dead-trees edition of Doonesbury… but that hardly reflects a lack of commercialization. What other strip that has run that long has complete dead tree editions in the US? (Before you say “Peanuts” – nope, that’s only up to about the halfway point in its completeness.) You can get the first 25 years of Doonesbury on a CD-ROM that’s included with one of the books,
But there have been and continue to be plenty of Doonesbury books (over 60 titles released to date), and I’d bet dollars to donuts that the total number of books sold well outstrips any primarily-online strip. He has also done plenty of merch at times, although the merch money generally goes to charity.
As for how much money he’s made… in 1996, the NYT estimated syndication income for a cartoonist with his strip in 300 papers at $200,000/year. As of 1991, again according to the NYT, Doonesbury was in 1400 papers. And that’s just the syndication money, that doesn’t include the books, the calendars, original art, whatever. So he probably made something roughly on the scale of $10 mill in the 1990s alone.
(And if the strip were to disappear tomorrow, I doubt he’d starve; hopefully, he and his wife, who was earning millions per year herself in the 1990s, tucked some of it away.)

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