Restraint of Funnies

Can this implacable advance be stopped? In 1988 the Daily Herald of northwest Cook County expanded into Du Page. In 1991 it pushed farther west and penetrated Kane. Circulation in 1983 was just under 60,000. Today it’s more than twice that.

But the Daily Herald confesses to having an Achilles’ heel–its comics page doesn’t measure up. The Herald’s flagship strip is Frank & Ernest. It does not carry Peanuts, Doonesbury, Cathy, Blondie, Calvin and Hobbes, Hagar the Horrible, B.C., Garfield, or Wizard of Id. It covets every one.

“Considered together the Sun-Times and the Tribune have exclusive licenses in the Chicago Area Market to virtually all of the popular comics controlled by Tribune Media, Creators, King, United and Universal and a broad range of other comics,” beefs the Herald’s publisher, Paddock Publications. This is business as usual in the newspaper game, and Paddock wants to put an end to it. Last week it named both Chicago papers and the five syndicates in a lawsuit filed in federal court.

“For instance,” says the suit, “the Tribune and the Sun-Times have exclusive licenses to the 12 most popular comics. . . . A newspaper such as the Daily Herald that is denied access to the most popular comics . . . is at a severe disadvantage if it attempts to compete in any market . . . with newspaper companies such as the Tribune and the Sun-Times that are able to publish such popular comics.”

Paddock claims the Herald’s disadvantage runs even deeper than the syndicated comics (and columnists such as Dave Barry and Paul Greenberg) it can’t touch. Even the news the Herald gets to print is second-rate. The Tribune enjoys exclusive access to the New York Times News Service, the Sun-Times to the Los Angeles Times/Washington Post News Service. The Herald must make do with the AP.

“Access to at least one of these two services is essential to enable the Daily Herald to provide the comprehensive and authoritative news reporting necessary to attract a large readership with diverse interests and to compete effectively,” says Paddock’s lawsuit.

So Paddock is also suing the two news wires it claims the Herald has been denied. The suit notes that because of agreements between the two blue-ribbon news services and less prestigious ones–such as Hearst, Newhouse, and Gannett–all these are beyond the Herald’s reach as well.

In a much earlier era big papers like the Tribune could tie up rights to popular features over areas that were measured not by counties but by states. Today’s industry guide is the “20 percent rule” that emerged from a 1975 Boston court decision: this rule of thumb (which is all it is) holds that a newspaper can buy exclusive rights to a syndicated feature in any county in which its circulation reaches at least 20 percent of the households.

In 1986 a New Jersey paper outside Philadelphia went to court seeking access to the LA Times/Post service. That suit challenged the Philadelphia Inquirer’s exclusive license to the wire on grounds that the license was unreasonably broad and the plaintiff didn’t compete with the Inquirer anyway.

The New Jersey paper lost. The Daily Herald is taking the opposite tack. In an era of declining circulations, it stresses that it’s on the move, posing a mounting challenge to the Tribune and Sun-Times. It asks the court to make this entrenched competition “cease violating the federal antitrust laws.”

One legal precedent cuts in the Herald’s favor, and offers a nice historic irony to boot. In 1945 Marshall Field III’s Chicago Sun, forerunner of the Sun-Times, sued the Associated Press. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Field, ending the system whereby the AP member paper in a given city enjoyed that wire exclusively. Unfortunately for the Daily Herald, it’s not clear how that ruling would help Paddock against the syndicates; Marshall Field wasn’t hunting for A-list comics.

“A syndicate is a hybrid between a publishing company and a talent agency,” Rick Newcombe, the president of Creators Syndicate, explained to us. “Part of our job is to gain maximum exposure for our clients. The only way a paper like the Herald can win is if it cultivates the syndicates and buys a whole lot more features and pays big-city rates. The syndicates like to go to the best buyers. The suburban papers typically pay one-fifth the rate of the downtown papers.”

The big metro papers are offered new strips first, and only if they reject them do the smaller suburban papers get a crack. This opens what Newcombe called the “window of opportunity”–a suburban paper that buys a strip first (almost certainly not exclusively) gets to keep it even if it becomes a big hit and is picked up downtown. Big papers are historically slow to pick up new strips, strips as promising as Peanuts or Garfield or Doonesbury. Unfortunately, Newcombe observed, suburban papers are no quicker.

“The only supplemental news services and features available to the Daily Herald,” says the suit, “are those that are available to all newspapers on a non-exclusive basis or are not popular enough to interest the Tribune or Sun-Times.” Whatever the legal merits of this observation, in its spirit it is suspect; what Paddock’s asking for here is a greater right to imitate.

Paddock makes the stronger point that the Tribune and Sun-Times use little of the material that comes to them over the two news wires. Therefore “such information is unavailable to most readers of general interest newspapers in the Chicago Area Market.”

Hoarding information is not attractive. However, in the Tribune’s case, Paddock’s objection becomes slightly less compelling next month. As of January 17, what Tribune editors put into their paper will be complemented by what they put into your home computer. Let’s say the paper carries an account of a Cairo summit; an icon alongside the article will let you know the full text of the joint statement is available through America Online.

The Tribune will begin by offering 50 to 100 extra features each day. The New York Times News Service will be the source of some of these.

Sleeping in Washington

Last week we wrote about James Warren taking over the Tribune’s Washington bureau. Here’s an example of what’s wrong with it.

The day he arrived Harvard University released to the Washington media a study that reported that the segregation of black and Hispanic students is increasing in the nation’s public schools.

The Sun-Times ballyhooed the story on page one with a couple charts comparing segregation in Illinois to other large states and a photo taken in a heavily Hispanic Chicago school. Inside was a story about the Harvard study under the byline of Lynn Sweet, one of the paper’s three Washington reporters. It focused on Chicago, Illinois, and northwest Indiana.

The Tribune has 16 reporters in Washington. It carried a story from the New York Times News Service that didn’t mention Chicago or Illinois.

Christmas Cheer

And now, at this hour of obligatory high sentiment, we turn to the existentially challenged Frederick J. Auerbach.

You met Fred here last year, along with his creator, Chicago publicist Steve Crews. “What is Fred to me?” Crews tried to explain. “Fred is the part of you that hurts.”

One night last week Crews sat in a car on Berteau Street desperately composing another saga about his troubled alter ego. Gusts of yuletide merriment beat against him from a house around the corner. But Crews knew he would be jeered, pummeled, and driven off with sticks should he try to enter the party without fresh news from Fred.

Crews calls the new poem “Fred’s Special Gift”:

Everyone looked forward to a gift from Fred

Wrapped in Fred’s meticulous way.

Chosen with pride and obvious care

They were the hit of the family’s Christmas Day.

Uncle Otto got a belt, Auntie Fay a silken scarf,

Sister Bess a skirt and Gramma Gert was graced

With gloves. Mom got a blouse. Daddy got some ties.

Each tribute manifesting wretched taste.

Gifts unwrapped, they dispatched Fred out upon a simple errand.

(The tradition had been going on for years.)

Then they held up Freddy’s gifts, sharing chortles and guffaws,

‘Til their rosy cheeks were streaked with mirthful tears.

How they laughed at Freddy’s presents–Sister Bess, the folks,

Frail Gramma, Uncle Otto, and the lovely Auntie Fay.

They LAUGHED and LAUGHED at Freddy’s absolutely AWFUL gifts,

Which truly were the hit of Christmas Day.

Peace to you.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.