There was an interesting and disturbing article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. Mind you, it’s an election year; there are lots of these. But this one hit a few of the hot spots in my consciousness – comic strips and technology. Berke Breathed, author of Bloom County, Opus and the short-lived Outland comic strips, was interviewed regarding the end of Opus. This Sunday will herald the last appearance of his long-lived penguin, a mainstay in each of the three strips. Breathed has a number of reasons for retiring, but among them was the following interesting assertion regarding his readership, or lack thereof:
“…I strolled into a college campus after three years of doing my strip, no one had ever read it. In fact they hadn’t read anything, unless it was something from 25 years ago that their parents had given them the books of. So I already saw that the window was closing, that it was just a matter of a few years.”
His target audience of 20-30 year olds, as far as he could tell, were completely disengaged from newspapers and, therefore, his work. But were those college students dutifully reading the paper ten years ago? Doubtful! Further, he threw some numbers and predictions out:
Breathed said his readership was 60 million to 70 million people in 1985, when Peanuts had a readership of 200 million to 300 million and Calvin and Hobbes, 200 million people. “That will never happen on the Web. Your readership drops to a couple thousand people – maybe, if you’re lucky, 10,000.”
As a big aficionado of newspaper strips, I find this very distressing, but I’m also a bit of a skeptic. I would suggest to Breathed that he is predicting the future based on a transitional phase. Newspapers, as it’s plain to point out, are having a difficult time transitioning to the web-based information world. I grabbed this article from sfgate.com, the online version of my daily paper. But I only visit that site to find specific articles or manage my vacation holds. My idea of an online newspaper is my.yahoo.com, igoogle.com or netvibes.com. Each of these sites lets me group together all sorts of information that is fairly akin to what I read in the newspaper, including comic strips. I’m a techie and an early adopter, but trends show RSS adoption growing steadily, and rss is really simple syndication, a concept that a cartoonist should latch right onto. I can grab any strip from GoComics.com as an RSS feed.
It is a different medium. It has the disadvantage that Breathed points out – a fraction of the people who are delivered his strips in the paper they purchase will willingly subscribe. But how many of those people read them anyway? I’ve gotten Cathy in my paper for as long as I can remember, but I promise you, I never read it. For now, as we transition, his actual readership is probably down. But comic strips are far from down from the count. On the web, we can subscribe to — and only to — the ones we want to read, and brilliant strips that struggle for readership will stay in circulation. This is a big improvement for the medium. It’s really too bad that Berkeley Breathed, one of our most talented practitioners, won’t stick around for it.