Readers' Representative Journal

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Comics, take 3

February 26, 2009 |  2:18 pm

"According to Wednesday's paper this site is suppose to give the reason why you canceled Sally Forth. I find no reason given other than 'we wanted  to'.  ... It takes a lot of nerve not to listen to the people who keep you in your job , even if you think they give 'skewed responses.' "

That's an excerpt from Rachel Engler's comment, one of hundreds that have come in since readers learned of the change-up on The Times' comics pages (see post from Sunday).

Since then, two posts on this journal have tried to provide some of the thinking behind the changes, but readers have been left with some reasonable questions.

Readers were asked for several months about whether one strip should stay or go -- "For Better or for Worse." Yet Monday they were told both that "FBOFW" wasn't coming back and that a second strip that they didn't know was being considered for expulsion was also dropped ("Sally Forth").

Why were readers even polled, readers asked, especially if they found out later that editors don't rely entirely on reader input?

And what are the reasons behind what was called a "subjective" decision in dropping "Sally Forth"?

Alice Short, the assistant managing editor who oversees features, goes into detail that many say should have been given to them in the first place.

Comic strips are considered individually, but they're also considered in the context of the whole mix of what runs on those two pages. That means, essentially, that strips are always being considered and compared with what else is being produced. (As Tuesday's post said, the process with "For Better or for Worse" was an exception, not the rule, in giving readers months of notice.)

Short says The Times routinely receives new submissions from artists and syndicates representing artists hoping to break into the business; editors consider each as it comes in. Comic strips run the gamut, aiming for different audiences and being drawn by artists with a variety of backgrounds.

Of The Times' comics offerings, Short says: "We want it to be a good mix in terms of target demographics. We target families, and kids; singles, and more mature readers." The Times has a vastly varied audience and, Short says, "That's why we try to refine the pages on a regular basis. We want something for everybody.

"We seek a mix in the comic artists, too; that is part of the thought process."

Ultimately, however, "it is not a science."

There is simply no one answer for why any strip is dropped or picked up -- as with a giant jigsaw puzzle, each strip is a piece of the whole, with multiple factors at play in the search for a broad mix that appeals to a general audience.

Sherry Stern's questioning of the validity of polling readers, made in an online interview with washingtonpost.com, does not mean that readers are asked, then ignored. Her comment suggests that what readers have to say, too, informs the editors' thinking -- but it's not just a straight-out vote (which, unless it's a scientific poll, isn't necessarily valid).

And anyone who sits in an office receiving reader comments can tell you: People are more likely to take the time to write and call because they're not happy. Those who are satisfied usually don't speak up. (How many thank-you notes have you written in your life, versus the times  you've picked up the phone to complain to a company?)

One other insight into the conversation about what comics run in The Times: Several other blogs are talking about the recent moves on The Times' comics pages (franklinavenueblog.com, and one by the author of Sally Forth).

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