Universal Uclick to syndicate United's comic strips

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United Media, the syndicate behind such beloved comic strips as Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy (above) and scores of other great strips of the past, is outsourcing its comics syndication business to Universal Uclick, according to a press release.

In syndication terms, this is as if DC suddenly outsourced its publishing to Marvel. New York-based United and the similarly named but Kansas City-based Universal uClick, which is owned by publisher Andrews McMeel, were long two of the three biggest comics syndicates — King Features is the third — and oversaw the immensely lucrative and popular icons of the comics pages for decades.

However, a greater reality is that newspaper syndication is a dying business.

United Media was long the biggest syndicate on the block; however, with the decline of the newspaper business – UFS is owned by the Scripps newspaper group — they had begun to spin off some of their assets, selling off their licensing business to Iconix in 2010.

“After we sold United Media’s licensing operations in 2010 to focus on our core news and journalism enterprises, we set out to construct the best operating model for the remaining syndicate, whose primary customers are newspapers across America,” said Rich Boehne, Scripps president and CEO. “A review of our operations – and the marketplace we serve – made it clear that we should seek greater efficiency by teaming up with one of the other remaining players. In Andrews McMeel we found the scale and skills to carry forward the comic properties we have nurtured for many years.”


As of June, there will no longer be a Universal comics syndicate. United Editor Lisa Wilson told Michael Cavna more about the dismantling:

“There can only be two ‘top’ players” in newspaper syndication, Wilson tells Comic Riffs. “The market is shrinking — the number of newspapers, the size, everything.”

Anticipating that the industry will no longer be able to support three top syndicates, Wilson said, “Scripps did the best thing they can do for the talent and to make sure there’s a successful transition to a leading entity that can be profitable and viable going forward.”

The deal came as news to numerous United creators.

“I’m a little stunned, but in the wake of the ‘Peanuts’ and ‘Dilbert’ deals, not really surprised,” “Big Nate” creator Lincoln Peirce tells Comic Riffs. “There seems to have been a certain inevitability to it.


Much more background in that link.

Peanuts and Dilbert moved to Universal last year. United’s licensing business has also had a bit of a rocky road at Iconix, which is known more for apparel licensing — they laid off about 40 percent of their staff late last year.

Ted Rall, who served as Editor of Acquisitions at United for three years, sent out a scathing statement:

Nearly two years ago United Feature Syndicate fired me as Editor of Acquisitions and Development. Er, laid me off. Technically, it was a “reduction in force.” They fired me. During the three years I worked at United, I signed some of the most exciting and innovative comic features in newspaper history: “The K Chronicles” by Keith Knight, “Family Tree” by Signe Wilkinson, “Secret Asian Man” by Tak Toyoshoma, “Rip Haywire” by Dan Thompson, and “Diesel Sweeties” by Richard Stevens. During a time of economic collapse, especially in the media it was a miracle that two-thirds of my comics survived. (The industry average is one quarter.)
 
Today United announced that it will essentially cease to exist as of July 2012. All of its operations—sales, distribution, editorial—will be outsourced to Universal Uclick in Kansas City. (Universal Uclick is my syndicate for editorial cartoons and op-ed columns.)
 
Today’s announcement became inevitable with my layoff—er, firing—in April 2009. “Without acquisitions,” I told a soon-to-be colleague as I packed my stuff, “there are no new features. Without new features, a syndicate has no future.”
 
Landing at Universal is the best fate the cartoonists and columnists being transferred from United could have hoped for. Universal is financially viable and run by nice, honest people. Generally speaking, however, consolidation is always bad for media. It limits diversity and freedom of choice.
 
This morning President Doug Stern told soon-to-be-sacked UM employees that part of the failure of UM was directly attributable to the company’s inability to make money online, that they had tried their best but failed. This was untrue. United’s website Comics.com was the laughingstock of the industry, full of Javascript gone wild, 404 errors and broken widgets.  When I was at United I and other employees repeatedly tried to fix it, only to be told our advice was unwelcome. They could have hired dozens of high-quality employees with the millions they wasted on a terrible website.
 
United did not fail because newspapers or newspaper syndication is unviable. It failed due to shitty management. Short-sighted executives not only didn’t have ideas; they shot them down when smart people spoke up. If there were any justice, they’d be thrown in jail and their assets would be redistributed to the scores of decent, hard-working workers who are about to wind up in the street due to their negligence and malfeasance.


A personal note: Like just abut everyone in the comics business, I interviewed for the job that Rall was eventually hired for. I had a meeting with Stern and said the same thing that Rall said — the same thing anyone with any knowledge of the internet would say. A site called Comics.com should be one of the top 500 sites on the internet, a potential hub for content, social networking, and marketing opportunities. This was 2006, a time of great opportunity for those with some vision and funding. Instead, chalk up the Scripps syndication business as another that couldn’t make the leap to a new, exciting world.

PR:

Under the terms of a new outsourcing arrangement, Universal Uclick, the largest independent syndicate in the world and a division of Andrews McMeel Universal, will provide syndication services for the 150 news features and comics of United Media, which is owned by The E.W. Scripps Company (NYSE: SSP).

Universal Uclick will provide editorial and production services, sales and marketing, sales support and customer service, and distribution and fulfillment for all the news features and comics of United Media, including Pearls before Swine, Get Fuzzy, Marmaduke, Frank & Ernest, the Born Loser, Big Nate and Miss Manners.

Scripps will continue to own certain copyrights and control the licenses for those properties, and will manage the business relationships with the creative talent that produces those comics and features. The transition of the services begins immediately and is expected to be completed by June 1, 2011.

“After we sold United Media’s licensing operations in 2010 to focus on our core news and journalism enterprises, we set out to construct the best operating model for the remaining syndicate, whose primary customers are newspapers across America,” said Rich Boehne, Scripps president and CEO. “A review of our operations – and the marketplace we serve – made it clear that we should seek greater efficiency by teaming up with one of the other remaining players. In Andrews McMeel we found the scale and skills to carry forward the comic properties we have nurtured for many years.”

The Scripps Howard News Service, a leading syndicator of national news, in-depth reporting and analysis, will continue to be operated in Washington, D.C., by The E.W. Scripps Company, as it has been for nearly 100 years.

Comments

  1. JohnZakour says:

    As the writer for United Media’s Working Daze I’m little excited and a lot more worried about what happens now. Especially to us little guys. It will be interesting if nothing else.

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