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  • Dan Connors

Comics page catastrophe?

As a long time newspaper subscriber, I've watched with concern as my local paper has shrunk year after year and fired or not replaced staff, all while raising their prices. It's a disturbing nationwide trend that has a lot to do with competition from the internet that's sucking up most of the advertising dollars that once supported journalism. But this month was the death knell that I never saw coming. The comics page went from two pages in full color to one half of a page with zombie comics like Peanuts and For Better or Worse that have been reruns for years.

There's a good reason why John Oliver and Last Week Tonight keep winning Emmy Awards and attracting viewers. Oliver mixes silly humor with the tough, depressing, and complicated stories that he dives into every week to make them go down easier. And it works. We need comedy to make the sad and disturbing events of the news seem bearable. A spoonful of sugar, so to speak. Now the funnies are almost gone, in a cost saving move that is coordinated with all the other Lee publications. The quality of journalism has held in there considering the alternatives, but it's a shadow of what it was a generation ago. Without the funnies, I have to question my need for a newspaper subscription. (I know- they want us all to go online, but I already spend way too much time on screens as it is, and don't like reading things that keep track of what I look at and then try to sell me stuff.)

Lee Enterprises, for all of its cost-cutting measures, is still somewhat preferable to the vulture hedge fund that almost took it over. Alden Global Capital made a bid for Lee last year, and their reputation of stripping newspapers down to pamphlet size while firing staff is well known. The print newspaper may be a dinosaur in its final stages, but the need for good journalism has never been higher. The very nature of reality is being challenged while extreme, viral, and unreliable content is spreading because of its ability to inflame and grab attention. Every city needs and deserves a reliable, fact-based news source that can be relied upon to provide the news, ask the right questions, and uncover the liars and crooks.

At some point, newspapers will need a new paradigm. The ad-supported system is on its last legs, but perhaps there are new ideas out there that can work to make the advertising cost-effective. The only new idea I've come across is turning newspapers into non-profits, which makes a lot of sense. This has happened in Philadelphia, Tampa, and Salt Lake City. If you consider local news to be a public good just like clean air and water, safe streets, and public parks and libraries, then why trust that public good to a bunch of out-of-town businessmen who don't have our interests at heart? I realize that a for-profit company like Lee that owns 77 newspapers can't do much to change this situation without angering their shareholders, but before they throw in the towel completely maybe the region can use some of that Kroenke money to build something better.

What I'm trying to say is that this problem with the comics page is bigger than it seems. Sure we need our Dilbert and Funky Winkerbean to balance out the bad news from Inflation to Ukraine. But more importantly we need a healthy local newspaper to keep this city vibrant and alive. Cancelling subscriptions won't fix that, and we need to figure out what will. Is the Post-Dispatch biased towards the left? Of course it is- most newspapers are these days? Our nation is so polarized right now that the "center" almost doesn't exist in a meaningful way. Is it a huge conspiracy? No, it's the nature of the work and the people that are attracted to it. And it's vastly preferable to the controlled press in many countries like Russia that are forbidden to contradict their governments.

We have an election coming up, which is a key time to have a good local newspaper. What are the issues? Where do candidates stand on them? What are the lies and half-truths that we are seeing online and on tv? The people that we vote for in November will have a huge influence on the direction of our democracy, which is now in danger of falling to authoritarianism. Newspapers should stop endorsing political candidates, which doesn't seem to work anyway, and become a home for top-notch journalism that highlights the essential questions and stories of our time and place. And bring back the funnies so we can get a break from it all once in a while.

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