Monday, February 23, 2009

The Los Angeles Times' "Sally Forth" Problem

The L.A. Times discovers once again: Don't mess with the comics section. And, more importantly, don't blindside your readers.

The paper had been testing out comic strips for months in an attempt to replace "For Better or For Worse," the strip that Lynn Johnston is now re-writing from the beginning. The choices -- "Home and Away," "Luann," "Between Friends" and "Stone Soup" -- were uninspired, and not all that much better than "For Better or For Worse."

Today, the paper revealed that it had decided to replace "For Better or For Worse" with "Stone Soup." Fine, I suppose; "Stone Soup," as I wrote last year, is harmless, but nothing special.

But fine -- "For Better or For Worse" has been absent for months, and readers haven't made much of a stink. The decision to replace it with "Stone Soup" won't make much noise.

Here's where the L.A. Times overstepped, however: It also decided, without warning, to replace reader fave "Sally Forth" with "Home and Away."

The reaction has been fast -- and brutal. The L.A. Times' Readers' Representative blog has received 80 comments and counting (in comparison, there are ZERO comments on the post about the paper's most recent layoffs), all blasting the move. Readers felt especially hosed because there was no warning -- and because the paper's excuse rings hollow:

The decision to replace "Sally Forth" with "Home and Away" wasn't planned as part of the testing, but was a result to the positive response to "Home and Away" and to keep our comics pages fresh. "Home and Away" is a new comic that has the promise to be a clever and relevant take on working families and should speak to the "Sally Forth" crowd. "Stone Soup" is aimed at those who liked "For Better or for Worse."

That's the note from Features deputy editor Sherry Stern. Here's why no one's buying it: The paper continues to run aging heritage strips like "Blondie," "Family Circus" and "Marmaduke," several of which aren't even written by their original creators and all of which haven't been "fresh" or "relevant" in years.

"Sally Forth," on the other hand, is written by a hip young comedian, Francesco Marciuliano, who has made it timely and relevant (the strip these days deals with the strained relationship between its primary couple, as well as office politics in these tough economic times), as well as given it a slightly edgy, slightly subversive tone. (His other strip, "Medium Large," is even more off-the-wall.)

"Home and Away" is not nearly as clever or relevant as "Sally Forth." That's why I started to suspect that more is at play. The L.A. Times had previously tried to cancel "Sally Forth" a year or two ago, but brought it back due to reader reaction. So the paper knows that there's a big fanbase for the strip, but decided to drop it, unannounced, anyway. Who on the L.A. Times staff has it in for "Sally Forth"? I can guarantee that the reaction wouldn't be as harsh if they canceled "Blondie."

Hmm, could this all be a publicity ploy? Stir up some passion among readers, then bring it back -- and in the process, hopefully remind L.A. Times subscribers how important the paper is to their lives?

There's a danger of it back firing, however. I've been advocating sticking with the paper, even as it sheds sections (including, coming soon, the demise of the California section). But this P.R. bungle is really trying my patience. To yank this strip, unannounced, shows disdain for the comics section's loyal readers.

It's a dangerous precedent. As a commenter on Francesco's website writes:
While it definitely sucks that the LA Times has dropped the strip, it is worth noting that Los Angeles has more or less dropped the LA Times.

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