Monday, October 8, 2007

Journalism and the future of Newsarama

-This weekend saw two of the most respected comics pundits make two big statement-type posts. People are linking to them, but nobody's really engaging in a dialogue with them yet. They're both worth talking about, so I'm going to try to engage both of them. This is pretty long as is, so I'll cover Tom Spurgeon on webcomics later today or tomorrow.

-First, Christopher Butcher takes stock of comics journalism, both online and in print. And by in print, we're really only talking about the Comics Journal, right? Back in the 90s, we'd have to include the Comic Buyer's Guide in that conversation, but that no longer seems necessary. In fact, I was kind of surprised to learn that CBG is still operating. I don't think I've seen an issue since about 1999; I certainly didn't know that it had moved in a more Wizard-ish direction. At least in terms of format; like I said, I haven't seen an actual physical copy at any point this decade. But this description of the latest issue indicates a very different publishing model than Wizard's. Strike that--it seems more like Wizard for baby boomers, with a greater emphasis on the Silver Age and nostalgia. Peter David still writes a column, too.

I wonder to what extent Butcher's complaints are related to the rise of Wizard at the expense of CBG. Butcher examines contemporary comics journalism through the prism of a Slate article about the magazine industry's obsession with access to celebrities. The chief illustration of this comes from a recent controversy in GQ, which killed an investigative piece on Hillary Clinton in order to ensure Bill Clinton's cooperation for an upcoming article. In the comics industry equivalent, according to Butcher, is Newsarama's willful neglect* of controversies involving the depiction of women and minorities in DC/Marvel comics in exchange for access to creators and the editors themselves.

I completely agree with this assessment, but I would add that this is a model which Wizard adopted long before Matt Brady was in any position to genuflect before Joe Quesada (or Quesada in any position to demand genuflection). You can't blame Wizard for the creation of the superstar artist in comics; if you're going to blame anyone, blame Stan Lee. You can, however, blame Wizard for the creation of what John Byrne and/or Peter David called the "rock star artist." Popular artists were pushed hard at Wizard. They drew the covers, all of which (at least early on) were replicated as pull-out posters in the center of the magazine. Its glossy, photo-friendly, full-color format allowed Wizard to publish numerous photos of hot artists. Moreover, it also allowed Wizard to cover their lifestyles--their studios, their comics collections, their cars, their houses. The real masterstroke, however, was Wizard's Top 10 Hottest Artists list, a cheat sheet for young readers and not-so-young speculators. It was an ingenious marketing decision--Wizard created demand for coverage of superstar artists while positioning itself as the primary venue for such coverage. There was a moment or two where Wizard flirted with actual journalism; the magazine published two contentious interviews between Patrick Daniel O'Neill and Rob Liefeld, neither of which flattered the X-Force superstar. But this approach was dropped soon after.**

(Of course, once Wizard supplanted CBG as the primary voice of comics fandom, all the anti-hype coming out of Oh, So? and But I Digress were basically feeding the Marvel/DC/Image hype machine. Which reminds me of this. Not surprisingly, The Comics Journal was the only publication doing anything constructive during this period, in large part because its contributors were asking questions that CBG and Wizard didn't generally consider.)

Wizard's fawning coverage was somewhat mitigated by CBG, which was much more critical of the Image founders, if memory serves. I didn't read a lot of CBG--my local comics shop never carried it, nor did any local bookstore. What I remember about the few issues I read was the strong presence of Peter David, John Byrne, and other professionals who might be considered the pre-Image establishment. David had a column, while Byrne and other creators provided content for CBG's prodigious letters column. I can't exactly recall CBG's editorial focus in detail--I seem to remember much the content was on the level of the shop, with lots of talk about how Marvel/DC's policies and product were affecting the way people sold comics (both new and back issues). But there was also a lot of stories about the higher echelons of the industry as well. CBG seemed to occupy that fabled middle ground between Wizard and the Comics Journal, partly because its long publishing history gave it clout. Put it this way--in that McFarlane/Groth interview that's been making the rounds, both use CBG as a synedoche for the comics press as a whole.

CBG ultimately abandoned its weekly format in concession to the rise of the internet as a source for comics news and fellowship, as Chuck Rozanski noted in his eulogy for the publication's weekly tabloid form. Of course, the internet is also mostly responsible for the decline of Wizard. I don't necessarily find this to be such a bad state of affairs; the internet has several advantages over print. For consumers, there's no comparing price and timeliness. For would-be journalists, there's a much lower barrier to entry for covering comics on the internet. That should (and, to a great extent, does) mean a greater diversity in topics and perspectives. Unfortunately, the biggest voice in online comics journalism seems to be following in Gareb Shamus' footsteps.

DC and Marvel, spoiled by years of Wizard's psuedojournalistic puffery, are receiving the same sort of treatment at Newsarama. It's unclear if the big two are exerting some pressure, or if this is just a tactic Matt Brady and Mike Doran have used to climb to the top of the mainstream coverage heap. Newsarama is clearly the top dog now, getting all the plum interviews. But the gap between it and its competitors didn't seem quite so yawning a few years ago, right? I mean, Comic Book Resources still provides a lot of fanboy-friendly content***, as does Wizard's much-maligned website.

But just compare the three sites--Newsarama is busting at the seams with CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! Interviews! Previews! Announcements of new projects! Newsarama leads the industry in "postmortems," interviews with editors and creators (usually writers) reflecting upon recently-published mega-important issues. Recent examples: there's a weekly dissection of the latest issue of Countdown with editor Mike Carlin and an interview with Judd Winick on his controversial Green Arrow/Black Canary wedding thing. Newsarma stories always feature (frequently long) comment threads, which generally become key hubs of discussion for the biggest publishing news in mainstream comics.

This is not to say that Newsarama is devoid of criticism of Marvel/DC. Blog@Newsarama, as Butcher notes, has been operated independently of the main site. Contributors Graeme McMillan, Lisa Fortuner, and Melissa Krause are often critical of DC and Marvel. Best of all, Blogorama casts a much wider net than its parent site, covering manga, independent comics, and newspaper strips just as often as Marvel/DC. In fact, lately its contributors seem to be covering these corners of the industry with greater frequency than they cover Marvel and DC. That's deserves special recognition--it's not tokenism, but an actual, pluralistic approach to comics journalism. And it's done in association with a site which is the spiritual successor to Wizard.

As much as I like Blogorama and similar news accretion and commentary sites (ie, Journalista, The Beat, and The Comic Reporter), there's not a whole lot of investigative journalism happening online. Butcher mentions Newsarama's coverage of the Superboy reversion rights story as an example of real journalism, and he's probably right. But I still think there's a fanboy element at work there--will DC get to use Superboy in the future, or will Jerry Siegel's greedy relatives deprive us of these stories? Not that Newsarama is voicing this opinion, but its readers surely are. Actually, that link is for a comment left on a Blogorama post by Tom Bondurant. When I tried a Google search for copyright + superboy on the domain, most of the recent stories appeared on Blogorama. Maybe Google isn't finding the Superboy stories from Newsarama's main site, but I seem to recall a link to the Bondurant story serving in lieu of a separate parent site story on the most recent developments in the case. In other words, I think Blog@Newsarama is doing the heavy lifting on the Superboy copyright story. Bondurant's post was a legitimate piece of journalism, but is anyone else doing this kind of reporting? Is anyone doing it on a regular basis?

This isn't a new topic; I think it came up last spring as well. Unfortunately, I think we're still a pretty long ways from seeing the kind of journalism Butcher (and most every thinking comics fan) wants. It's an issue of access, but it's also an issue of money. In the Slate article which started this whole conversation, Ron Rosenbaum suggests that magazines bring back the write-around--an approach to story writing which doesn't require access to the subject of the piece. It's sounds like a good idea for comics until you start thinking about the amount of time and effort one would have to devote to the subject. And you still have to be enough of an insider to have access to the flunkies and drones in the Marvel/DC offices. Rich Johnston has traded on this journalistic approach, and he sometimes uncovers important stories this way. But there's also a great deal of politicking and agenda-serving in his columns, such as the "Didio ain't going nowhere" piece from this summer.

Comics are so insular that I'm not sure if there's any hope of achieving real investigative journalism on a regular basis. Johnston has complained in the past of Marvel and DC trying to plug leaks, making his job harder. When you're talking about two relatively small publishing enterprises, leak-plugging isn't that hard. You occasionally get someone like Valerie D'Orazio, who quit the industry and is thus willing to shed a little light on the inner workings of the mainstream publishers. But that's still fairly rare; it seems that most fired employees hope to land positions at some other comics publisher, and thus keep their mouths shut. Creators are in an even more tenuous situation; it's no surprise that the most vehement critics of Marvel and DC are freelancers who have little hope of receiving future assignments from either company. And really, their inside information is less valuable than that of people who actually work(ed) in the corporate offices.

It's a terrible shame, because there are a lot of questions I'd like answered: How do DC and Marvel really see the bookstore market? How much do they rely on it when planning new titles and initiatives? What are the "real" numbers on low-selling books? How do editors respond to charges of misogyny and racism? What kind of pressure does Time Warner put on DC? Marvel's executives on its publishing wing? Above all else, though, I'd like to hear more about what goes on at Diamond. I hardly ever hear any inside information coming out of Maryland, despite reports that turnover has been high.

I don't expect to get any answers to these questions anytime soon. Popular demand for real journalism seems limited to information about creative team changes and plot spoilers. Sites which are critical of Marvel/DC face backlash from both the companies and their fans. You can attempt to piece together a story from limited information (as Marc-Oliver Frisch does on his blog and as he and Paul O'Brien both do on The Beat), but reactions to those kind of stories are mixed, and there are limits to what they tell you. So we can take this limited information and put together best guesses, hoping that those in power will take note and clarify the situation. Or we can take what we get from the sites which have connections, yet do nothing with them. At least there's no shortage of quality editorials on the comics-related internet.

BONUS: As I was writing this long, rambling post, the news broke that Newsarama had been purchased by Imaginova. Newsarama itself and The Beat have both identified Imaginova primarily as the owner of LiveScience and Imaginova's Wikipedia entry reveals that the company is a genuine conglomerate (way to use the term correctly, anonymous Wiki-editor), with subsidiaries in telescope manufacturing and computer software. Their website also mentions the company's forays into online retail and content-providing for websites like MSNBC and Yahoo. And even some limited print-type publishing (get ready for Newsarama: The Magazine). Plus, it was founded by Lou Dobbs! Will this mean more stories about the effects of illegal immigration on the comics industry?

What little reaction I've read has been negative, but I don't really have any strong thoughts on the subject. Well, I do like, I have to admit. I would think that, given its previous behavior, Imaginova plans sell Newsarama stories to larger, mainstream news sites. I have to think that this will change the nature of Newsarama's content at least a little, so that the site can provide content that a casual reader can somehow comprehend. Online comics journalism: maybe there's hope yet!

(EDIT: I take back my positive comments about I think my experiences there all came from following direct links to articles. The homepage and various portals are making my brain angry.

Another thought: Will the buyout affect Newsarama's forums and talkback features? I'm guessing it won't, but the comments may be policed a bit more thoroughly from now on.)

*And occasional ridicule of, I might add.

**I want to say that O'Neill was demoted or fired shortly after these interviews, but I can't find anything online to support this dim memory. Not that I'm suggesting that the Liefeld interview got him fired or anything--more that O'Neill's editorial style was incompatible with Gareb Shamus' vision for the magazine.

***Alongside coverage of non-Marvel/DC stuff, like that Eric Reynolds interview about Mome. And, to be totally fair, Newsarama also covers many non-superhero comics. Hell, even Wizard's website does. That's another advantage of web-based coverage over print--there's a lot more room for a greater diversity of topics.


Rich Johnston said...

Leaving your comments about everyone else aside, because I don't care about them.

"Rich Johnston has traded on this journalistic approach"

I bloody have not. Don't use the 'J' word, please.

However, the "DiDio ain't going nowhere" piece was a heavily researched, multiple sourced piece which flew in the face of received wisdom at the time, yet has proved true. DiDio did re-up his contract, he's still there, happily and Jann Jones has been promoted further.

There was hardly any politicking and agenda-setting in that piece, just good, honest, opinionated journal...

Watch it. You almost made me say it then.

And the harder you try and plug leaks, the more they squeeze out the sides...

You want some answers? Okay.

"How do DC and Marvel really see the bookstore market?"

A source of money and one that's growing. So they want more money, please.

"How much do they rely on it when planning new titles and initiatives?"

The book market often takes its cue from the direct market, but certainly the likes of Vertigo know they can use it to prop up experiments in the direct market, and it has made projects like Pride Of Baghdad achievable, after Endless Nights surprised everyone. It's also good for licensed stuff.

"What are the "real" numbers on low-selling books?"

Can be about 20-30% more when you include non-US, newsstand and subscription.

"How do editors respond to charges of misogyny and racism?"

They deny it. When embarassed enough, they make changes.

"What kind of pressure does Time Warner put on DC?"

Make money. Make more money. Make comics we can turn into toys and movies.

"Marvel's executives on its publishing wing?"

Make money, whatever it takes.

"Above all else, though, I'd like to hear more about what goes on at Diamond."

Make money. Try and cut costs while maintaining revenue.

"I hardly ever hear any inside information coming out of Maryland, despite reports that turnover has been high."

Probably why.

Dick Hyacinth's Ghost said...

The objectionable part of the Didio story is your sort of vague pronouncements that the "Dan and Jann Show" had "yielded results" and that "the results of their work on the DCU are starting to show." I have no idea what you're talking about there--better sales? Better creative content? A more harmonious office? It sounds like hollow company PR.

I guess I'd also like some more detailed answers to my questions, but that kind of goes without saying. You really are into the economic determinism, man.

Anonymous said...

what is/was your point? I really can't tell.

But I can tell you what it IMO should have been: Forget it. It's never going to happen. Marvel, DC, Diamond, most retailers and most readers made the Direct Market a ghetto for legacy superhero books and they like it that way. _None_ of them cares for investigative reporting, hard questions, critical analysis. The only ones who care are those on the cusp who've overcome the conditioned purchase yet still maintain interest and affection for the DC and Marvel universes. These people are too few to support a magazine and sufficiently supplied with critical analysis online that they're just not willing to spend the cash to enable the more labour intensive (and relationship threatening) investigative efforts.

Caleb said...

Nice, thoughtful post Dick, and I think I may just do what you suggested early up in it and try to put some thought into the journalism in comics thing in the attempt of a dialogue.

I was a staff reporter, editor and editor/reporter in the newspaper business for about six years (now I'm just a freelance columnist in one), and did my level best to write about comics for money as often as possible. And the truth of the matter is that there's no market for comics journalism, and I don't know what will change that.

That is, no one wants to pay anyone to do it, and no one wants to pay to read it, or read it on an ad-supported sight. Like the comics industry itself, there's just not all that much money in it, and so, obviously, there's not much money in a potential industry covering it.

The great thing about the Internet as I can write about comics as much as I want, but I'm never going to make phone calls and set up interviews or do anything resembling work-work because a) on blog, it's a hobby not a job and b) Dan Didio's probably not going to take calls from bloggers, you know?

It does seem that the only journalism-journalism you're likely to find is of the occasional sort.

Johnston engages in it now and then, sometimes with named sources and everything, but certainly not regularly. I can think of one instance of Dirk Deppey doing it on Journalista (the "Cowboys and Aliens" thing) in the year or so that I've been reading it.

You mentioned a lot of the reasons why (I think) there isn't much in the way of comics journalism (and access may be a lot of it, because a story full of "No comments" is either going to be really, really short, or an editorial trying to be more), but more than anything it's money. There's no money to be made off it, and there's no one with the money to risk on proving the opposite.

Two more things:

This is a trend in captial M Media in general, the focus on being entertainment instead of journalism, as any click through the cable news channels, flip through the magazine rack, or even your daily paper is likely to demonstrate.

And while crticism of is understandable, Matt Brady does a pretty good job of trying to be all things to all readers there. He interviews Joe Quesada every week, sure, but he does ask him about Internet feminist controversies, the obscene number of ads, and smoking (In fact, he's talked to him a LOT about Marvel's weird smoking policy). Brady also kicks Mike Carlin in the nuts at least once a week in his Countdown Q and A. Would it be better if he kicked more nuts more often? Maybe for some of us, but if it mean no more previews from the Big Two, then to a lot of readers, it wouldn't be worth it.

J. Caleb Mozzocco

p.s. I used to freelance for Wizard, wrote a few articles for TCJ, and currently do pro bono reviews for, so take any and all of what I said above with the requisite grains of salt.

Julio Oliveira said...

Well Matt Brady may interview Joe Quesada and ask about the feminist controversies and even criticize the work of editor on Countdown, but most of the time it softball such question. Is like he has to ask such thing, or the fans will cry foul, but and Quesada gives a clearly pathetic non-answer he just drops the issue, so not to kill the gold chicken. I don't exactly blame him, but true journalism this is not.

Anonymous said...

"It's unclear if the big two are exerting some pressure, or if this is just a tactic Matt Brady and Mike Doran have used to climb to the top of the mainstream coverage heap."

I seem to recall a spoiler coming out for a big event a while ago, maybe from Civil War---and Marvel said that they would not give any interviews or content to any site that publishes the spoiler. I can't find the specific incident, but I'm not looking very hard. Maybe you have a better memory than I.

Rich Johnston said...

"yielded results" - making money. Economic determinism? They're businesses, it's all about the bottom line, however you measure it... hopw could it be any other?

And the spoiler was the unmasking of Spider-Man which Marvel let slip in a First Look edition of... Thunderbolts was it? And yes, they threatened just that.

Jamaal said...

Loved the post. One thing though. Has there ever seriously been a tradition of quality legitimate entertainment reporting? We can all point to a handful of articles, but I think that those are all exceptions to the rule.

It's hard to get around the fact that none of the stakeholders in the industry benefit from any real transparency. The Slate article referenced by Mr. Butcher is an effective critique of political reporting by the press, but wouldn't really apply to entertainment reporting.

I'd want to know the answers to your questions too, but why would Marvel or DC (or especially Diamond) give them to us?

Unknown said...

Dick, your new site layout is freaking me out. Is it a Halloween thing, or are you going with the "scary smile" look permanently?

Dick Hyacinth's Ghost said...

I'll probably rotate banners in and out. Actually, a Halloween themed one would be pretty neat. Maybe something in a Jack O'Lantern. For now, I'm mostly just concerned that the text is legible and non-headache inducing. You might have noticed that I increased the size of the text. It's extra big on IE, for whatever reason.

Back to the topic at hand: I don't think it's reasonable to expect long, earth-shaking exposes every week. But two or three of them a year would be really, really welcome. We could use a Seymour Hirsch for comics journalism. I'm not holding my breath.

Anonymous said...

"Making money, end of story" is utter bullshit, Rich. There is ENDLESS backstory which could be told, in the ups, downs, infights, crosstown feuds, bad decisions, good decisions, and personalities involved - as anyone who's even casually perused a copy of PW over the years would know.

But then, PW is a real industry-insider journal...

Anonymous said...

Hey, I've got an inside scoop on Jim Shooter - he wants to make money!

Hot news about John Byrne - he wants to... MAKE MONEY!

Joe Quesada... hmm, does he want to make money? The green light means yes he does!

Rich Johnston said...

Bellatrys, do you not read Lying In The Gutters?

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This topic was really educational and nicely written.

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