A Brief History of Syndication in the U.S.

Look, Charlie, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.

-(Lucy Van Pelt, A Charlie Brown Christmas [1965])

According to the dictionary, a syndicate is "[a]n agency that sells articles, features, or photographs for publication in a number of newspapers or periodicals simultaneously." A syndicate can also be "[a] loose affiliation of gangsters in control of organized criminal activities"… not that we’re implying anything.

The business of syndication as we know it today began in the nineteenth century when many newspapers, especially in smaller cities and towns, found it tantamount to impossible to maintain a large enough staff to do anything other than gather and report the local news. Therefore national organizations sprang up that sold national articles, columns, and anything of interest to the smaller papers. These syndicates allowed a small paper to carry high-quality national content and a highly varied selection of features, in spite of the small staffs they maintained.

While there is no clear outstanding founder of this type of ready-made print, Ansel N. Kellogg is credited by some as starting the first American independent newspaper syndicate in 1865, though there were other papers who were offering ready-made print to local and rural areas prior to that as well.

There is some debate as to exactly where and when the widespread publishing of comics entered this picture. According to some sources, comics in some form were published in the United States as early as the 1840s. A comic book called The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck – first published in Europe in 1837 – was distributed in a New York newspaper under the name Brother Jonathan, in full comic book form in 1842. However, newspaper comics as we know them are widely considered to have begun in 1895 with The Yellow Kid.

The Yellow Kid is well known as an early syndicated comic. Created by Richard F. Outcault, The Yellow Kid grew out of a series of funny pictures about New York tenements drawn for Truth magazine. The character of the Yellow Kid had his first newspaper appearance in Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World, in the strip known as Hogan’s Alley. Once Outcault had been lured away from the World to William Randolph Hearst’s paper, the New York Journal, his strip was published under the title McFadden’s Flats, while another artist – George Luks – continued the Hogan’s Alley feature at the World. It wasn’t until later that both strips started to be called after the most recognizable character they featured – The Yellow Kid.

Hearst’s comics were truly the beginning of newspaper comics as we know them. First he pioneered the inclusion of comics as a regular daily feature in his papers, and then blazed the trail for the Sunday funnies pages that are so familiar today, with his weekly American Humorist supplement. King Features Syndicate began as a part of the legendary newspaper circulation battles, first outbidding Pulitzer for the artistic talent of Outcault and going on to recruit and develop other creators such as Frederick Opper, creator of Happy Hooligan, Jimmy Swinnerton, creator of a number of early comics, and Rudolph Dirks, creator of the longest continually running syndicated strip, The Katzenjammer Kids.

The Katzenjammer Kids, which first ran in 1897, is one of newspaper comics’ biggest success stories. It has survived name changes, changes in artists, court cases, and several iterations of adjustment to the attitudes of different times. First begun merely as a reworking of German picture books about two mischievous characters named Max and Moritz, the kids evolved into a long-enduring classic humor meme. Hy Eisman is the artist behind the current version of the comic, which is still distributed to 50 newspapers globally by King Features.

There were separate syndication services for hard news, but in addition to comics, King Features offered written features of several types – humor, fashion advice, columns, puzzles – as well as illustrations, photos and editorial cartoons; essentially, any content that could offer diversity to smaller papers who could not maintain the staff to do all these features themselves was available through this syndicate. Other features syndication companies quickly followed in their footsteps to offer a similar range of content.

By the time King Features Syndicate officially incorporated in 1915, Hearst already had the lion’s share of the comics market. And into his eighties, Hearst was still personally approving the comics for syndication. He aptly capitalized on the ability of comics to grab and hold newspaper readers, but his personal attention seems to indicate he appreciated them for reasons other than money.

In spite of the far reach of the Hearst empire, competing syndication services began to spring up. Edward Willis Scripps founded the Cleveland Penny Press in 1878, and over the next thirty years or so, first he and then the company he founded, acquired and started over 45 newspapers from coast to coast. In 1922, the E.W. Scripps company founded the United Feature Service, which, like King Features, distributed comics as well as other features. It lives on, today as a part of United Media, which licenses some of the widest circulated comics, including Dilbert, and all-time favorite Peanuts, as well as popular text features such as Miss Manners’ column.

Over the latter half of the twentieth century, the rise in television increasingly hurt the sales of newspapers in the U.S. Comics pages and the Sunday funnies live on, but in increasingly truncated space. Despite the fact that comics still claim an estimated 113 million readers in the U.S. every Sunday, and despite increasing diversity in the artists and the characters appearing on the comics pages, newspapers are still losing leisure time and dollars to other media.

Of course, the fastest growing of those media is currently the World Wide Web. Many comics that were first syndicated in print have found a home away from home on the web. The first comic to make this jump was, somewhat appropriately, Scott Adams’ Dilbert. Already syndicated in over 2000 newspapers around the world – just in print – Dilbert is one of the most successful syndicated comics in history. Dilbert.com went online in 1995, before the web was truly on the national radar. It was also one of the earliest web sites to turn a profit.

Dilbert was by no means the last syndicated newspaper comic to go digital. It has been followed by a host of others. Almost every comic available in newspapers is also available online. Uclick is one major online distributor of traditionally offline content. However, some comics syndicates still bring their own comics to the web, including King Features and United Media (who controls comics.com).

Of course, with the rise of the web came a vast number of comics that began and continue to thrive in this new medium. When a comic is available all over the world at the same time, traditional models of syndication seem obsolete. Many artists and writers of webcomics are finding and creating new models for making money, through merchandizing, banner ads and subscription services.

So far, these methods of distribution are not as profitable as the historic monolithic media organizations’ methods – getting published in print still seems to be the only way to make a living to most comics creators, and the few folks who speak out for new models in the new medium often have a hard time convincing even their fellow creators. However, even as creators find ways to live without them, the old features syndicates are finding ways to thrive in the new global climate. Will they find their own future in the web? 

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.

One Comment

  1. Read this story! Admire this story! Ericka did a HELLUVA lot of research on this story and it should be recognized! Ya’ll are always telling me you want serious features – well, this is one. She actually went to the LIBRARY for goodness’ sake!

    Kelly J. Cooper
    Features Editor

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