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Nicole Hollander received some news from her syndicate a few days before readers of her comic strip, Sylvia, got the same news in a February 1 announcement in the Tribune:
As of February 8, Sylvia — and several other strips on the Tribune comics pages — were history. The Tribune has become adept at making less sound like more, but in this case the paper had some logic to work with. The Tribune, like newspapers everywhere, had taken to publishing its comics in sizes so small they were nearly impossible to read — certainly not with any pleasure.
So the Tribune has been advising readers all this week that starting Monday the paper will shift "to a skinnier size of newsprint," and instead of shrinking the comics even more to fit, "we have made the difficult decision to cut some comics instead." Goodbye to Sylvia, Get Fuzzy, Lio, Raising Hector, Scary Gary, and Watch Your Head. A couple of new strips will be added and some of the survivors will get bigger — in the case of favorites like Peanuts and For Better or Worse (both in reruns, but what the hell) a lot bigger.
Sylvia is syndicated by Tribune Media Services. It's the Tower's house syndicate, but if that cuts any mustard it doesn't cut enough to save the strip.
"I feel bad," says Hollander, whom I reached Wednesday. "I'm pretty addicted to doing the strip. I still feel it's fresh, I have ideas all the time."
Sylvia is not just any strip. It is — those magic words — Chicago's own. Hollander has lived here all her life. It is also... well, the words I used to describe it in 1990 still hold true: it's a strip "that we will not attempt to describe to anyone who's not familiar with it." But it's the Tribune strip drawn by a woman that isn't Cathy — that isn't about an immature, neurotic ditz. This is a favorite point of Sylvia loyalists.
When she got the word, Hollander was about to leave town. An Oakland theater company called Stage Bridge has adapted one of her books, Tales of Graceful Aging From the Planet Denial, for the stage, and the show opens Friday. And that doesn't begin to cover all the excitement in her life. In August, the New Press in New York, the publishing house that produced Studs Terkel's later books, is bringing out The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior From Reagan to Obama.
So the Tribune was really raining on Hollander's parade.
The response: an e-mail blast to Hollander's many friends. She drew a nifty piece of artwork, turned a list of names over to Tom Greensfelder, who shares an office with her and has designed a lot of her books, and left town.
The blast begins with the art (with a date that turned out to be off by a week):
and then tells the friends what to do:
1. Click here to send an email to the Tribune editors, Jane Hirt and Geoff Brown*,
telling them how you can't live without her.
Be sure to copy Nicole, firstname.lastname@example.org, so she can keep you close
to her heart and updated on our struggle!
2. Forward this email to all your friends who love Sylvia as much as you do.
Love you madly, Nicole and Sylvia
* JHirt@tribune.com, GFBrown@tribune.com
Neither Hirt, who's the Tribune's managing editor, nor Brown, who edits the comics, got back to me. But Hollander told me Wednesday afternoon she'd been copied on about 200 message. A sampling:
I write to protest your decision to drop "Sylvia" (a local light, no less - or does that mean nothing to the Chicago Tribune anymore?) and "Get Fuzzy" from the Tribune comic pages. And that you're retaining "Broom-Hilda" and "Hagar the Horrible" (neither of which has been funny since - well, ever) and adding "Pickles" makes me think you're remaking the paper for the fogies out there. Not a demographic a dying industry should be chasing... I buy the Trib every day, so I'm acutely aware of your recent 33% price increase. You've just given me at least two fewer reasons to continue to buy the Trib. Good job. — Rob Carlson
There are precious few women cartoonists, and Nicole is the only one with a daily strip who presents the believable struggles of women in contemporary society. It's a serious loss for readers all over the Great Lakes region to take her out of the daily paper. The Tribune is so much less a paper than it used to be that it's hard to find reasons to continue my subscription. I almost left when you dropped the book review section. If you do not restore Sylvia, you will lose me as one of your few subscribers to the print paper. Yours sincerely — Sara N Paretsky
Since Zell, the once sturdy Trib. has been largely reduced to a pitiful, shambling, typo-ridden shell of its former self. Yet many of us read on, remembering better days and bygone bylines. But to banish Silvia—-a modern institution, a little island of mordant wit, humane mockery, and life-affirming tongue-in-cheekiness—-to do this is to close a door that cannot be easily, if ever, re-opened. Are we simply opposed to change? No. Is this some mere sclerotic, reactionary reflex. Certainly not. Change your shape, your font, your banners and colors and column inches. We'll adapt and adjust. But stay your bean-counting, focus-testing hand a little, and reflect. Consider. As Shakespeare kinda, sorta said,
"No, my good editors; banish Hagar,
banish Blondie, banish Shoe: but for sweet, tart
Syliva, kind, quirky Sylvia, truly inimitable Sylvia,
valiant, vain Sylvia, and therefore more valiant,
being she is an old gal, Sylvia, banish not her
thy readers' company, banish not her thy readers'
company: banish plump Syl, and banish all the world."
Wishing you prudence and wisdom in your hour of decision — Mark Richard
Dear Jane Hurt and Geoff Brown— I’m on the faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism, where we are carefully monitoring changes new technologies are bringing to the strongest and largest media companies. Staff reductions and cost-cutting are inevitable...all the more reason I hope you rethink the decision to drop the Sylvia cartoon strip. It has such a long and illustrious Chicago history, and offers the best humor and satire for these sad times. Even if you think only a small percentage of your readers are loyal fans, that population has sustained more losses than any other as newspapers shrink staffs and pages diminish. “Sylvia” is far more than a comic strip—it educates, stretches thinking, inspires action, causes readers to do a double-take on the news...exactly what we need to be doing with ever greater urgency. Sincerely — Mary Kay Blakely, Associate Professor
The Tribune response has come from Jenna Lasich of the "Chicago Tribune Reader Help Desk," rather than from Hirt or Brown. Lasich offers "some background info" on the decision to drop Sylvia (and five other strips), which is that "there were several factors considered:
- Ongoing research, which gives us data about comics readership.
- Feedback from readers.
- Keeping a variety of different topics in the comics section."
Lasich asks, "I hope you will give the new section a chance."
How many papers is Sylvia in now? I wonder. "It gets less and less," says Hollander. "She's in about 40 papers." And at one time...? "I don’t know. I don’t think she was ever in a lot of papers, but the papers she was in were big city papers. I loved it when she was in the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit News. It's that loss that's very great. It wasn’t the number of papers but the quality of them."
In 1990 I was telling the same story. Back then it was the Sun-Times that had decided to drop Sylvia. The paper had done a readers' survey and "Sylvia came in next to last," the features editor told me. So Sylvia was out and Batman was in. "I got 30-something phone calls the first day, 20-some the second day, in the low teens the third day. They trickled off real fast to a grand total of a hundred and a quarter."
But back then, the Tribune galloped to the rescue. Sylvia was in and Pogo (which had been resurrected 16 years after Walt Kelly's death) was out. The Tribune editor responsible for the switch explained that both strips appealed to small audiences of "dedicated comics readers," and his seat-of-the-pants conclusion was that Sylvia had more of them.
Pogo was gone all of a week. It was snatched from the jaws of oblivion by those dedicated readers, whose ferocity the Tribune had underestimated. Said the same editor a week later, "They wanted their Pogo. They were good numbers, like probably five times the number of people who protested the absence of Kudzu a year ago [when Kudzu was bounced for Pogo]. It's the upper demographics, it seems to me—educated people have fallen in love with Pogo. I think Pogo's here to stay. I was sure wrong."
Long since discontinued, Pogo wasn't here to stay. Nothing's here to stay. But when educated people go nuts, the Tribune notices. Well, it noticed 20 years ago.