Bill Watterson and Newspaper Entrepreneurship

Reading David’s post and talking it over with him before and afterwards, I am reminded of Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s speech “The Cheapening of Comics.”

Why am I talking about comics in a thread about print news? There are a few important overlaps between David’s points and Watterson’s. First, they’re both about print media—Watterson is talking specifically about newspaper comics. Second, they both are about a time of relatively few options in the media landscape.

Third, they both have a sense of mass media being maintained by a social contract which long ago was breached. See David:

For a while there, before the sudden demise of print media, we all agreed to play the fixed game because it was fun and there was still a chance to come away with something of value. We small government types tacitly acknowledged that print media was in the tank for Big Government types, and we bought the paper just so long as there were boundaries of decorum.

Now see Watterson:

The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art.

And most crucially, in both of them is a clear belief that things did not need to be this way. Watterson was writing about his present, and David about his past, but both of them are making a claim that a stable equilibrium was not made inevitable by economic and technological realities.

The economist’s argument to both is that if printed news and newspaper comics appear in some way deficient to David and Watterson, the audiences are to blame, not the people in the industry. The market supplies what people want. Even when it was subsidized by classified and had far fewer close substitutes, print was a trial and error information processing bloodbath. Very, very low margins, and a lot of churn. It seems as though if there was another stable equilibrium, this information processing machine would have found it.

On the other hand, it is the very drive to find a better way that brought us to where we are today. Elsewhere I have remarked on how Watterson, despite his anti-commercial rhetoric, displays some remarkable bourgeois virtues.

The cause of death for the still-warm body of print news may have ultimately been the bomb planted by tinkering technologists, but who is to say that, if the digital and Internet revolutions had not come, things would have stayed the same? The niche magazine market was already expanding rather drastically at the time, who knows how that would have played out in itself. And perhaps some gutsy entrepreneurs would have found a way to make mass media work without treating their audiences like a single bland mass. Who knows?