Heroes Con 2008 Comic Journalism Panel

Thanks to everyone who came out for the comic journalism panel at noon on Friday at Heroes Con 2008. Due to the early time (first panel of the day and the convention) and the subject matter, it was lightly attended (about 30 people), but with some great questions from the audience. (And I was thrilled to make it in time, since I arrived in Charlotte only a half-hour before it started.)

Journalism panel
(Photo ganked from Bent Corner — I’m on the end in the red next to the standing Tom Spurgeon)

I was a little surprised at how Tom Spurgeon decided to moderate — he asked questions of particular attendees instead of the panel as a whole. It meant that it wasn’t a replay of similar panels I’ve been on before, which was nice, but it did feel occasionally like waiting to be called on in class, and not a lot of cross-panelist conversation took place as a result.

Which is kind of a shame. I have plenty of opportunities to talk with big-site-runners Matt Brady (Newsarama) and Heidi MacDonald (The Beat), but I’d never before met Tim Hodler (Comics Comics) or Carlton Hargro (Creative Loafing, the local alt-weekly). Carlton in particular had a refreshing viewpoint, since his background was in print, and at times, he seemed surprised by what comic journalists were both afraid of and put up with.

Craig Fischer‘s take was that “Brady and MacDonald dominated the discussion”, perhaps because many of the questions were aimed at them. The first one was for Matt, dealing with how the recent acquisition by Imaginova affected the site.

Now, a caveat before I continue. I mostly wrote down Matt’s quotes, both because they were snappy and because they were the most diametrically opposed to the way I think about running a website. I’m not picking on him. It’s just such a different experience from what I’m familiar with.

Brady responded to his opening question by stating that the new owner “hasn’t changed anything”, saying that they haven’t dropped any comic coverage and there are no editorial mandates. His view was that with expanded coverage (the site recently added TV, movie, and video game coverage), the whole pie was bigger, but the amount of comic material hadn’t changed. (I suspect those upset by the new layout and missing features they enjoyed would argue that nothing had changed, but I believe Matt was talking about content, not presentation.)

He went on to say that the new owner allowed them to make needed technical upgrades without bringing the site to a standstill, that they were at a point where they had to expand. It was a “rough change” but needed to be done, in short.

The next question was for Heidi and me, with Spurgeon asking how things had changed in the past five years. Heidi said that now, comics are being covered by the NY Times and MTV, just to name a few larger media outlets. There are a lot of opportunities and a lot bigger playing field. How much someone has to cover has exploded. (Matt and Heidi having tough, long, never-ending jobs was a recurring theme. In fact, Matt was on his smartphone trying to beat a competitor to a story during much of the panel.)

I agreed with her, but I also like that it is now much easier to deal with established, non-comic publishers, because they already have procedures in place for review copies without hassle, established marketing folks who know the field, reasonable expectations for coverage, and so on. Small publishers often have too many jobs shared among too few staffers, which can be tricky to navigate.

Matt and Heidi later talked about how the “big publishers” are becoming more and more interested in getting out exactly what they want their message to be, in maintaining a lot of control. That’s where Matt’s quote about publishers using “carrots and sticks, threats and spankings” came from. I later clarified that they meant big comic publishers, DC and Marvel, not big publishers like Random House or Simon and Schuster; those established publishers don’t try for control much at all. I tried to make a somewhat snarky point about maybe comic publishers are choking up because they fear the future, but I think it got lost in how Matt kept saying “if Jonah (from Comic Book Resources) was here, he’d agree with me.”

At this point, I said, “I’m glad I have a day job” because it gives me a certain amount of independence from corporate pressure; I don’t care if I piss someone off, because I don’t answer to anyone but myself. (Later, several people asked me if I was a librarian — apparently, I have that air. No, I’m not. I work in a corporate communications department for a real estate-related financial services company, where I write, proofread, copy edit, manage projects, and maintain websites.) Heidi and Matt both acknowledged altering their coverage to keep publishers happy to maintain the possibility of future stories.

Tim tried to question whether corporate-placed stories really counted as journalism, saying “it it news or publicity?”, but Matt responded, “it’s news to someone.” Heidi and Matt also agreed that it was very important to be first with a story, because that’s how you get the hits. Me, I’d rather be better, with a unique perspective or some time to reflect on importance of something that’s happened, but we’ve already established that we’re playing in two very different ballparks. (Stuart Moore nicely splits the baby in comments at Heidi’s post.)

I came away with a lot of sympathy for Heidi and Matt. They’re living what many have as a dream career, being paid to talk to and about comic people all day, and it seems to be causing them a good deal of worry.

The only other thing I remember was Brady calling me old, accidentally. He’d been talking about webcomics and how users with souped up computers expected snazzy graphics and gee-whiz visuals (all those adjectives are mine). I wanted to make the contrasting point that comics might move to different kinds of devices, so I picked up my smartphone, gestured to it, and said that it was more powerful than my first two personal computers. Matt responded, in surprise, “how old *are* you?” I told him I was a VERY early adopter.

The panel was recorded by the very nice folks behind the Dollar Bin podcasts. After this panel finished, I could relax the rest of the weekend. More discussion of that coming later.


26 Responses to “Heroes Con 2008 Comic Journalism Panel”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » June 25, 2008: Beat the press Says:

    […] “Heidi [MacDonald, Publishers Weekly] and Matt [Brady, Newsarama] both acknowledged altering their coverage to keep publishers happy to maintain the possibility of future stories.” – Johanna Draper Carlson […]

  2. Shannon Smith Says:

    I was on Indie Island. My report is here…
    http://spaghettijunk.blogspot.com/2008/06/heroescon-2008-or-thanks-robs-mom.html

  3. Thomas Says:

    Heidi and Matt both acknowledged altering their coverage to keep publishers happy to maintain the possibility of future stories.

    And that any real journalist…

    (not that there appear to be too many left in the United States mainstream or political media, either, so why should the tiny fish in the comics pond do actual journalistic work?)

    … can by all rights call cowardice. Perhaps one can make the claim that it doesn’t matter with comics. Or video games. Or movies. But it’s that very reason all media is bleeding audiences.

    The altering of stories to please a potential advertiser, the holding back information is disrespectful to your audience and… will bite you in the ass, economically, sooner or later.

  4. James Schee Says:

    Interesting sounding panel, wish I could have been there as I would liked to have asked some questions.

    Like how one of the most interesting things happening in comic journalism are the podcasts interviews. Is that something that’ll become bigger as time goes on? Might I one day log onto CWR for instance, and instead of reading a review, see Johanna in a video talking about the comic? (sort of like the woman from the G4 show THE SHOW does now)

    There are others too, though some seem to be answered already. It is a shame that Heidi and Matt have to make nice with DC and MArvel as they do.

    Sort of understandable though. I mean a paper or even movie reviewer can slam a company or movie. And even if the company decides to cut them off, there are so many other options.

    In comics, where 90% or more of their coverage is DC/Marvel, lack of access would pretty much kill the site.

  5. Johanna Says:

    Podcasting doesn’t really thrill me. Reading print, I can skim for what interests me and read pretty quickly. Audio, I have to go at their pace, there’s an awful lot of padding, and if I want to jump ahead, there’s no easy way to find the next section. So no, probably no CWR podcast anytime soon. :)

  6. James Schee Says:

    True it isn’t like they have DVD style chapter settings or the like, yet anyway. Can you imagine if comic news sites went to a “nightly news” sort of approach?

    Another question I sort of had was how do the journalists decide what to write about? What influences their decisions and the like.

    Also, do the big names ever talk with each other and share stuff? Sort of like, I don’ t know a comic version of the Associated Press?

  7. Heroes Con 2008 Report » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] already talked about my experience on the comic journalism panel. I also played fan at this show, getting a bunch of stuff signed from the talented creators […]

  8. James Schee Says:

    Nice to listen to the panel, it was great putting voices with people. Even those I knew. (your voice made me go “Oh that’s right she sounds like that!” as you have such a unique accent)

    I do wish I could have heard the questions being asked by the audience better though. I have no idea what the David Mack question was about or what was the question Matt said he wouldn’t touch.

  9. Michael Grabois Says:

    several people asked me if I was a librarian — apparently, I have that air

    Maybe it’s the glasses.

  10. Rick Rottman Says:

    I’m not the source of the above photo! It’s from the dollarbin.net Flickr Photo Album. It’s a larger version of a photo that is currently on the dollarbin.net front page along with the audio file of your panel. I didn’t mean to make it seem as though I had taken the photo! I wasn’t at the con, though I now wish I was.

  11. Johanna Says:

    James, yes, I wondered the same thing when listening — I didn’t remember the exact questions.

    Rick, thanks for clarifying.

  12. Rick Rottman Says:

    Actually, there is such a thing as an enhanced podcast. It’s a podcast that contains chapters allowing the listener to skip ahead to the next chapter if they choose to. Also, images can be displayed for each chapter so those listening either with iTunes or on their video iPod can see what the podcaster is talking about. It’s a cool feature, especially for podcasters dealing with visual content.

    Here is a link to an article that explains how to make them. It also has photos of what an enhanced podcast looks like on an iPod screen.

    Johanna, I wish you’d reconsider the idea of a CWR podcast. I thought you did a superb job on the Heroes Con panel. In fact, I think both you and Carlton Hargro came off at the real stars of the panel. The great thing about podcasts is that they can be listened to while doing other things such as commuting or working. I really think you’d be good at it.

  13. Johanna Says:

    Thanks, Rick, that’s quite a compliment.

  14. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Johanna,

    You probably came off as a librarian because 1) the glasses, 2) conservative attire, and 3) taking notes. Plus, you have a wealth of information at your fingertips and present with an air of authority.

    I also think you could do a good podcast. You’re the kind of person to actually have an organized outline of what you’re going to say. The padding comes from people just sitting down and winging it for an hour. I really wish more podcasters would script what their going to say, or at least edit their podcast so that only the urbane and focused thoughts are preserved.

  15. Adam Says:

    Sorry about not having the audience questions. It was the first panel of the convention and I didn’t really have a system down yet.

    I did enjoy getting a chance to hear some candid views from everyone.

    Its very hard to make a transition from print to audio or the other way. They are two different mediums. Also, it brings up the question “Do I type this of record it?” It can potentially take double if not more or the work to do both. I also think that it can be better to do a quick search for key words in an article (you can’t do that in an enhanced podcast), but being able to catch up on “news” in the car is great too.

  16. Johanna Says:

    Ed: a see-through blouse is conservative? Okaaaaay…

    If I podcasted, it’d probably be about 10 minutes. But now I’m more curious about trying it.

  17. Rick Rottman Says:

    The columnist from my local newspaper has a podcast where he reads his columns. Maybe you could try doing something like that.

  18. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Johanna,

    I don’t look at the picture THAT closely. I thought it was a silk blouse. Sorry. You’re very progressive in your attire ;-)

  19. James Schee Says:

    Ed, don’t worry I thought it was a beige silk blouse too, though I can see the red underneath now that Johanna pointed the see through aspect out. OK enough about Johanna’s attire, lest we start asking what type of shoes she wore.:)

    Not sure about the librarian thing, I’ve worked at libraies and don’t really know what fits that perception. Did you tell anyone SHHH Johanna?:)

  20. Rick Rottman Says:

    Did you tell anyone SHHH Johanna?:)

    She probably should have immediately before someone began to talk about carrots and sticks, threats and spankings.

  21. David Oakes Says:

    Hmm…

    “Sexy Librarian”, “See-through Blouse”, “Glasses”, and “Spankings”.

    I am going to to love to see your Google Stats for this month, Joh.

  22. Johanna Says:

    David, you always have such a creative take on things. :)

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