- Posted by Johanna on June 24, 2008 at 9:39 pm
- Category: Comic News
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.)
(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.