Are Too Many Newspaper Comic Polls a Sham?
It's the ugly little secret that, within the newspaper comics industry and among avid comics followers, is nobody's secret at all:
Namely, that the frequently used Newspaper Comics Reader Poll might be long-standing, but it is hardly upstanding. It has walked on the wrong side of the statistical tracks far too often, stirring so much scorn, skepticism and controversy that it might as well wear a scarlet "A" -- for "adulterated accuracy."
And yet, the much-maligned, oft-distrusted comics poll -- be it an online poll, a phone-in vote or a write-in survey -- keeps being allowed into polite society. Perhaps because someone, or rather something, is always needed around to do some of the dirty work.
The reason I write this is because in recent weeks, Comic Riffs ran an online comics "popularity" poll that had not even the remotest pretense of being scientific. Still, it was somewhat surprising to what lengths that apparent ballot-stuffing subverted how the poll trended for days. Almost overnight, the poll climbed quickly and conspicuously to nearly a thousand votes, as several back-of-the-pack comics surged out of nowhere.
As I wrote in today's earlier blogpost: This wasn't a vote -- this was a movement.
In regards to Comic Riffs, all this is terribly small potatoes. But the dime-store deceit drew the attention of some editors, cartoonists -- and eagle-eyed commenters to this blog (including "elyrest") -- who quickly contacted me to say: Welcome to a perpetual scourge of our industry.
See, the plot twist is, the comics poll still has a mighty place in the marketplace -- and polls, especially because they are conducted online more than ever, are much more easily gamed, stampeded, rigged and sandbagged in recent years, some artists and editors say.
"Cheating in polls seems to be more rampant than ever," says Stephan Pastis, creator of the syndicated comic strip "Pearls Before Swine." "And that cheating appears to have pervaded not only the voting, but in the comments newspapers solicit about comic strips on their site. This would all be 'fun and games' but for the fact that many editors actually rely on these polls, and therefore, it determines our living."
Amy Lago, comics editor at Washington Post Writers Group, echoes that sentiment. "Our sales people try to discourage editors from comic surveys," she says. "It's simply too easy to cheat. And it will usually NOT give them a representative sample of their readership -- or, more important, the readership they'd like to get." (It's worth noting that Lago encourages the "guest comic" concept over polling.)
John Glynn, who is Lago's counterpart at Universal Press Syndicate, says his syndicate also discourages reliance on polls. "Almost across the board, we recommend against newspapers using polls as THE determining factor in deciding a strip's fate," he says. "Polls generally favor older comics and to our mind they're susceptible to manipulation. ... And it's not too difficult how to figure out how to vote multiple times on an online or write-in poll."
(Glynn enumerates a handful of flaws with online comics polling, including the face that "cookies can be deleted"; that people can "figure out a ZIP code in your market"; and that cartoonists involved in the poll can spearhead their own campaign to boost voting.)
The host of factors at issue certainly includes methodology and whether a poll is "scientific" or not (some editors say paying for a polling service or scientific market research is not something they can readily afford in the current economic climate). Also at issue: How comics editors choose to interpret the data, and how heavily to rely upon the feedback. Some syndicate and newspaper editors say it can be an effective tool if used properly, and that write-in comments are more illuminating than a strict election. Others say polling can become a front, an excuse, a cop-out when comic-lineup changes are made.
Scott Adams, the creator of "Dilbert," is among those who believe polls used correctly can be an effective tool -- as long as they're not the biggest -- let alone only -- tool in the shed.
"I think comic polls can be helpful to editors as long as they are just one of several factors they consider," Adams says. "For example, if only 20 percent of readers enjoy a particular comic, but they are passionate about it, then that comic probably sells more newspapers than one in which 80 percent enjoy it but not passionately. Editors would have a feel for the passion factor.
Adams cites his own strip's experience: "In the early days of 'Dilbert,' it often ranked near the very bottom in comic polls. But the passion factor was high, and the type of reader it attracted was a good demographic, so editors wisely gave it some time to grow in popularity."
Lynn Johnston, creator of "For Better or For Worse," also sees qualified value in comics polling. "It's only fair to ask the readers what they want. If an editor drops something and the backlash is strong, it's hard to replace the feature right away or perhaps impossible," Johnston says. "I'm all for what makes an editor's job easier and until they come up with something else, I think the polls are useful and necessary."
Often at issue, though, is the science behind the poll -- or the lack thereof. Sherry Stern, who edits comics at the Los Angeles Times, views polls at a faulty fallback position. "The more I think about it, the more I think a poll can be a cop-out," she says. "It allows us beleaguered editors to tell the complainers: 'But we did a poll.' But unless you had Gallup running your survey, the results are not accurate of anything.
"Just ask any editor who had to run a 'mea culpa' after bringing back 'Pearls Before Swine.' "
Stern also notes that the Times recently tested comics as tryouts to replace "For Better or For Worse" and asked readers for e-mail comments. " I found this way to be helpful because people often do more than just cast a vote. You end up learning something about your readers and what they think about many of the comics," she says.
Frank Rizzo, comics editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says his newspaper recently polled readers online because it was trying to elminate a half-page of comics. "I needed the data so I could go spelunking" and gather information, says Rizzo, adding: "It's about as perfect as we can do without an actual expensive scientific survey. It was a useful tool -- but it'll never be perfect."
After the poll results are in hand, though, Rizzo emphasizes: "Beyond that is where the 'editor' part comes in -- you have to interpret what people want. You have to know your audience."
Shirley Carswell, The Washington Post's comics editor, is in a similar camp: "I think polls are interesting for the insight they provide about strengths and weaknesses of particular comic strips across various demographics -- the open-ended comments are usually the best part. [But] I don't think polls are great as a sole basis for decisions, because the respondents generally are self-selecting."
Adds Carswell: "It's a part of the decision-making -- but not the only part."
At United Media, senior executive Lisa Wilson subscribes to the "know thy readership" approach. "I truly believe polls are a good way to find out how passionate your audience is about comics, but editors need to know their audience. Editors should never take [the poll results] from the readers and just do it. At the end of the day, they should make the decision."
Some cartoonists, though, just can't abide by online polls that might be so easily gamed.
"Stuffing the electronic ballot box has been going on since editors first starting running online polls," says Mark Tatulli, creator of the syndicated strips "Lio" and "Heart of the City." "However, it has never been more widespread than now, when comic-strip space is at a premium and artists and syndicates are desperate to get new or hold onto newspaper space."
Tatulli continues: "Should our income be decided by an unscientific, fixed poll? Is any other job in the word determined in such a way? Editors run these polls [they say] as a way of including the reader in on the decision of which comics to add/drop. The problem is editors, for the most part, are smart people and know these results are flawed ...
"They run these polls as a way of absolving themselves of any responsibility for what is dropped: 'Well, don't blame me, this is what the masses wanted!'
On that point, Wiley Miller, creator of "Non Sequitur," doesn't mince words: "If [editors] did what they're paid to do, they wouldn't need to even think about conducting these moronic polls."
Commenters and cartoonists, readers and editors: If you've got opinions, insights or anecdotes of your own, the e-floor is now yours.
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