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Posted at 9:37 AM ET, 02/24/2011

BIG NEWS: United Media to outsource syndication to Universal Uclick [UPDATED]

By Michael Cavna


In a seismic shift in the newspaper syndicate world, Universal Uclick will take over syndication services for the 150 comics and other features handled by United Media, the companies announced this morning.

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Under the outsourcing deal, the Kansas City-based Universal Uclick "will provide editorial and production services, sales and marketing, sales support and customer service, and distribution and fulfillment for all the news features and comics" of the Manhattan-based United Media, which is owned by the Scripps Co.

United Media's comics include "Pearls Before Swine," "Get Fuzzy," "Big Nate," "Frank & Ernest," "Luann," "Rose Is Rose" and "Marmaduke." For decades, the syndicate carried such widely popular and highly profitable strips as "Peanuts," "Dilbert" and "Garfield."

"First and foremost, our goal is to make sure the talent is taken care of," Lisa Klem Wilson, senior vice president and general manager at United Media, tells Comic Riffs. "The heart and soul of our operation is the talent."

The outsourcing transition takes effect immediately and is scheduled to be completed by June 1, United Media says. Wilson says the administrative teams at Universal Uclick and United Media will work together to ensure as smooth a transition as possible, noting that all Scripps contracts with its creators will continue and be honored "in the spirit of what was intended."

Wilson expects that come July, United Media will no longer have a physical presence on Madison Avenue, saying: "As of June, operations and resources will begin to unwind."

Speculation about United Media's future had swirled since at least last April, when Scripps announced that it had reached a deal to sell its character-licensing business, United Media Licensing, to Iconix Brand Group for $175-million in cash. United Media Licensing was characterized at the time as a $2-billion-a-year merchandise business.

The sale, which included the billion-dollar "Peanuts" characters, was completed last June. Scripps had owned the "Peanuts" licensing rights since launching the strip in October 1950.

Industry speculation over United's future arose again last September, when the Peanuts behemoth announced that it had reached a distribution deal with Universal Uclick. "We feel Universal is a natural partnership for us," Jean Schulz, wife of late "Peanuts" creator Charles M. "Sparky" Schulz, told Comic Riffs at the time.

United's end date for that distribution deal was especially notable. Scripps and United Media announced in September: "Unfortunately, we were not able to come to mutually agreeable terms, and as a result, United Feature Syndicate will no longer distribute the 'Peanuts' comic strip to newspapers, effective February 26, 2011."

Last December, another major United strip, "Dilbert," announced its migration to Universal Uclick; that move was effective Jan. 1. "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams said at the time: ""It feels as if Dilbert got a promotion. Universal Uclick is the industry leader, and I'm delighted to be able to work with them."

"There can only be two 'top' players" now in newspaper syndication, Wilson tells Comic Riffs. "The market is shrinking -- the number of newspapers, the size, everything."

Anticipating that the industry will no longer be able to support three top syndicates, Wilson said, "Scripps did the best thing they can do for the talent and to make sure there's a successful transition to a leading entity that can be profitable and viable going forward."

The deal came as news to numerous United creators.

"I'm a little stunned, but in the wake of the 'Peanuts' and 'Dilbert' deals, not really surprised," "Big Nate" creator Lincoln Peirce tells Comic Riffs. "There seems to have been a certain inevitability to it.

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"I obviously don't know what if will be like to work with the good folks at Universal, but I look forward to finding out," Peirce continues. "I'm anticipating that it'll be analogous to moving into a new house. I've been with United for 20 years; I know where all the furniture is, I know which doors stick and which steps squeak. Getting to know a place, and the people involved, takes time."


Under the new agreement, the Cincinnati-based Scripps says it will retain "certain copyrights" and "control the licenses" for those properties.

"After we sold United Media's licensing operations in 2010 to focus on our core news and journalism enterprises, we set out to construct the best operating model for the remaining syndicate, whose primary customers are newspapers across America," Scripps's president and chief executive officer, Rich Boehne, said in a statement.

"A review of our operations -- and the marketplace we serve -- made it clear that we should seek greater efficiency by teaming up with one of the other remaining players. In Andrews McMeel we found the scale and skills to carry forward the comic properties we have nurtured for many years."

Universal Uclick is owned by Andrews McMeel Universal.

"We could not be more pleased to welcome the inspired creators represented by these features," Andrews McMeel co-founder John McMeel says in a statement. "Cultivating and distributing remarkable talent, and nurturing and maintaining relationships, have been the foundation of our business; this association affirms our commitment to both."

Peirce tells Comic Riffs he looks forward to his new creative stablemates. "I'm pleased to know 'Big Nate' will be part of a stable that includes some of my real favorites, like 'Cul de Sac' and 'Doonesbury.' "

"The result of this partnership is formidable," says Hugh Andrews, executive vice president of AMU and president of Andrews McMeel Publishing.

As a result of the deal, Universal Uclick touts that "the comic strips and political cartoons featured on Comics.com and GoComics.com will be combined to create the largest daily comic destination site on the Web."

The comics industry's other top syndicate among the "Big 3" is New York-based King Features.

United Media said it could not immediately outline the terms of the deal or whether the transition and "consolidation" would involve staff layoffs as opposed to reassignment.

United Media has long syndicated comics through its United Feature Syndicate and Newspaper Enterprise Association divisions. A century ago next year, Scripps launched the Newspaper Enterprise Association as a news service; within several years, it transitioned into a general syndicate.

"The irony is that United Media never had a bad year ... ," Lisa Klem Wilson tells us. "And the takeway is that we developed and believed in some of the most successful strips in comics history ... and they will continue to go on."

(Full disclosure: Michael Cavna was syndicated as a United Media cartoonist from 1997 to 2003.)

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By Michael Cavna  | February 24, 2011; 9:37 AM ET
Categories:  General, The Comic Strip  | Tags:  United Media, Universal Uclick  
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Comments

Would this have anything to do with the unavailability of some of the Post's comics? E.G.: On the Fastrack or Curtis.

Posted by: greggwiggins | February 25, 2011 11:17 AM | Report abuse

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