"The Syndicate with a Soul"
By David Allan
David Allan is a former AJR editorial assistant.
When John McMeel and Jim Andrews launched the Universal Press Syndicate in February 1970, the executive office was a bedroom and the staff of four worked out of Andrews' basement. Twenty-five years later nearly 700 people were whooping it up in Kansas City to celebrate its anniversary. With nearly 250 employees and at least $140 million in annual revenue, UPS has made a name for itself through enterprising and unconventional means.
The UPS success story reads like a series of lucky breaks, beginning with an exclusive on Seymour Hersh's reporting on the My Lai massacre. Offering the syndicated version of the story before Hersh's book was released, McMeel made a deal with reluctant newspaper editors: If the book won the Pulitzer, the price for the excerpts would double. When the book won the prize, UPS cashed in.
The syndicate's first commercial success was Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury," now picked up by 1,700 newspapers. McMeel and Andrews were fans of "Bull Tales," Trudeau's political cartoon for the Yale Daily News, and chose him to write "Doonesbury" during the company's first year. Under Andrews' guidance, Trudeau's cartoon evolved from a college strip into the biting "Doonesbury" we know today. Other UPS discoveries include Tom Wilson's "Ziggy" and Gary Larson's "The Far Side."
UPS prides itself on keeping up with the times and with the shifting demographics of its audience, directing its efforts at targeted audiences. For example, Cathy Guisewite's "Cathy" is aimed at single, independent women readers, while Lynn Johnston's "For Better or For Worse" is geared toward young families. Even a popular strip like Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes," picked up from UPS by 2,400 papers, does not try to attract a general audience the way Charles Schulz, of United Feature Syndicate, does with his strip, "Peanuts."
"We're not the largest in [newspaper contracts], but we've tried to focus on specific audiences," McMeel says. "What 'Doonesbury' is doing for the editorial or comics pages, 'Tank McNamara' is doing in the sports section."
UPS does not employ its cartoonists and writers directly, as some older syndicates, such as King Features, still do. Rather, UPS handles sales and distribution, splitting the revenue with its clients. Although subscribing papers can choose to drop a feature anytime, UPS makes keeping the talent happy a top priority by offering four-week vacations each year to all cartoonists syndicated for at least five years.
When a cartoonist goes on sabbatical, UPS gives subscribing newspapers the option of reprinting old strips by the creator at the same price paid for original strips. An option far more appealing to the creator than the buyer, it is a bold liberty allowed by no other syndicate. During the mid-'80s, for example, Trudeau took a year-and-a-half off, and Bill Watterson recently took a nine-month vacation. In contrast, old guard elite at other syndicates, such as Schulz and Mort Walker, creator of King Features' "Beetle Bailey," have not had a day off or a reprinted strip in 45 years.
With more than 100 creators to manage, and a roster that includes Mary McGrory, William F. Buckley and Erma Bombeck, not to mention Dear Abby and the recently added "Garfield" strip, McMeel and his partner, Kathleen Andrews, wife of the late Jim Andrews, have reason to believe 25 years is just the beginning of the UPS story.
Apparently UPS talent agrees. Mary McGrory's recent Valentine's Day column declared her love for UPS, noting that nice guys do not always finish last. "It is the custom for columnists to complain about their syndicates, but I can't," she wrote. "Mine is the syndicate with a soul."