(Photo from Emergency Kittens)
For the past few days there has been a kerfuffle in the extremely high profile, glamourous and profitable world of comics journalism. I’m not going to recap it here but here are the relevant links:
Fanboy Rampage: Hannah Means Shannon Hired at Dark Horse, Rich Johnston Celebrates With Blowout Twitter Fight
Dark Horse’s Hiring of Hannah Means Shannon Tainted By Potentially Biased Reporting
Comics Journalism Under Fire as Means Shannon Hiring Prompts Broader Examination of Ethics
A Statement on the Publication of Leaked Emails
I think the titles alone tell the tale. So rather than comment on this hot mess, I’m going to talk about why it happened. And what we an do to improve things.
“Comics journalism” as I’ve been telling you for the last 10 years, is a low paying job. There are maybe only a few dozen people in the US who make a living doing it (counting the staffers for CBR, Newsarama, Comicbook.com and Bleeding Cool, which seem to be the main professional sites.) No one who does it is rich.
For the last 13 years I’ve made about 90% of my living doing comics journalism for here and Publishers Weekly. It is by no means a king’s ransom, I don’t take vacations, rarely go out for dinner or to the movies, or purchase anything but the bare minimum of essentials. Looking at my latest tax return (which takes out business expenses) I probably qualify as “low income.”
When there is no money there is freedom, but there is also freedom from responsibility. And no incentive to do better. And the comics industry, which is itself a not very lucrative field, plays on that. And a LOT more people make a living making comics than writing about comics.
Sometimes I wonder why I do the Beat but then I think about how the rest of the industry works and I realize there is a purpose for it. I survive on the goodwill of advertisers and patrons who specifically like what this site offers and how it covers the industry. Because the main way it is covered is so pre-formatted that I can’t believe anyone gets anything out of it. Take interviews. I have a hard time doing them any more for several reasons. #1, I hate doing transcriptions. I’ve been doing interview transcripts for more than 30 years and I just can’t do it any more. Burn out factor.
But the other thing is the way interviews are set up. “It’s FOC so we are doing press.” @digital_femme and @mizCaramelVizen were tweeting about this yesterday.
So here’s how the sausage is REALLY made.
Comics companies have only two time frames for publicity. The first is when a book is announced and that’s set up with a preferred outlet. In the past it was always CBR or Newsarama, but as larger outlets begin to care about comics now it could be USA Today, EW, or IGN, for example. The big news stories that comics sites used to rely on (and that a small site like this could only dream of) now go to bigger outlets that have no skin in the game. No one at any of these sites works full time in comics journalism, I can assure you.
After the big reveal, there is no need for press until the FOC date for the project. For the comics publishers that have FOC — final order cutoff — this is about 3-4 weeks before pub date. This is when you will see literally every outlet offered the same interview with the same people. It really doesn’t matter what site you read, you’ll see the same line-up of interviews, because, as Cheryl and Vixen discussed, this is the ONLY WAY TO GET PUBLICITY FOR A COMIC. Getting pre-orders and reminding retailers about a a book as they are filing out their insanely complicated order form is the literal life and death for many projects.
And that’s it, rinse and repeat for week after week after week. And that’s why I get bored with the interview opportunities you get from comics publishers. I’m not faulting them, just saying it doesn’t interest me personally. Some of the Beat writers are fine with it, and I’m fine with that. But this is the “professional system” we have set up.
That’s also the basic reward — promotional interviews, previews, access — that is dangled like a carrot for sites. When you report something people don’t like, or go off the track, you lose “access” — which, as you can see, if not very much to begin with. I’m on the promo lists for most publishers, and I respect their embargoes for that reason. That’s an ethical decision and trade-off that you make. That doesn’t mean that when there is a story that doesn’t originate from PR (i.e., a real news story) I don’t report it; in fact that’s way more important for what I believe in and what I do. But I can see why most sites don’t want to do it. The system is gamed against it.
And then there’s disclosure, which is what the above kerfuffle stems from. Since we’ve already established that you can’t make a living writing about comics, you have to do other things to eat and pay rent. And that’s where disclosure comes in.
I don’t really expect people who are comics journalists not to have other jobs. But they should be mindful about existing conflicts of interest and, to avoid the appearance of impropriety, avoid putting themselves in that situation. It is almost impossible for anyone in this business to avoid tangents with someone they have worked with in some capacity, so you just make it clear.
I probably don’t do as good a job of disclosing things as I should here, but when I write about a company that I am currently working for, I label it hype and point out the relationship in the first sentence, or a disclosure in the body of the story. Same goes for writing about projects created by family members. For the record, companies I have worked for in the past, as an employee or freelance consultant: Walt Disney, DC Comics, Publishers Weekly, New York Comic-Con, Honest Tea, Fox, Z2 Comics.
…and, TBH, probably some I’m forgetting, because it’s been a long career. Some of them were a long time ago, and I don’t feel I need to mention them every time I write about a story. For more recent clients, I’ll try to at least mention the relationship. As a freelance writer, I work for a bunch of places. And those kinds of gigs are less of a conflict of interest because they are more transient and ephemeral and I don’t expect other freelancer writers to have to list a resume every time they write something. That isn’t the point.
The point is just being clear about where you are coming from. I once had to stop pursuing writing something for EW (A childhood dream of mine) because their policy was not to run reviews by people who were friends with the people who were covered. I’m pretty friendly with 50% of the industry so that leaves out a lot of people—and the same is true for the rest of what is, at heart, a small and collegial industry where people like hanging out with others of their own kind. Enforcing this kind of rule at a comics site would be flat out impossible.
But there are a few guidelines, and I’ll give some examples from my position editing graphic novel reviews for Publishers Weekly. These reviews are always anonymous, for precisely many of the reasons we are talking about. The anonymity both protects the reviewers and ensures that personal relationships won’t be compromised. But because of this anonymity, disclosure isn’t possible. Since her name got smeared in one comment thread I linked to above, I’ll use Kelly Thompson as an example. I approached Kelly years ago to review for PW and she did it ably and professionally for years, until one day she said she had pitches under consideration at a publisher and couldn’t review books for that publisher any more. Perfect. Relationship — which would NEVER have been revealed to anyone but me and her — revealed nonetheless because there was a clear conflict of interest. As time went on Kelly got work at more and more publishers (because she’s good!) and eventually stopped writing reviews altogether. Pretty simple and very much the right way to go about things. I had another reviewer whose spouse was employed by a major comics publisher who couldn’t review comics from that publisher for obvious reasons.
There was another reviewer who had an interning job at a comics publisher, unbeknown to me, and I sent her a book from that publisher to review. Instead of mentioning the relationship, she wrote the review; however by the time I got it back I knew of the relationship and did not run the review. It’s most likely that the review would have been the same no matter what the relationship to the publisher, but it was still an impropriety that was properly addressed.
In the end, that’s all we want. Some disclosure. If you THINK you are biased…you probably are. It’s free and makes you a better person.
Now, finally, there is one matter I want to address that will upset some people. But I’m going to talk about it anyway, and that is the “quality” of the comics journalism that we are seeing. There are many would be Lois Lanes out there who are still at the Jimmy Olsen (original version) stage of their careers. And I see them making mistakes constantly. Just to be up front, I am not a trained journalist beyond taking a course in it in high school. So I break a lot of rules that you should not break, by reporting on people I know and so on (in the past I vacationed with Joe Quesada, Can Buckley and Jim Lee, for instance.) However there are a few rules that are basics like:
You should not know what the story is until you find out. That is why you investigate.
Yesterday I had a story that ran on Slate called The Indie Comics Animation Gold Rush. I knew what the story was about — people getting jobs in animation from doing small press comics — but I didn’t know what I would find when I started talking to people, so I interviewed half a dozen people, and mixed it up with some of my own opinions and a story was born. I learned many things while talking to people, some of which backed up my own observations, some of which surprised me.
Now sometimes you hear something that you know is a story, but even then, reporting on this one thing means contacting sources, who may corroborate or expand what you know, or change it, and also contacting the people who may be on the other side of the story. In this day of cellphone videos it’s hard to remember that there are two sides to every story, but even with social media, I think that’s the basis of what most human societies called justice: weighing conflicting testimony to find out which is the more credible. That’s what a good reporter does as a stand-in for the community. How well you report is your coin; give crazy misleading headlines an out of context quotes, and you will lose some credibility.
Social media makes all of this harder, I know, but even a great “story” like Zola’s wild weekend inc Florida, can be checked and corroborated. And should be. Zola was telling the truth as well as entertaining us, and that’s amazing.
For all of the tyro comics reporters out there who are frustrated because they can’t get their big tell-all stories published by outlets, I have a suggestion: Learn how to be a reporter by starting small.
There are dozens of small stories in comics and beyond that can be reported on. Learn how to do it with something smaller and easier before you tackle the big fish. You have to DO things in order to learn. That is how you get taken seriously. By having a track record. I know that everyone out there is well meaning, and I’m going to be castigated for lecturing from a place of privilege and so on, but it took me 30 years to get to this place of privilege. I don’t want to do it forever. I would love to hire the next Heidi MacDonald so I can retire to my cardboard box and play Kingdom Rush. While I no longer hire freelance reporters for Publishers Weekly, I did it for a decade, and when I see people who have talent, I try to get them work, and a lot of them have gone on to do much better things like Laura Hudson, @digital_femme, Van Jensen, Wil Moss, Bill Kartalopoulos, Zainab Akhtar, Jennifer deGuzman, Todd Allen, David Brothers, Steve Morris, and heck, Hannah Means-Shannon. Reporting is an actual marketable skill, and once you get good at it, you can probably get paid for it. But it’s a skill that needs to be learned like anything else, including writing itself.
Anyway, I’ve spent three hours writing this, and there is no content on the Beat yet today so writing this has actually COST me money in traffic and advertising. That’s the grim Malthusian equation I face every day. I don’t have an answer, just lots of questions, but I’ll keep asking them as best I can and answering them when I can.
We can all do better, and we can all ASK THAT OTHERS DO BETTER, and support those that do.
And now, back to work.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.