The Dandy and The Daily: Two failed media franchises dilly-dally on the same day

“The Dandy” comic book, honored on a UK postage stamp

The Dandy and The Daily, two well-known media institutions, similarly named but quite distinct from each other, both made headlines yesterday.

The Daily was Rupert Murdoch’s short-lived attempt to purpose-build an international digital newspaper intended to be read on tablet devices.

The Dandy is a long-lived British “boys’ comic” book, published continuously since 1937.

In separate announcements, publishers of The Dandy said they would cease to produce the traditional print edition and henceforth issue only an online edition, while a statement from Murdoch’s group said The Daily would disappear from cyberspace, and exist only in our collective memories: perhaps as a tiny part of a forthcoming exhibition at the V&A, say, in 2062.

Murdoch with the now-defunct “Daily”

In the distant past of the media business, we might have expected a clear-eyed consolidator, someone such as Frank A. Munsey, to step forward and snap up the titles at a steep discount, and reassemble from the usable parts a Dandy-Daily, or Daily-Dandy. (Or perhaps as a business-to-business title for luncheonette owners, called The Deli.)

Indeed, Munsey, the American publishing magnate who died in 1925, would have appreciated Murdoch’s derring-do in launching The Daily. Munsey was a technophile whose training as a telegraph operator became the foundation in his expertise at disseminating information. Similarly, he might also have dug The Dandy, since his first magazine, launched in 1882, was a “boys’ adventure” title named Argosy, which cross-pollinated with its pulpy British equivalents. (He quickly learned the shortcomings of publishing for the juvenile audience, absorbing the lesson that children are biologically pre-programmed to outgrow their favorite magazine.)

Publishing legend Frank Munsey might have seen value in consolidating the titles

However, Munsey’s chief notoriety sprang from his practice of buying and merging daily newspapers. At his zenith, he owned 17 big-city titles, and ended up with two. In that sense, he was way ahead of his time, a shrinker of press-empires nearly a century before the Newhouse grandchildren got the same brainstorm.

Currently, a compelling argument might be made for combining The Daily with The Dandy. Surface synergies might be seen to exist, since The Daily, unlike most traditional printed newspapers, did not have a page of comic strips, while The Dandy offered nothing but.

The metrics, on the other hand, tell two different stories. The venerable comic book was into the “splat” phase of its circulation freefall, starting out with sales of two million copies per issue in the 1950s, and winding its way down to 8,000 sold last week. The startup digital newspaper claimed 100,000 subscribers in its first 18 months, which is not bad, but not nearly enough to make the venture profitable. Estimates are that The Daily ran up losses of $40 million during its short, strange life.

There are a couple of lessons to be taken away from these concurrent closures, or re-inventions.

The Daily seemed born of nothing except Murdoch’s never-ending opportunism. When he announced conceptual plans for his “iNewspaper” exactly two years ago, it was spun as a collaboration with Apple’s Steve Jobs, who was looking for content for his still-very-new iPad. (Reportedly, Jobs soon came to recognize Murdoch’s destructive influence on US political discourse.)

From the beginning, Murdoch seemed to sell the idea based more on what it wasn’t, rather than what is was. He would not, could not, contain his glee at the notion of doing without the huge, cranky and ruinously expensive labor force and infrastructure required to print, distribute, vend and deliver the conventional newspaper.

Well, it happens that I’m in the publishing bid’ned, too, and I sure do get why he’s got a chip on his shoulder, but Murdoch’s miscalculation was the assumption that any civilian non-combatants might care about his fifty-year war against journalists’ guilds and printers’ unions. Here is part of the pitch, from http://learn.thedaily.com/, that he used to hustle The Daily as a 99-cent-per week app: “What we save in paper, ink and delivery trucks you save in price.” That could only be a message sent straight from Rupert’s lips to the uncomprehending ears of the non-combatant civilians, who neither know, nor should they care, about the sixty years of bad blood between News Corp. and its unionized workers. All the prospective readers might have seen might charitably be categorized as the wasted effort of a legacy-technology to tart itself up for one last lonely promenade through the iTunes store, where many far more interesting apps remain on the shelf, at no cost.

Rupert, acknowledging he’s run the string on his madcap experiment, pulled the plug while mumbling about the many valuable things he has learned through this experience, which will be put to use on his other properties. Of course, he might have saved his shareholders $39,999,750 or so, if he’d instead derived his lesson through a community college introductory course on the effective use of WordPress, but never mind that.

Murdoch build his empire through guile, by ferocity, and by being at least 20 minutes ahead of his competitors in embracing technology trends.

The Dandy’s purveyor, DC Thomson of Dundee, Scotland, may be regarded as somewhat less avant-garde, which makes their leap into the iPad cloud worth noting. The Dandy, and its clone, The Beano, used to find their way into Canada when I was a tot, but they seemed in every way at odds with the reality of the times. For one thing, copies would arrive from abroad by boat, and were stale-dated by weeks or months when they appeared in the local variety store and were placed beside the coming month’s issue of Mad and Cracked and Sick, which were trucked the short distance north up the New York State Thruway, and were always dated in advance. This caused the appearance, from the perspective of our observation post one block away from Danesbury Public School, that judging from their comic books, the Brits were permanently stuck in 1946, while the Americans were boldly striding toward the future, in the direction of a New Frontier.

The Beano and The Dandy hinted incomprehensibly at class divisions and goods shortages and pie shops and dole queues and lost empires. Adding to the confusion, there was a character in The Beano billed as “Dennis the Menace,” who obviously was not the same blonde, slingshot-bearing scamp who starred in the eponymous Fawcett Comics series. The British Dennis appeared to be more than a mere menace, with his lean frame, spiky hair, curled lip and malevolent air. The American Dennis was a misunderstood cutey-pie in clean coveralls. Both Dennises were strikingly unfunny — but only the Brit came across as truly scary, the way only a British youth can.

All-American (l.) and Anglo-Scottish (r.) Dennis the Menaces

UK Dennis, the prototype yob, is evidently still hanging about, filling pages in The Beano, which flies in the face of both changing times and vigilent international trademark laws. The Dandy still boasts its own repertory set of eternally queer characters, including Desperate Dan and Korky the Cat. The question key to predicting the survival of The Dandy in its new form will be: “If no one wants to buy this shit as a printed comic book anymore, why on earth would you expect anyone pay to read it on their iPad?”

Ellis Watson, CEO of DC Thomson, tells the Scottish Daily Record: “We’re not super slick, we’re not Silicon Valley, but what we are is some pretty talented animators and storytellers that are really excited about seeing if we can introduce these wonderful characters to another couple of generations.” What Watson shares with Murdoch is that same propensity to describe new-media ventures in terms of what they aren’t, as opposed to what they are. Desperate Dan? Exactly.

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