In 1991, I launched a publication which was a monthly “review of the news” using editorial cartoons, humor columns and a “fake news” section, ala The Onion, to entertain and amuse people who were getting a bit fed up with bad news. The paper is a funny way of looking at the world, through the eyes of some very talented and amusing writers and artists. The genesis of the periodical was a version that was distributed free and depended on local advertising in the Sacramento, California area – where it all began. (I’d name the publication, but can’t, according to the writing rules on this site, but see the info at the bottom of the article.)
The first issue came out – appropriately enough – on April Fools Day. However, the joke was not the paper itself, but the real-life politics that the publication lampoons. I had just left another small publication I co-published in the Sierra Nevada foothills about an hour’s drive northeast from Sacramento, and was inspired by the Santa Cruz Comic News, another editorial cartoon paper out of Santa Cruz, California, to start this one.
Sacramento seemed like a good home for such a political humor paper, being the state capitol and a political city. The first issue, hitting the streets right on the heels of the first Gulf War, contained a short “history” of that war, told in editorial cartoons, with accompanying “quips” that string them together to form a narrative. It made a big splash, and was an immediate success with political satire lovers in Sacramento.
I launched my little “rag” with some very minimal loans from a few friends, giving me enough for the first printing and some expenses. I opened a small office in the basement of a bookstore whose manager appreciated the paper, and they even traded an ad in the paper for the rent. I had to sign up for food stamps the first year or so to make ends meet, so as you might imagine, it was very much a shoestring operation. But I toiled hard, pounding the pavement to sell ads, working the phone, and putting the paper together on a light table – cutting and pasting the old-fashioned way. I couldn’t really afford to hire help yet, but friends lent a hand here and there, and somehow, I got by.
Month by month the ad sales increased, and the feedback I received from readers was inspiring. I would get calls like one from a woman who said, “I don’t smile or laugh much these days, with what’s happening in the world. But after reading your paper, it had me roaring!” Those kind of calls and letters kept me going. Indeed, the paper was making quite a splash, a unique addition to the city’s culture, and I even got some good press in the other monthlies and weeklies.
Becoming a financial success was another matter, as competition among the many small local publications was fierce. What I like to call the Great Decline of Newspapers had not yet begun in earnest, but the going was still tough. Start-up papers seemed to be popping up every week, as publishing programs became widely available for personal computers, making it easy to design any little zine that a would-be publisher could conceive. It was much more difficult to maintain them financially, however.
Eventually, it became obvious after a few years that the readership was much stronger than the advertising support. This may have to do with the political content, as many businesses shy away from anything remotely “controversial.” This situation spurred me to try promoting the paper on a subscription basis. After all, if the readers are so enthusiastic about it, perhaps many of them would be willing to pay for a subscription. It would also put the publication on a national footing, making it available anywhere in the country for the same price.
It seemed clear to me, though, that people in Vermont or Florida or Texas would not have any interest in local Sacramento advertising. So, I decided to create a new title, which would include the same content as the original, but have more cartoons and features, to fill the void left by the advertising. I launched this new version in mid-2000, and obtained a national trademark for the name to protect my investment of time and energy, not to mention money.
I published the two titles concurrently until the 16th anniversary issue in April 2008, when I re-named the original to match the newer version. The content of each remained the same, the Sacramento version still being advertising-based and the other subscription-based. I still included the old logo prominently on the cover of the Sacramento edition, so that readers would not be too confused. Still, as you might imagine, I received a lot of inquiries, mostly of the “Why did you do that?” variety.
I did it for several reasons. One, since I had trademarked the name of the national edition, I felt that it represented the future of the publication. And I wanted to build up that title as much as possible, so why not get the 100K or so readers locally familiar with it? Also, advertising revenue had been on the decline – along with the economy – for a year or so, as the small businesses the paper was dependent on began to cut back their ad budgets. And I figured that the name change would get a lot of press locally, as the paper had become a local institution in those 16 years. Indeed, the change did get a lot of local media attention, including a big article in the local daily Sacramento Bee, as well as articles in many smaller papers, an interview on a popular radio show and an appearance on the local cable TV station.
The idea was that the media attention would drive up readership, and help shore up the advertising. I’m sure it must have brought in some new readers, but the local businesses continued to be very tight with their ad money. Finally, after a few more months of financial hemorrhaging due to sinking ad revenues, I decided to pull the plug on the free edition. On the cover of the final four free issues, I made it very obvious how many were left, and invited long-time fans of the paper to subscribe at reduced rates. Many did, but not as many as I had hoped. I guess it’s hard for most people to shell out money for something they had enjoyed free for so long, even if they did profess their love for it, and even if it was only $17.95 a year!
However, I am doing my best to stay in the public eye in Sacramento, setting up tables and booths at as many events as I can, and I’ve now become an advertiser myself in the other local periodicals. When people see me at these events, and pick up the free back issues I put out, many of them tell me they were unaware of what happened, but they had missed the paper. Whether they had not seen the four issues that loudly declared the end of the free edition, or just ignored that bit of information, I don’t know. But it is clear that people are missing the paper, so I am having some good success signing these old readers up for subscriptions. The paper is on a solid financial footing, albeit a humble one, and is here to stay.
Slowly but surely, the publication continues to grow, as people around the world discover it and old friends renew their acquaintance. Obviously, the paper could grow much faster if I could afford a big national marketing campaign. I am seeking investors to finance such a campaign, and my goal is to eventually match the subscription level of my only direct competition, a similar paper out of Ohio called the Funny Times. It was launched as a subscription-based publication from the start, a few years earlier than the mine, with a large sum obtained in an inheritance. There is plenty of room in the market for another such magazine, I believe, and that paper is living proof that it can be done, and quite successfully.
So for now, patience and hard work is the name of the game, doing whatever I can to promote it on a small budget. Curious readers are invited to check out our website (link below) which includes a free PDF download of a previous issue to peruse. You can even request a free sample copy for a limited time.
This election season, we’re seeing some of the best political satire in years. If you’re a fan of political humor, I hope you’ll check it out!