'Peanuts': Will it ever be time to say goodbye?

Posted: Thursday, October 28, 2004

Ever since I learned to read by poring through the pages of the Chicago Tribune, I've been able to depend on newspapers for at least three things:

One, there's a banner on the cover that tells me what I'm reading. Two, there's a page number and a date in the corner of every page to remind me I'm not holding yesterday's news. Three, "Peanuts" is somewhere, if not at the top, of the comics page.

Thirteen years ago, at my first journalism job, I found a camera-ready, press-copy of an animated still from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." I've kept it hanging above my desk for every job I've had since then. So you could say that I'm a big fan.

But surprisingly, maybe just to me, the sentiment is not shared by everyone in this newsroom. Sadly, I walk among ghouls, dead to the world and its many foibles embodied by a blockhead and his beagle.

Long story short: If you love your comics, and you haven't seen our reader's comics survey, you need to start paying attention. The print future of "Peanuts" and "Alley Oop" in Juneau may hang in the balance.

Those of you who are counting know it's been four years, eight months and two weeks since the final original Sunday "Peanuts" strip appeared, the day after creator Charles Schulz died from colon cancer.

According to an article in Brandweek, and information from United Media, at least 2,460 of the 2,600 newspapers that ran Peanuts in 1999 were still publishing "Classic Peanuts" a year later.

The Idaho Statesman in Boise was one of those 140 papers that decided against re-runs. At the time, then-features editor Vickie Ashwill predicted the paper would receive fewer than 30 complaints. It turns out the Statesman received slightly more than 30, but still fewer than when they changed their television guide and dropped their bridge column to three days a week.

"We canceled Peanuts simply because Charles Schulz had died, and it was a moment where we could choose between running old Peanuts comics or adding a new comic to our limited space that might appeal to different audiences," said Ashwill, now the news editor, by e-mail.

"I am glad that we made the choice to drop it then instead of having to deal with it now," she said. "At some point, Peanuts was to be destined for the archives and books, where it can be appreciated in the historical perspective of Charles Schulz's life."

When is the right time? Ashwill was blunt. Some others were savage. I wrote Gene Weingarten, a long-time humorist at the Washington Post. His fine column, "Below the Beltway," often covers comics. The Post still runs Peanuts, to his chagrin.

"You won't like my answer, but it is heartfelt," he told me. "The right time to drop 'Peanuts' was the day that Schulz died. I am not a fan of running repeats. And if I were, I'd be running old 'Calvin and Hobbeses', and 'Far Sides,' not re-running the last 10 years of a strip that hadn't been really good since the 1970s."

Answers like these are why the cruel winds know my tears, as I sit and stare, reaching, grasping, for anything, nothing.

I assumed, too, that "Peanuts" was well-known around the world. Not so. I wrote to my colleague Alexenia Dimitrova, an excellent investigative journalist at the 24 Hours Daily in Sofia, Bulgaria. We had communicated a few times before.

"No, 'Peanuts' is not well known in Bulgaria," she responded. "People here are not very keen on comics. ... I will ask my daughter who is 11 years old - probably she knows better than me this kind of industry."

This September in Ashland, Ore., there was some heartening news. "The Daily Tidings" asked its readers if it could drop "Peanuts." The response was deafening. The editors backed off. They locked the door.

"We wanted to drop it because it's the most costly comic on our page and it is, in fact, a continual re-run," managing editor Andrew Scot Bolsinger told me. "That said, it represents a certain slice of Americana for some readers, especially older readers who already feel alienated from the newspaper's many changes. In the long run, we felt it worth the expense, knowing that sooner or later, it's time will come."

Did you know that Charlie Brown is falling out of favor all over Southeast Alaska? Lucy Van Pelt ... I mean ... the Sitka Sentinel, pulled away the football. But it still runs "Sally Forth." The Wrangell Sentinel eschews Snoopy for five comics including "Henry," who looks like 40 percent of the dudes I went to junior high with.

What if the Empire followed suit? The decision would leave, gasp, Ketchikan, with it's lovable "Daily News," as one of the few sane communities for miles. The men and women of fair Revillagigedo also have a 24-hour diner and a pulled-beef smokehouse, two more things Juneau should have.

Please, Juneau. Be like Ketchikan. Have a heart.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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