Free days are over for the Humor Times
Sacramentans have busted a gut at the scandals, boondoggles and foibles of public figures for 16 and two-thirds years—and for free no less. Come January, loyal readers of the Humor Times, formerly the Comic Press News, will have to pay for the monthly collection of political cartoons and columns launching slings and arrows at the stars of the nation’s current events.
The last free issue hits the stands in December. Then the stands will disappear, and the paper will then be available through mail by paid subscription. Those with cash for the funnies can pay $17.95 for 12 issues (about $1.50 each), or three bucks a pop at Newsbeat on 10th and L streets and other stores yet to be decided.
On a sunny but cold Sunday at Starbucks on 19th and J streets, reader Robert Huffine, 38, said although he is unemployed, he could spare $18 for the satire.
“That sounds fair. I’m homeless and I’ll pay that,” he said, adding that he’ll have the copies sent to the home of his street-preacher friend. “The political cartoons are the greatest that I’ve ever read. They’re right on. They’re dead on, man. Oftentimes they’ll show both sides as being stupid, and I like that because they’re non-biased. I agree with most of them and laugh at most of them.”
In his dark Midtown home/“newsroom,” publisher-editor James Israel will beef up the formerly free local version with more cartoons, columns and features, including a fake news section, à la The Onion, and matching Sacramento’s up with the national edition he already offers through subscription.
“I’m sad to see it go, but I’m excited for the future of it because I think it’s going to be a lot stronger in the long run,” Israel said. “I think I’m going to probably lose some connection to the community because the subscription version is more of a national edition, so it’s not tied just to Sacramento like the free version is. There’s a certain immediacy of having a free publication out there on the streets that people see and pick up.”
Lately, the local edition, which has a circulation of 40,000 and production costs of $6,000 to $7,000 per issue, has seen red. Sales have slumped in the past two years, Israel said, and that lack of advertising forced the transition.
“I have been getting the same story from so many [business owners] that their sales are way down, their revenue is way down, so they’ve had to cut back on advertising,” Israel said. “It’s always been extremely popular with the readers. It’s just been a harder sell to advertisers. It’s seen as controversial, and I think a lot of businesses would rather be in papers that are not seen as controversial and more just kind of fluff papers. That factored into the decision to just sell it straight to the readers, you know—the people that really love it.”
“I’m very disappointed,” said 51-year-old reader Jimmy Sperling, who is on Social Security disability. “I don’t understand why they suddenly say, ‘Well we’re not getting enough advertising.’ It’s kinda got me confused and a little bit ticked off.”
But it’s a potentially mortal problem facing the local publishing world, according to Mike Teel, owner of business and lifestyle magazine Prosper, which will shut down after its December issue. In a video on the Prosper Web site, Teel explains, “[T]he industry is challenged, and the dollars that are available for advertising are being redirected and becoming harder to get. I think The Sacramento Bee is feeling the change. I think the other publications in town, likewise, are probably feeling the pinch, too. This is a time to hunker down and figure out, ‘OK, what are we going to do to survive.’”
Mike Cacy, owner of Auto Radio Stereo, advertised with the Humor Times on and off for four or five years and stopped in July. He initially signed on for the low-priced ads.
“I just couldn’t see the results I was getting off of it,” he said. “I just don’t know how many people in our demographic read print anymore.”
Cacy has seen his ad budget shrink since business slowed for the mobile audio shop in August 2006. He also plans to reduce Yellow Page ads and move to direct mail and the Internet to reach his target audience of young males.
For W.E.T. River Trips, which has advertised in almost every issue since No. 10, February 1992, it didn’t come down to cost.
“Water in California is all about politics,” said Betty Lopez, vice president of the professional whitewater rafting company. “The politics in that little publication—that’s where we bend toward. We support anything like that that is close to our heart.”
W.E.T. will continue to advertise in the publication, which reaches a majority of the company’s corporate and politically conscious audience. She added that liking Israel as a person also influenced their decision. Lopez said that back when the company struggled, the publisher let them pay the bills late.
Humor Times’ one-man show Israel serves as publisher, editor, copy editor, designer, ad-slinger and writer of the captions he calls “quips,” which deftly thread theme and context through his incisive selection of syndicated cartoons.
Before becoming a Sacramentan in 1991, the 52-year-old Virginia native ran a free monthly tabloid in the Nevada City/Grass Valley area, the Community Endeavor, which offered an alternative point of view to national issues.
The Santa Cruz Comic News, a progressive journal of editorial cartoons, became the model for Israel’s next creation, which he called the Comic Press News. Israel said that the capital city and his target audience, who he describes as “anyone who is curious about politics and the news and has a good sense of humor” went hand-in-greased-palm.
Sitting at the lone desk in his cold, cluttered office, Israel puts the voice to a stout cartoon police officer. The series of four images is from the first issue came out in April 1991 at the tail-end of the first Gulf War and right after the Rodney King beating.
“This cartoon kinda puts the two together. This is a cop talking about the L.A. beating of Rodney King:”
“Made a mistake.”
“All we can do is learn from it.”
“So we’ll take a page from Desert Storm.”
“And make sure there are no pictures.”
There is nothing like cartoons to cut to the political chase, he explained.
“Political cartoons and this paper help wake people up to the realities, the things that they’re not being told [by mainstream media]. The powerful thing about them is not only can they tell a story and tell the news, they also are generally commentary on that news, so that’s all in one package.”
“I have a stack going back to September 1993, that’s 14 years,” said 60-year-old Tom Durr, who teaches adult education in Sacramento. “It’s kind of like a history book, but a funny one.”
Durr brings the paper to his diverse classroom, where he teaches students from countries including Laos, Iran, Ukraine and Russia basic skills like fractions and how to fill out forms. He points out to his students, “We have the freedom to make fun of these people and point out their mistakes.”
The faithful reader said, “I like the way he weaves them together with a theme, tells a little story. It does a lot of the work for you. You can look at a picture, read a few words and get your current events. It’s kind of like watching The Daily Show for your news. They can really sum up a complicated issue and make you laugh about it or see it in a different way.”
“I think it’s a service to lighten things up for people,” Israel said. “These days, there’s so many serious issues that people are facing. It’s good to get a laugh in there—it’s important.”
If he can get the word out, Israel is confident that the subscription-only version will flourish in the vast potential of a national audience.
“We make fun of both Democrats and Republicans, so there’s something in there for everyone.”
Durr lamented: “I hate to see this one folding. It’s a good part of our community. It’s like a piece is going to be gone, you know?”