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'Judge Parker' Wins His Case

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Post readers winced when stock tables were eliminated. They grimaced when TV listings were trimmed. They glared when a crossword puzzle and games were dropped.

But when some comics were recently removed from the newspaper, they revolted. The focus of their anger was the strip "Judge Parker," which was sentenced to appear only online.

Hundreds of readers demanded a reprieve. It's been granted. The judge will be back on the bench in Monday's paper.

The reversal came after a debate among top editors and marketing experts. Readership surveys had shown "Judge Parker" at the low end of popularity among more than 40 Post comics. Thus, it was one of six moved from the newspaper to The Post's Web site as part of a broad effort to save space and cut costs.

While surveys accurately measure readership, they are not necessarily good gauges of loyalty. In the end, said Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, "intensity of feeling" among the fans of "Judge Parker" tipped the scales. Readership surveys don't always capture readers' "passion," he noted.

When the global economy is foundering, Somali pirates are seizing cargo ships and North Korea is ousting U.N. nuclear inspectors, it might seem hard to fathom how readers could get so agitated over a comic strip. But The Post received more than 750 calls, e-mails and letters about "Judge Parker" in recent weeks -- far more than on any other topic.

The intense reaction is a reminder that, along with news and commentary, readers crave entertainment and enjoyment in their daily paper. For many, characters in comics become cherished friends.

For you serious types who rarely venture back to the comics pages, "Judge Parker" is what's known as a "soap opera" strip. The Post started running it near the end of 1952, the year it was created.

Initially, it centered on Alan Parker, a handsome and distinguished late-50s jurist who chased criminals when he wasn't presiding in court. Over time, a cast of others took center stage. There's good-looking attorney Sam Driver, who is romantically involved with gorgeous and wealthy Abbey Spencer. Sam is a father figure to Abbey's two adopted teenage daughters, rebellious Neddy and younger sister Sophie, an exemplary straight arrow.

Readers always complain about changes in the paper, and many voiced displeasure over The Post's recent cost-related cutbacks. Only about 30 said they canceled their subscriptions because of the comics changes, and just one cited "Judge Parker." Yet there was a torrent of angry e-mails and calls.

So many readers phoned complaints to The Post's "Comics Hotline" that it was jammed to capacity for days. Hundreds complained by e-mail to comics@washpost.com, which also took feedback. Readers contacted Brauchli and Publisher Katharine Weymouth. More than 60 people e-mailed or phoned the ombudsman.

" 'Judge Parker' was one of my daily habits and I miss being able to follow it conveniently in the newspaper," wrote Toni Franklin of Gaithersburg. "Most of the other cuts I can tolerate to some degree. This particular one, I cannot."

"It was the last of the soap opera comics that was in The Post and for that reason alone it should've been retained," said Sue Filebark of the District.

Michael Cavna, who writes the engaging Comic Riffs blog for washingtonpost.com, conducted two unscientific online reader polls, each attracting more than 1,000 responses. In one, "Judge Parker" was the clear favorite among the comics destined to move to The Post's Web site. In the other, readers were asked whether "Judge Parker" should be "rescued from print extinction in The Post" and 91 percent said yes.

The reader reaction "doesn't come as much of a surprise" to Brendan Burford, comics editor for King Features Syndicate, which markets "Judge Parker" to nearly 100 newspapers.

Burford said "serial strips" like "Judge Parker" often have more devoted followers than simple joke-a-day strips. Readers get addicted to the story line, even though it might develop at a glacial pace.

With "Judge Parker," the narrative is topical and often tinged with romantic intrigue. And the drawing, by noted comic book artist Eduardo Barreto, is refined and elegant.

Post editors deserve credit for reversing course. Acknowledging reader sentiment wins allegiance when The Post is trying hard to retain its audience. "If the readers feel very strongly, we want to be responsive," said Brauchli.

The decision comes just in time. Sophie plans to challenge the captain of the cheerleading squad. And Sam is about to close a $2 million deal with a country music star. And . . . well . . . pick up the story on Monday.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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