No matter how bad the news, no matter how grim the headlines, you could always count on a smile from at least one corner of the daily newspaper: the comics.
But in this day when we could use a laugh more than ever, the reality facing the comics section is anything but funny.
With the newspaper business hemorrhaging readers and money, newspapers are slicing the number of strips they carry.
Artist and filmmaker Mark Tatulli said he has seen 60 newspapers drop his strip "Lio" in the last 18 months.
"Newspapers are saving money wherever they can, and they are doing it by cutting the comics. It's affecting cartoonists across the board," Tatulli said.
"'Lio' was growing, closing in on 300 newspapers -- and then the market just went away," Tatulli said. "We're down to about 230 papers now."
The roll call of newspapers shedding comic strips is growing, from the Portland Oregonian, which shed 10 strips last year, to the Washington Post.
The cash-strapped Washington Times recently went a step further, eliminating its Sunday comics section entirely.
The savings can be enormous. The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., told readers that reducing the comics section by one page would save $300,000 a year.
"Sometimes change isn't funny, but it is necessary," the paper told readers. However, after an enormous outcry -- more than 1,200 reader complaints -- the Star-Ledger backed away from the reductions.
Some newspapers are trying to mask the cutbacks by holding "Survivor"-style contests asking readers which strips to jettison, and which to pick up. The number of strips dropped usually outnumbers the strips added, although sometimes papers will continue providing the eliminated cartoons online.
Newer strips are often the ones cut first, but even so-called legacy comics are feeling the pinch.
Mason and Mick Mastroianni draw and write "B.C." from a studio on the outskirts of this upstate New York city. The strip, filled with cavemen and slapstick humor, was handed down from their late grandfather, John Hart, who created it in the late 1950s.
The number of newspapers carrying "B.C." has fallen by about 5 percent a year over the last few years, they said.
"A lot of times, if we get canceled by a big paper, we'll ... talk to our syndicate, see what happened. And nine times out of 10, it's because either the paper went out of business, or just dropped an entire page of comics, to save space and save costs," Mason said.
The strips that survive this comics crisis are finding it more crowded.
To save costs, newspapers are squeezing more strips onto ever-shrinking pages. In 1950, "Little Orphan Annie" ran as a full-page strip in most Sunday papers; today, it often runs at one-third of a page.
The financial struggles of newspapers are not the only problem. In an age of Nintendo and Facebook, it's hard for the comics to compete for the attention of children.
In 1945, the demand for comics was so strong, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia famously read the funnies over the radio during a newspaper strike. It is hard to imagine such a scenario today.
"They are not part of the national conversation anymore," Tatulli said. "It used to be that you could turn on Johnny Carson, and hear him say, 'Hey, did you see that strip today?' I remember that show 'Newsradio,' when they had a whole episode about 'Dilbert,' and of course everybody knew what they were talking about.
"Today, new comics, nobody has a clue," he said. "We have a very solid following. But it is more niche than it has ever been."
In search of new audiences, the newspaper comics are now posted online. But the cartoonists do not make nearly as much money from the Internet as they do from newspapers.
"Cartoonists, in general, are looking to other avenues, other ways to get their products out there -- licensing, movies, television, things like that," Mason Mastroianni said.
Asked if he thinks "B.C." will be around for his grandchildren, Mastroianni said, "That is a very difficult question to answer.
"I wish I had a crystal ball," he said. "I don't think that comics will ever disappear. But comics in the form they are now, syndicated in the newspaper, might disappear at some point."
I am sure the New York tabloids will have a field day with this story from this morning's St. Patrick's Day breakfast in South Boston whch was filled with political appearances and one former mainstay of Yankees Stadium. Read this clip:
The breakfast also included a rendition of "The Fields of Athenry," by Ronan Tynan, the former Irish tenor famous for performing at Yankee Stadium. Tynan recently moved to Boston and donned a green Red Sox cap for his first big performance in Bean Town.
It was always fun to be at a game where Bill Raftery was coaching or doing the TV color commentary, and that included a great trip when the NBA Japan Games hosted the NJ Nets and the Orlando Magic. After those games, though, I can hardly remember Raftery getting a word in as Mike O'Koren was holding court in the lounge.
Regardless, here's a great read on Raft: Click Here
Duke and Syracuse look to be the teams that could upset Kentucky in the NCAA's. I will check out the brackets tonight and post something later in the week. Unfortunately, I think I've watched fewer college hoops games this season than any of the past. We'll see how the tourney goes. Vermont is an interesting team to watch for an upset, depending on their match-up. Same goes for Cornell. But, there's no Davidson, no St. John's, no UNC, - and potentially low TV ratings, for sure.
Did you see Dan Shaughnessy's take on Nomar's one-day retirement stint with the Red Sox? If not - click here:
The Panini Group, the leading global publisher of sports and entertainment collectables will bring Basketball Legends and the Adrenalyn Tour to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend (March 13-14) for basketball skills activities, games and giveaways. In addition, Panini will present the Basketball Hall of Fame with the World's Largest Signed Game-Used Jersey Card, which was authenticated by Guinness at the NBA All-Star Game in Dallas. The life-size card of Kobe Bryant which includes a 15-inch-by-15-inch swatch of an official jersey he wore in a game and was autographed by him measured 7-feet high by 4-feet, 11 inches wide and will be on display at the Hall of Fame.
Dikembe doing the global ambassador 'thing' for the NBA and his own foundation, recognized throughout the world of sports and entertainment as one of the greatest charitable efforts of all-time. Cool to see Deke hanging with Gwyneth Paltrow, a NYC girl, whose late father, Bruce, was a key producer of many "The White Shadow" TV series, starring Ken Howard. Here is the press release:
NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo was in Abu Dhabi Wednesday night, where the prestigious Laureus World Sports Academy honored his extensive humanitarian work by presenting him with the Laureus Sport for Good Award. The academy, which is made up of 46 of the greatest living sportsmen and women, presents the award to an individual who uses the concept of “sport for good” to inspire his or her work and has made outstanding contributions to society and youth worldwide.
“It feels great to receive such a prestigious award from such a distinguished group of former athletes who recognize the difference you’ve made and your service to the community,” said Mutombo. “This is as big as it gets. I’m happy that my foundation is being recognized. This gives me more courage to continue to do what I do.”
Through the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, which the eight-time All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year established in 1997, Mutombo has raised more than $30 million and assisted approximately 60,000 women and children in his native Democratic Republic of Congo. In July 2007, Mutombo’s foundation opened the 300-bed, $29-million Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Centre on the outskirts of Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital. The hospital, which Mutombo named after his late mother, has already treated more than 25,000 patients.
This is the eleventh year the Laureus World Sports Academy has distributed its awards. Mutombo received his award from Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow at the luxurious Emirates Palace hotel before a global television audience and a live crowd that included, among other global sports and entertainment figures, NBA Legend Julius Erving, aka Dr. J.