On Panel: Talking the World of Comic Sites with The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald and Popverse’s Chris Arrant

On Panel is a recurring text-only sister series to Off Panel, my weekly comics interview podcast, in which each interview features two or more guests as I attempt to simulate the idea of a panel conversation from a conversation. By that I mean it’s a moderator – myself – guiding a free-flowing conversation between multiple panelists about a subject that unites them. It’s meant to be less of a traditional interview and more of a back-and-forth between myself and the guests or the guests themselves, as we talk about a central premise while discussing connected ideas in the process. This time it’s more about the guests, though.

It’s been a strange time for comic sites, of late. To be honest, it’s been a strange time for websites in general, as the advertising model has been crumbling and massive change is reaching even some of the biggest names there are. But comic sites have seen an unusual amount of turmoil, in specific, with top sites like CBR — or Comic Book Resources, a giant in the space that was bought Valnet, a “media investment company” that isn’t exactly famous for investing in the work — going through massive change with key members of the site’s editorial staff being laid off for reasons that differ depending on who you ask 3 and Newsarama’s co-founder Michael Doran leaving what remained of that site. It’s a weird time for a segment of the internet that never really gets a fair shake, as the conversation surrounding comic sites tends to center on the worst examples rather than strong work that happens across a variety of outlets.

It’s a strange time for comic sites and, perhaps especially now, it can be difficult to pin down exactly how things are going and what challenges that space is facing. It’s a big, decentralized segment of the internet, one where the one stop shops of the past are either gone or unrecognizable, and a lot of the strongest work takes place on a variety of smaller sites. More than that, like the rest of the internet, it’s splintered from largely being about the written word to still that, but also podcasts, YouTube channels, digital magazines, and a whole lot more. No one can keep track of it all. Not really.

But I know a couple folks who do a pretty good job of it, and certainly far better than me.

With the state of comic sites being top of mind right now, I thought it was a good time to ask two of the stalwarts of comics journalism — The Beat‘s Heidi MacDonald and Popverse‘s Chris Arrant — if they’d be interested in chatting with me about their perspective on the subject as a whole. Thankfully they were, so recently, we popped on Zoom to chat about what’s going on with comic sites, the role monetization plays in all this, what they’re doing at their respective sites, how they decide what stories to tackle, and what challenges everyone is facing. Given that it’s two of the best in the business, it should come as no surprise that this proved to be an excellent and insightful conversation exploring the world of comic sites, and how they view it as people with 20+ years of experience managing its ups and downs.

You can find that conversation below. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the 10,000 foot view. It’s a weird time for comic sites. CBR has been facing layoffs from its mothership, Valnet. There have been people moving on from other known entities. Esteem from the outside in comic sites is pretty mixed, at best. You two run The Beat and Popverse, two of the biggest, most well-liked comic sites there are. I wanted to open this discussion with your takes on the current state of comic sites. Excluding the good feelings you have about your own sites, how are you feeling about the state of things right now? Let’s start with you, Heidi.

Heidi MacDonald: It was the worst of times and it was the worst of times. Between the increasing use of AI, decline of ad revenue, and the deterioration of so many remaining platforms, it has just become a worse and worse time for any quality writing about comics. I don’t want to put down anyone who is sticking with it like the folks at WWAC, Popverse, ICv2, Shelfdust, TCJ dot com, the print Comics Journal, your own self, David, and the few other brave souls still in the game, but there’s so much burnout, lack of compensation, and bad information driving out good that that it’s become more of a struggle than ever before. It’s not just comics media. It’s media in general. I give props to ComicBook dot com for being readable and informative, but everything that’s happened at CBR and the site formerly known as Newsarama in the last year or so is just depressing. 

I think it’s also a question of what people “want” from comics journalism. We’re seeing Twitter and Reddit beginning to crumble, but people are still addicted to the minute by minute breaking news and reactions on Twitter. I follow several pro wrestling Reddits and people are always putting down journalists — and granted, wrestling journalists are a breed unto themselves — and yet all the “news” they report is from wrestling news sites. It’s a little like that with comics. There’s a disconnect in perception. And with all the noise and competition out there it’s increasingly hard to even get noticed. There is a huge audience for manga and webtoons — the generic term, not the company — but the audience for those doesn’t want news as us old timers define it. They get all their coverage from TikTok and other social media. It’s like your pal who made you a cassette mix-tape, only on a global scale. 

The good news, I guess, is that the response to longer essays on Substack — despite all the problems with that platform — has been positive, and at the Beat I find that every time we do a deep dive on something we get a great response. I assume other sites have similar findings. People do want good information about comics and challenging reading. But what has trickled down to news sites in terms of revenue is even smaller than what trickles down to comics. 

Chris Arrant: I’ll echo what Heidi said: Since Popverse launched in May 2022, we’ve seen what people want most is to know the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ behind the news and franchises they are interested in. A key factor in that is credibility.

I’ve been fortunate to come up in an era where the top comics sites were small businesses — the Wizard, Comics Journal, Newsarama, CBR, The Beat. The market then was much different, and it transitioned to the corporate-owned outlets like Comics Alliance, The Mary Sue, and the acquisitions of CBR, Newsarama, and even sites like The Beat and iFanboy for a time.

In that mix though has been the rise of volunteer journalism in the comics space. Some of the best comics journalism of the past decade has been volunteer-based — see Women Write About Comics, and many of the nominees for Best Comics Journalism in the Eisners these past couple years. 

But now more than ever, everything is a niche. I’d argue there’s the same, or better, quality comics journalism/interviews/critiques happening, but it’s not as centralized as it was five, 10, or especially 20 years ago. Some of the best interviews are on podcasts and videos, and some of the best opinion-writing takes place on social media by the authors themselves, or inside the author’s paywalled Patreon. 

While the quality of comics journalism has been decentralized, the ‘name’ outlets of yore have for the most part been led to expand its coverage in search of a larger reader base — sometimes with that credibility being a casualty along the way. 

The front page of The Beat, as of Sunday, July 16

One of the biggest issues the entire entertainment and journalism space is facing, seemingly, is monetizing the work. Everything shifted to click and impression-based advertising, and that caused a massive shift in how the internet worked. Then that model started to collapse, and ever since then, everyone has struggled to figure out new answers, resulting in layoffs at major news outlets and even big names like Vice filing for bankruptcy. Monetization is a massive issue across the board. How essential is that to the story of the current state of comic sites in your mind?

Heidi: I think it’s a huge problem. If you look at Valnet and all the horrible news coming out of there in terms of layoffs and writers being asked to essentially become human content farms, Matrix-style, it became a vicious cycle. You do need to invest to be a successful site, and to maintain that success, so you do have overhead on marketing, web hosting, and so on, as well as freelance and staff costs. But as ad revenue declines you see the human workers who are supposedly creating the content that this system is supporting being put on a lower and lower rung. I’m not saying I haven’t googled an explainer and read “20 Easter Eggs in Asteroid City” and enjoyed it, but every site turns out its own version of that instead of insightful fresh, original content. 

I think we have to get back to some form of paywalls and subscription formats, even beyond Patreon. I know ICv2 does that and you’re starting that with Popverse, Chris. Heck, I love paying $8 and getting a print copy of the Bubbles zine knowing I’ll get 52 pages of highly curated microscopic print. Highly curated and passionate pages. 

With Vice and Buzzfeed and all those other sites that said they had solved the internet essentially crashing and burning, it makes you wonder if anyone can do this. 

Chris: People need to be paid for the work they do. As I said before, some of the best comics journalism in the past decade has been volunteer-based journalism, but volunteerism only lasts for so long. A wage — hopefully a fair wage — allows people to grow as journalists/critics and create things that hopefully people will enjoy. That wage comes from the users — the readers, the viewers — in some cases through a middleman/company, but in some cases direct from the users to the people creating the content.

The term ‘monetization’ has become a pejorative, sadly. It’s essentially someone wanting to be paid for their work, and using the avenues accessible for them to do that. Even before the rise of what people call click-based journalism, it was there. There’s stories about the original owners of Wizard, Newsarama, CBR, and others spending a large part of their time chasing advertisers and underwriters to pay printing/website costs, paying its authors, and hopefully paying themselves eventually too.

As most everyone has gotten used to journalism — and social media — being free, the repercussions of that are tremendous. If the reader isn’t paying the writers, video personnel editors, designers for the articles, who is? 

Membership tiers is a classic option — it’s print subscriptions or simply cover price on a magazine in a modern context. People who bought Wizard back in the ‘90s and ‘00s were paying a monthly membership, the cover price, to get in on it. Now people are doing it with SKTCHD’s paid supporters, Comics Beat’s paid supporters, and the long-running The Comics Journal and its annual membership and cover price to its print editions.

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  1. i.e. Valnet or the people who actually worked at CBR.

  2. i.e. Valnet or the people who actually worked at CBR.

  3. i.e. Valnet or the people who actually worked at CBR.