Some of the major syndicates include Universal Uclick, King Features, The Washington Post Writers Group, Creators Syndicate, and the Cagle Post Cagle Cartoons.* The Washington Post Writer’s Group was one of the few syndicates to respond to an interview request from CJR, and Amy Lago, the comics editor, says in the competitive syndicate market, it’s not easy to increase fees on newspapers. “Typically they’ll come back and say, ‘not only can I not afford your rate increase, but my circulation has dropped,’” says Lago, which usually means a lower rate request based on their now-decreased circulation. She says for a number of years they did not propose an annual increase, but decided to up it an “insignificant amount” in 2011 and 2012 (she says by one or two percent). “We know what newspapers are up against financially, and we’ve been wanting to support them,” says Lago. Business clients are made up almost entirely of newspapers, and while they do have some websites that subscribe, “they tend to pay very little because they don’t really have the budgets,” says Lago.

Cagle Cartoons is run by cartoonist Daryl Cagle, and he said the same about his business: “We make our living from print. That’s still the culture of people that pay their bills.” He started Cagle Cartoons in late 2000, and was inspired by his own frustration with trying to sell his work, both through a syndicate and on his own. Now, about 850 newspapers—about half the newspapers in the United States—either subscribe to Cagle Cartoons or have opted to pay per use. He says individual cartoonists have been losing out to syndicate pricing for decades now. “It was 30 years ago that prices got driven down,” says Cagle, and finds that packages are what most news organizations are interested in. “I would love for people to just buy my cartoons, but the best way to do this is work with other cartoonists.”

The proprietors of YubaNet, a two-person news operation covering California’s Sierra region, count a subscription to Cagle Post as one of their most important investments. Pascale Fusshoeller, the site’s editor, says that the cartoon section draws consistently high traffic numbers “every single day.” “If the cartoons aren’t up by 7 am, I get e-mails or calls like, ‘Hey, there is no cartoon today,’” says Fusshoeller. “Some people are very attached. They start their day with these cartoons.”

Other cartoonists choose to self-syndicate rather than sign with a third party. Mark Fiore, who won a Pulitzer in 2010 for his animated political cartoons, says he was syndicated with Universal Uclick for a few years, but felt “they’re no better at it than I am.” Instead, he chose to “pound the pavement” to sell his own work. Now, he collects advertising revenue from his website and his YouTube channel. “In a way, YouTube is a syndicate for me; they are selling the ads, and getting my work out there.” There’s no way to undercut syndicates, says Fiore, “unless you’re selling it for pennies,” so cartoonists have to find a way to offer something unique from what the syndicates offer. “The syndicates are cartooning’s best friends and worst enemy,” says Fiore, but to break free from that, “You’ve got to figure out the hustle.”

Tom Meyer worked self-syndication into his survival strategy after accepting a buyout from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009. Rather than doing locally focused pieces, like he often did for the Chronicle, he started focusing on topics that would interest a California-wide audience so he could sell them around the state. “I have to be really conscious of the stories I’m commenting on. I can’t really do something about the San Francisco mayoral race because that’s not something my LA readers will care about,” says Meyer.

One of the sites that’s purchasing Meyer’s cartoons is California political news and opinion site Calbuzz. Phil Trounstine, former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News and co-founder of Calbuzz, says the cartoons enrich the site, and are an affordable investment. “You can say things with a cartoon that would take you a very long time to write, so it’s space well used,” says Trounstine.

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.