KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Jim Andrews and John McMeel began Universal Press Syndicate by gambling on an author's look at a hideous chapter of the Vietnam conflict.
Andrews and McMeel obtained the syndication rights to Seymour Hersh's book, 'My Lai Massacre', and sold excerpts to more than 50 newspapers.
That was in 1970, the year of Kent State, a time when concerns about Vietnam and other issues were tearing at the fabric of American life.
Before forming Universal, McMeel was in New York selling traditional comics such as Mary Worth for another syndicate, while Andrews was working in Kansas City as editor of the National Catholic Review.
With families to support and little more than a typewriter and telephone in their office -- the basement of Andrews' house in suburban Kansas City -- Andrews and McMeel took another risk that eventful year. They signed a cartoonist whose work offered biting social commentary through characters like Michael Doonesbury, Uncle Duke, and Zonker Harris.
Two decades later, 'Doonesbury' is carried in 900 newspapers and has become a household word.
Universal Press, the nation's only independent syndicate, now ranks third or fourth among the 10 major syndicate companies, said associate editor David Astor of Editor and Publisher magazine.
Privately held Universal does not release its revenues and earnings.
'They're very prestigious,' Astor said. 'They have 'Doonesbury,' 'Calvin and Hobbes,' 'Dear Abby,' 'For Better or Worse' and a number of the very well-known prestigious features.'
From headquarters in the nation's heartland, UPS distributes its core 65 features and works to develop another nine or 10 a year.
The company continues to grow as it has moved beyond its early role of 'the Doonesbury syndicate', as Editor Lee Salem said.
Developments at UPS include:
--The announcement last August of a joint venture with the A.H. Belo Corp., a major media company based in Dallas, to develop television programming based on UPS features.
Universal Belo recently unveiled plans for an advertising campaign centered on UPS features 'Dear Abby', 'Cathy', and 'Ziggy' designed to spur general newspaper readership.
--The addition of Primary Color, which offers stunning color photographs and articles on travel, food, and home.
UPS also joined with G&G Designs/Communications to offer Spectrum, a weekly package of topical color news graphics to be used with news, sports, business, and lifestyle stories. A recent Spectrum package, for example, offered graphics on declining home sales, cocaine use, and drunken drivers.
Universal's goal since its founding 20 years ago, said UPS Promotions Director Diane Galante, is 'to fill in the gaps' for newspapers.
In a recent interview, McMeel discussed the company's founding.
'Universal was created at a time when there were a number of very good syndicates,' McMeel said. 'We focused on that niche (of readers) we felt was not being attracted by the newspapers.'
UPS, called a purveyor of 'syndicated satire' in a February 1989 Publishers Weekly article, appeals to an offbeat sense of humor with 'The Far Side' and 'Ziggy' strips as well as the recent addition 'Fox Trot,' which follows a suburban family with two teenagers, a younger child, and his pet iguana.
Through the years, the syndicate has expanded its offerings to include features geared to the mainstream: columnists Erma Bombeck and James J. Kilpatrick, and lifestyle features such as the Pat's Pointers needlecraft column and Niki Scott's 'Working Woman'.
'We felt there was always room for growth, because we were going to develop better features than were out there,' McMeel said. 'Everybody else was so established that we were the right one to grow.'
McMeel credited his late partner, Jim Andrews who died in 1980, with the vision to sign Garry Trudeau and 'Doonesbury.' Andrews recognized Trudeau's talent in 1968 when he saw his strip, 'Bull Tales', in the Yale Daily News.
The decision two years later to promote 'Doonesbury' after it had been rejected by established syndicates exemplified the role of Universal Press, McMeel said.
'We were going to bring you things that are new and different and challenging and full of risk, but always in good taste.'NEWLN: more
Thee company has branched into what McMeel considers natural extensions: Andrews & McMeel, UPS's book publishing arm; OZ, its gift and stationery company; and Universal Licensing Corp., which markets UPS features to potential licensees.
As UPS celebrates its 20th anniversary, McMeel and partner Kathleen Andrews, Jim Andrews's widow, have instituted 'Project 2000'. The program involves an evaluation of the company by UPS employees and outside consultants.
'We said, 'Is that us? Are we getting fat? Have we lost the guts to take chances and take risks?'', McMeel said.
The answer, he said, is that Universal Press still is on the cutting edge of newspaper syndication. He mentioned the signing in recent years of 'Calvin and Hobbes,' 'The Far Side' and 'Fox Trot'.
Looking ahead, McMeel envisions related ventures in television, radio, catalogues, newsletters, direct mail, even attempts to penetrate foreign markets with audio-visual products. UPS also may acquire more newspapers, McMeel said, to add to the three California publications he and Kathleen Andrews bought in 1987.
Astor, who covers syndicates for Editor and Publisher, said UPS has a bright future.
'Most of the things they get in to seem to work,' Astor said.' Their Andrews and McMeel (publishing company) is a gold mine.'
Astor said the Universal Belo venture should be fruitful, although terms of the agreement created the first negative publicity UPS has ever encountered.
As part of the deal, Universal promised to offer exclusively to the Dallas Morning News, a Belo publication, 26 features that had been running in the competing Dallas Times Herald.
The case went to court. A federal judge in Kansas City last September denied Universal's request for a preliminary injunction to prevent the Times Herald from printing any of its copyright material.
The Times Herald also filed suit in Texas state court seeking an order specifying its right to print UPS features. That case is scheduled for trial April 2 in Houston.
'Contractually, UPS had every right to do what they did,' Astor said. 'What they did broke syndicate tradition. In syndicates, when a feature has been in a newspaper a number of years ---and the Dallas Times Herald had had these a long time -- they are not moved.'
Regardless of UPS's future direction, McMeel hopes the company will remain people-oriented.
The personal contact with McMeel and others at UPS was a draw for columnist Erma Bombeck, who moved to Universal from the Los Angeles Times Syndicate in 1988. Bombeck's column then appeared in 700 newspapers; it now runs in more than 800.
'The people who write for syndicates are in an impersonal business to begin with,' Bombeck said in a telephone interview. 'When you find that personal aspect, I think it's something to pay attention to. I noticed they paid a lot of attention to their talent. In other words, it wasn't just a contract sent to you in the mail.'
Bombeck, who celebrates the 25th year of her column's syndication next month, said she also appreciates the editing at UPS.
'This is going to sound ridiculous, but they read your column,' she said. 'You have to understand the volume of stuff that goes through syndicates. You're like a machine sometimes, and you just sort of crank it out. They (syndicates) just send it out, because they're in the business of distribution.
'It's nice to have someone in the company say, 'You did a good job this week and I liked it' or 'I didn't like it.''NEWLN: adv sun april 1 or thereafter