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#DigitalSkeptic: Forget Web Video, 'Dear Abby' Kills the New-Media Star

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Hip CEOs such as Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer or Amazon's Jeff Bezos may be jockeying for pricey video properties from the makers of The Office or Game of Thrones. But investors, who will actually have to game the risks of such splashy media moves, might want to seek some good old-fashioned advice from good old Dear Abby.

"I don't want to say she's Teflon. But she has held on amazingly well. Even during '08 and '09, which were dark days for us," said John Glynn, president of Universal UClick, the Kansas City, Mo., comics and column syndicator that has handled the Dear Abby advice column essentially since the late 1970s.

If investors dare take Glynn's advice and take an honest look at such throwback question-and-answer advice brands as Dear Abby, Annie's Mailbox, Ask Amy and Carolyn Hax, they'll see a series of surprisingly robust new-media stars that work in an upbeat -- and blissfully cost effective -- market.

Glynn estimates that Dear Abby's question-and-answer columns run in roughly 900 print outlets around the world. And even though most are republished online, the exact same content appears in roughly 40 additional online-only media outlets, including some of the Internet's most rarified real estate.

Believe it or not,Dear Abby-- even though creator Pauline Phillips died and her daughter Jeanne Phillips continues the series after 15 years of co-writing -- essentially holds its own full subdomain at Web giant Yahoo! News, putting this itty-bitty franchise on the same brand plateau as all of Yahoo!'s U.S and world news, all of its full tech sites and its entire health coverage.

"The digital reach is tough to calculate, since Yahoo! does not share their traffic with us," Glynn said. But he was comfortable putting in print that, "excluding Yahoo!, she is doing 30 to 40 million pageviews a month."

Read it and weep, Web hipsters: That's six full times Beyonce's 6.2 million views for her blockbuster video Pretty Hurts and a full 10 times the 3 million YouTube subscribers The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon claims.

The amazing part is,Dear Abbyis far from the only traditional advice column sporting serious new-media legs. Amy Dickinson, the author and columnist behind the Ask Amy series, told me that despite the overall downturn in newspapers, her traditional distribution deal via the Chicago Tribune Co. is growing both in print and online.

"We keeping adding papers. The 200 or so that carry my pieces also push them out on their websites," she told me on the phone. "And when stories go viral, they can easily be shared millions of time."

The golden human connection
For sure, advice columns can be a bare-knuckle, zero-sum game, particularly in print. Dickinson forwarded me a list created by a Tribune sales rep of the top 10 markets in which she's published. Sure enough, when say, the Arizona Daily Star added Ask Amy back in March, it dropped Dear Abby.

Ouch!

Even so, what's fascinating is just how much mileage bothDear Abby and Ask Amy get out out of the relatively simple and low-cost format of giving honest answers to simple questions. These media powerhouses are essentially nothing more than sole proprietors who create-traffic gobbling content with none of the fat production budgets that squeeze Amazon's and Yahoo's already razor-thin margins.

"You get the whole human drama, the schadenfreude, the range of human emotions," Glynn said. "And there is none of the costs of major video. It's, by nature, a print experience."

To Dickinson, the reach and power of question-and-answer brands comes in validating people's feelings in a way they can't find in social media. "That is what is so great, is the authenticity," she said. "It is the simple ancient thing of sitting around the campfire and asking a question and getting an answer."

Complexity does not pay
Even more compelling is that Glynn and Dickinson say they've tried and failed at complex and expensive means of scaling their core print brands. "We have tried video versions for many of our properties, and with all the cost of the production, people viewed it once and they were gone," Glynn said.

In retrospect, Glynn said, these failures made real, if dark, sense. Bill Watterson, for example, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes -- Glynn's most popular comic -- is famous for not taking calls from Spielberg. Or even George Lucas. He knew his comics were best as comics.

And Dickinson says too she too tried to "game the system" with complex websites and support staffs for her columns in various digital platforms -- but gave it all up two years ago. "It was the biggest step in my professional life," Dickinson said, "to have the courage to make things more simple and authentic."

Even more telling, both are fairly certain the future will mean more of this less-is-more approach. "We will probably be dealing directly with consumers as they make their way to our own sites," Glynn said. "But that is going to take some time."

"I see no major change ahead," Dickinson said. "I really love what I am doing."

That all means, friends, splashy Web video deals may shimmer with a golden sheen. But the smart money will realize that human simplicity and honesty is where the real value will be seen.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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