Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Archives: Clay Bennett on Editorial Cartooning

Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett interviewed in 2005 ago by Leonard Witt.

In December 2005 editorial cartoonists let the Tribune Company have it with their Black Ink Monday protest against the slow demise of editorial cartoons in newspapers. In this Leonard Witt IM Interview Clay Bennett, the then president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, offered his opinion on why editorial cartoons are vital to the long-term survival of newspapers. This interview was part of Witt’s Journalism and the Public: Restoring the Trust IM Interviews series, underwritten in part by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Leonard Witt: Hi Clay, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I read that the number of full-time staff cartoonists in this country has dropped from 200 to 80. Is that correct, and if so what's happening?

Clay Bennett: Well, it’s a rough estimate on both numbers but it’s close to being accurate. Many of these jobs were lost in the past two decades simply because many newspapers were lost. But in the past few years the job loss among cartoonists can be attributed to an economic decision that publishers or newspaper chains make.

Witt: So why should I care about a cartoonist when the bean counters are also cutting beat reporters and investigative reporters? After all, The New York Times has survived okay without an editorial cartoonist.

Bennett: Why should you care? Sure, a lot of people have been losing their jobs, and we should care about all of them. Because these job losses are mainly due to financial and not journalistic decisions. The people who are making these decisions have lost sight of their journalistic mission. They choose to serve their shareholders and not their readers.

But to get back to your initial question, which is "€œwhy should I care about editorial cartoonists?" It’s because of all the journalists at a newspaper, the editorial cartoonist is one of the most provocative. That may be the position'€™s undoing. When accountants make decisions about who needs to go, it’s very easy to put the most controversial members of your staff at the top of that list. After all, they’re the ones that might cost your newspaper a subscriber here or there. But what they'€™re not considering is a feature like editorial cartoons, which may lose you a few subscriptions, will bring in ten times that because of the nature of controversy. People will buy that newspaper simply to see "€œwhat is that cartoonist going to do next?" So in the long run, these decisions aren'€™t only bad for journalism, they aren'€™t only bad for a vigorous public debate, they're bad business.

Bennett: Do you want me to address the New York Times thing?

Witt: Sure.

Bennett: Certainly the New York Times is a great paper. And it hasn’t had its own editorial cartoonist since the early 1950’s. But that doesn'€™t mean it couldn'€™t be a better paper if it had one. The problem is the New York Times doesn’t want to give a platform that powerful to one person. And therein lies the rub.

Newspapers all over this country realize that the editorial cartoon is the most powerful element on an editorial page. And to have one on staff means you're committed to running his or her cartoons five or six days a week. Good or bad, right or wrong, that space is devoted to one particular cartoonist. When they leave that position open, and run a smorgasbord of cartoons, they get to pick and choose. They can choose what positions they like, they can choose which cartoons they like, and they can control the debate.

Witt: Yeah, but why not have dueling cartoonists, maybe one from the left one from the right and let them have at it?

Bennett: Great idea. I would suggest all newspapers do just that.

Witt: Do you have any empirical evidence that editorial cartoonists will bring in ten times more readers than they cause to be lost and that the cartoon is the most powerful element on the editorial page?

Bennett: You read papers, Len. When you go to an editorial page, do you always read every editorial? When you go to that same page, do you read the editorial cartoon? Ask this question of any reader, they’re answer to question 1 would be “no”. And their answer to question 2 would be “of course.” It may not be empirical, but it is almost universal.

As for an editorial cartoon bringing in 10 times as many readers as the number it may lose a paper, again, that’s just the nature of controversy. Whether readers love you, or hate you, they always want to see what you’re up to. Again, not empirical, but human nature.

Controversy sells papers.

Witt: Look I really admire your work, it reminds me of sophisticated art in a kid’s picture book, but with a cutting edge. And each day the first thing I do is look at Mike Luckovich in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but there are plenty of other artists who frankly I don’t think are that great. What if I was stuck with one of them in my paper?

Bennett: Are you speaking as a reader or an editor?

Witt: A reader. I am not smart enough to be an editor… or maybe too smart to be an editor.

Bennett: There are a lot of different styles in cartooning. Different styles in drawing, different approaches to commentary.

Witt: Yeah, but say I only get one paper.

Bennett: Okay – so you’ve got this one paper. The paper has a cartoonist you don’t like. Maybe it has a columnist you don’t like. What's the difference?

Are you going to cancel your subscription just because a single feature in a newspaper doesn’t appeal to you?

Witt: As you said I look at the cartoonist first. I can’t help it… Then I think what a bad paper for having such a bad cartoonist.

Bennett: But that’s a subjective judgment. Are you talking about drawing style? Because you don'€™t have to be a great artist to be a great cartoonist! The best concept in the world will still be great, even if it's drawn with stick figures. But a bad idea cannot be saved even with the finest rendering. Drawing style has very little to do with how good a cartoonist is.

Witt: When I think of a cartoonist that does not work, it is usually that the humor or commentary is not very sophisticated. By the way, I am one of those knee-jerk East Coast liberals. That’s why I love Luckovich. But I live in Cobb County, Georgia. Go figure.

Bennett: Well many people might think that Luckovich’s drawings are not very sophisticated. You know, they’re sort of scratchy, and sometimes resort to personal attack. That’s not necessarily the height of sophistication. But are they effective? Damned tootin’.

Witt: I agree. Still the prognostication for newspaper editorial cartoonists in general is not great. The same could be said of newspapers in general. Why not turn to the Internet? That’s where most people are getting their news. Especially the youth.

Bennett: It is true that the internet and 24 hour TV news are luring people away from daily papers. Circulation trends for all newspapers have taken a dip, but I’m not as gloomy about the future of ink on paper as everybody else seems to be beecause of local news. If you’re looking for national or world news, sure you can go on the Internet or go to CNN. There’s a faster turnaround, and everything gets reported immediately. Perhaps too immediately. Revisions, corrections, and retractions are the rule and not the exception in these forms of journalism. TV reporters aren’t held to the same standards of proof and sources as print reporters are. And as for bloggers, all bets are off.

The old saying is, “Think globally, act locally,” and this is what will keep newspapers in business.

Witt: That’s funny coming from an editorial cartoonist.

Bennett: Funny because you don’t think we work under the same journalistic principles as a reporter?

Witt: Funny because you have a point of view that is more similar to the most cutting edge bloggers. And yes, talk a little about editorial cartoonist principles and standards.

Bennett: Well when I said “all bets are off with bloggers”, my point was that many of them don’t have editors asking them for proof or attribution. There are many blogs that are just as reputable as the most principled newspaper. But, which ones are they? There’s a million blogs out there.

Witt: 22 million last count.

Bennett: The crap shoot is figuring out which ones are reputable, and which ones are crap. Now, not to say all newspapers report the truth. But, if they don’t, they can get hauled into court. It’s just that most newspapers are cautious enough not to make unsubstantiated claims or reports.

Now on to principles and standards. Certainly cartoons are opinion. And as such, are held to a different set of journalistic standards than a reporter would be. But not a different standard than an editorial writer or a columnist would be. Although a cartoonist has never been successfully sued for libel. It’s not to say that it couldn't happen, or on occasion, shouldn’t happen. We still have to base our opinions on the same news and information that any editorial writer or columnist would. Luckily, artistic expression protects us more than the cold and cruel world of the wordsmith. You can represent something visually and use exaggeration and hyperbole as your defense.

Witt: On the blogger issue, careful here, you are going to get caught in a firestorm of blogger flame. First of all this IM Interview will show up on my blog. But beyond that I use blogs to find a more expanded version of the “truth”–often the truth that you will not find in a newspaper, except maybe in an editorial cartoon.

Bennett: Duly noted. But, I stand by my initial statement, which stated that many blogs are just as reputable as the finest newspaper. And, that’s the great thing about the Internet. It used to be said that the freedom of the press was only afforded to he who could afford one. Now everybody owns a printing press. (metaphorically speaking). We can all publish our own newspaper, we can all report our own stories. The issues and scandals that sometimes get overlooked or marginalized by the mainstream press can get the attention they deserve through the independent media on the Internet. Sometimes this will actually encourage the mainstream to pick the story up.

Witt: But I am not sure if you answered my question if cartoonists might have to gravitate to the Internet and if so, what form might that take and will it be feasible economically?

Bennett: Sure, cartoonists are flocking to the net. You know, the progress is slow, but every day cartoonists exploit more and more those things that are unique to the Internet. Cartoonists who can only work in black and white in print work in color on the Internet. Other cartoonists are moving more an more to animated cartoons.

Witt: Any good examples?

Bennett: Mark Fiore, for instance. Here’s a guy that started out as purely a print cartoonist. And now, he doesn’t do print cartoons at all. He does flash animations and makes a good living off it them, selling them to a handful of sites. He was even the recipient of last year’s Robert F. Kennedy award for editorial cartooning.

[Editor's note: Ann Telnaes also does animation a few times a week for the Washington Post and Mark Fiore went on to win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning]

Witt: So what will the future look like? Got any good predictions?

Bennett: Yeah. More animated cartoons, that’s for sure. Cartoonists will increasingly have to exploit what's unique about the Internet.

Witt: But I mean for editorial cartoonists in general? What will the medium or media of the future be?

Bennett: It’ll be what it is right now. It’ll be print, it’ll be TV, and it’ll be the internet. Unless you know of some new form of communication…. maybe transcendental cartooning?

Witt: So if I had a son or daughter who wanted to be an editorial cartoon, what advice should I give him or her… especially given the condition that I don’t especially want them moving back home?

Bennett: Uhhhh…. errrr…. ummmmm…..

Okay – I would say my advice would be the same for a son or daughter who wanted to become an actor.

Witt: Yikes!

Bennett: It’s a tough market. There are very few jobs available, and a lot of people who want them. In fact, it’s probably tougher than making it as an actor. But, it wouldn’t matter what your advice was.

Witt: Double yikes!

Bennett: Someone who wants to become an editorial cartoonist WILL become an editorial cartoonist, whether they’re paid or not. When I was fired in 1994, I thought they had stolen my identity from me. I thought they had robbed me of my title. But, all they did was steal a paycheck. I was a cartoonist before I ever earned a dime, and I’ll be a cartoonist after I’ve earned my last.

Witt: Why did they fire you?

Bennett: A change of editors came 11 years after I was hired. A noble, saintly man was replaced with a, let’s say, LESS noble and saintly man.

Witt: I should end there, but I have one final question. This really is all about money. Is the pocketbook mightier than the pen?

Bennett: Emphatically NO. Eventually newspapers are going to realize that their best weapon in the competitive journalistic war is the editorial cartoonist. It’s going to make economic sense and journalistic sense.

Witt: This has been a great interview. I will leave it there with you having the last word.

Bennett: That’s good with me. Thanks for the opportunity.

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