Wednesday, September 20, 2023

David Horsey on the dying breed of editorial cartoonists

From The Seattle Times.

Political cartoonists took up their pens to offend the powerful and defend the downtrodden as soon as the first publishers began hand-cranking newspapers through their printing presses in the 18th century. 

Benjamin Franklin created his own political art to fire up the American Revolution. So did Paul Revere.

"Join or Die", Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Gazette, 1754

Now, two-and-a-half centuries later, with thousands of newspapers having gone out of business and most of the rest struggling to survive, political cartoonists have become an endangered species. 

When newsroom jobs get trimmed, the cartoonist is often among the first to go, even though “those damned pictures” — as Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed characterized the jugular art of Thomas Nast in the 1870s — are perennially popular with readers.

A precise count of political cartoonists is elusive (or editorial cartoonists, as they were classified by the Pulitzer Prize until that category was cut from the foremost journalism contest a couple of years ago). 

According to numbers provided by two of my friends at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, there were just over 100 full-time editorial cartooning jobs at U.S. newspapers in 2008, down from as many as 150 full- and part-time positions in 1997. 

Today, a mere 20 or so are paid newspaper employees. A few more are contractors (count me as one of them) creating work for one particular newspaper. 

All of the rest are scrambling to pay the bills through freelance or syndication or have left the profession.

Half a century ago, even modest-sized newspapers in small cities often had a cartoonist on staff. 

Many became local legends by lampooning city and state officials who betrayed the public trust. Very few of those cartoonists were known outside of their hometowns, but they were celebrities among their readers, even the readers I characterize as “anti-fans.” 

Those are the folks who disagree with what we cartoonists have to say, but return every day to see the next lamebrained, ignorant image we produce.

A few editorial cartoonists have transcended local notoriety. 

Kennedy assassination, Bill Mauldin

Bill Mauldin became famous drawing cartoons from the front lines in Europe during World War II. 

Paul Conrad was such an imposing presence at the Los Angeles Times that he became publisher Otis Chandler’s regular golfing partner. 

At The Washington Post, the great Herblock afflicted miscreants in the White House and Congress for more than 50 years.

It is telling that The Post no longer has a cartoonist on staff, though two fine cartoonists, Michael de Adder and Ann Telnaes, produce cartoons as contractors for the most important newspaper in the country’s most political city. 

The LA Times has not hired a cartoonist since I parted ways with the publication at the end of 2017 and the newspaper’s editors appear to have no interest in filling Conrad’s seat.

Editors at The New York Times broke a longstanding aversion to running political cartoons when they brought on Swiss cartoonist Patrick Chappatte in 2001 to do work for The Times international edition. 

His tenure ended curiously in 2019 when the newspaper got flak for a cartoon about Israel drawn, not by Chappatte, but by a different artist. 

The New York Times could not take the heat.

And heat is always part of the deal. 

Any political cartoon is bound to offend somebody — or quite a few somebodies — on a regular basis. 

Publishers who stick by their cartoonists are wise enough to know that an occasionally enraged reader is also an engaged reader.

Some publishers, though, become the enraged parties themselves. 

Award-winning political cartoonist Rob Rogers, a guy who was wildly popular with Pittsburgh Post-Gazette subscribers, was fired in 2018. 

His offense? Drawing cartoons of former President Donald Trump that annoyed his boss. 

The following year, Rogers was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Pulitzers, though, are no guarantee of job security, as I have personally twice discovered. 

In 2017, Pulitzer winner Nick Anderson was dismissed from the Houston Chronicle simply because the owners wanted to save some money. 

Anderson was the last on-staff editorial cartoonist in the entire state of Texas. 

Another Pulitzer winner, Steve Benson, was laid off by The Arizona Republic in 2019.

In July, the biggest bombshell yet hit the depleted ranks of editorial cartoonists when McClatchy Newspapers axed three Pulitzer winners in one day — Jack Ohman of The Sacramento Bee, Kevin Siers of The Charlotte Observer and Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader

On Google Meet, Ohman said, “I felt like I had been T-boned at an intersection.”

In the aftermath of that collision, McClatchy issued a news release that said the cartoonists had “provided readers with sharp, artful and insightful commentary that holds officials and institutions accountable. We are grateful for their important contributions to journalism and their commitment to excellence.”

That sounds more like an argument to give the cartoonists a raise, rather than lay them off.

A separate statement from McClatchy opinion editor Peter St. Onge offered a dubious excuse for getting rid of the cartoonists: “We made this decision based on changing reader habits and our relentless focus on providing the communities we serve with local news and information they can’t get elsewhere.”

Which, of course, makes no sense at all. Ohman, Siers and Pett were giving readers something truly unique that “they can’t get elsewhere.”

The more accurate explanation for why the editorial cartoonists were dumped is starkly simple. 

McClatchy, like so many newspaper groups, has been acquired by a hedge fund that cares more about profits than local readers or community-based journalism. 

Hedge funds buy newspapers to bleed them dry until they wither up and blow away. Editorial cartoonists are simply another budget line item to be crossed out.

In other parts of the world, political cartoonists are often threatened, thrown in jail, attacked and even murdered. In this country, though threats from angry yahoos do crop up now and then, we who test the limits of the First Amendment by drawing “those damned pictures” have been kept safe by readers who believe we contribute something useful to the democratic process — insightful images with a bit of humor that make politics a less dreary affair.

Unlike so many of our international counterparts, we have never had to look over our shoulders to see if cops or angry crowds are at the door. In the back of our minds, though, we always suspected that, if anyone were to do us in, it would be the corporate bean counters.

David Horsey is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for The Seattle Times. His latest book is “Drawing Apart: Political Cartoons from a Polarized America.”

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