When in the summer of 2003 the Tallahassee Democrat hired Doug Marlette, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, to be our editorial page cartoonist, the decision drew much attention within and outside of our newsroom. I call us “The Little Editorial Department That Can” because while we’re a small paper—with circulation around 65,000 on Sundays—we publish in the capital of the fourth largest state, a lively academic and political place where President George W. Bush’s brother, Jeb, presides as governor. When criticism comes our way it’s usually because people don’t think we provide the firepower of papers much, much larger than ours, a complaint that I hear as a variation on a compliment. Hiring Marlette was a kind of antidote to that complaint.

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Though we don’t pay him enough, or even keep Doug’s art-supply cabinets as full as we should, our newspaper does seem to supply him with a stimulating outlet for his work. When he took the job, Doug called Florida the nation’s “petri dish,” where America is working out its fate. From hanging chads and voting machine fraud to Jeb Bush, from the conservative Hispanic culture in the southern part of the state to the more traditionally black culture in the northern part—with the hurricanes, sharks, alligators and Disney sprinkled in—our unpredictable state clearly does have a certain cachet. Nearly everyone in the country has either visited Florida or intends to, or knows a retiree living somewhere near our coasts. For an editorial cartoonist with a national syndication audience (as Marlette has), his principal location means that when he lampoons issues and people at the local level, he is working from a recognizable touchstone.

Not many newspapers are hiring editorial cartoonists these days. The exceptionally good artists are syndicated and cheaply available to papers whose editorial page editors appear to be content to let their op-ed and editorial pages  reflect  primarily national or international issues. Perhaps they assume, not inaccurately, that letters to the editor about these cartoons will provide the local comic relief. But while many newspaper editors realize they need to move aggressively to bring more and better local reporting and images to news coverage, they consider hiring an artist for editorial cartoons about hometown topics to be a luxury for all but the largest papers. Even some of the larger papers are now opting out of this tradition.

Cartoonists bear some blame for this decline. As an editor, I get tired of seeing a homogenized stream of cartoons pour in from syndicated cartoonists whose work we also purchase and publish (in addition to Doug’s featured cartoon). I can’t fully appreciate the creative and competitive pressures that must be on them to produce these quick visual hits. Yet with an editor’s eyes, what I see on a given day is a desktop full of cartoons about Christopher Reeve’s death, or Martha Stewart going to jail, or John Kerry’s flip-flops, and this singularity of focus is not helpful to producing an unexpected and compelling editorial product.

Just as editorial page editors work hard to have op-ed pages reflect not just predictable public policy debates but other aspects of our culture and
lives, I want editorial cartoons to catch for us—in some unexpected way—important slices from our daily lives and circumstances. That’s why there is such joy in receiving a Marlette cartoon that is tailor-made for our audience—a sharp putdown of a state attorney’s silly decision, or the outrage of liberal academics over the invitation to Dick Cheney to give a commencement address, or some faux pas by football coach Bobby Bowden at Florida State University. These cartoons get the phones ringing, the e-mail popping up, and put a signature on our paper.

Responding to the irate reader is all in a day’s work for an editorial page editor, and I handle most of the calls we receive. It is undeniably more complicated, however, to explain how a drawing is another form of opinion, too, and why an unflattering nose and goofy look isn’t just a form of rudeness but, in fact, a potent, deliberate putdown. It would be easier to help critics over the hurdle of unkind cartoons, or past the fact that they don’t see their position represented often, if we had more points of view in cartooning. In fact, as editors we don’t enjoy a wide range of artistic philosophies to choose from, as we do in our selection of columnists. The cartooning industry is low on conservative editorial cartoonists and on minority cartoonists; the female editorial cartoonist might be described as an endangered species, except that historically there never have been very many.

As with most of the editorial cartoonists I’ve been privileged to meet, Doug Marlette is a brilliant and perceptive man. But as with any writer, the artist benefits from appropriate care and feeding. Though I don’t do this nearly as well as I should, I know he appreciates it when I take time to brainstorm and offer up some mental images from the local parade of horrors or remind him of what is the talk at the local coffee shop. A well-placed word to the artist is sufficient.

As with the best essayists and columnists, an editorial cartoonist can often make a universal point with a local angle and give readers an original perspective. I’d encourage more newspapers to take a leap and hire an editorial cartoonist. Especially in this time-short world where younger readers and ultra-busy readers tend to look for a quick “read” and fast “got it” bit of information, there is nothing better than the laconic editorial cartoon to juice up an editorial page. 

Mary Ann Lindley has been editorial page editor of the Tallahassee Democrat for six years. She was previously a columnist with the Democrat and Knight Ridder newspapers and worked as a political writer and editor for The New York Times Affiliated Newspaper Group in Florida and for The Miami Herald.

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