Many newspapers have decided not to hire a full-time editorial cartoonist, but instead publish the readily available work of syndicated cartoonists. To explore what impact these decisions and other changing circumstances related to editorial cartoons have on journalism, Nieman Reports asked cartoonists, editorial page editors, and close observers of cartooning to write out of their experiences and share their observations about how the long-time role that cartoons have played in journalism and democracy is being affected.
Matt Davies, who is staff cartoonist for The Journal News in White Plains, New York, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winner for editorial cartooning, and president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), contends there is “an inherent shortsightedness to this buy-a-cartoon model” that many newspapers are turning to. There is, he argues, value in “having a good and consistent cartoonist’s voice in the paper,” and this value was well understood by earlier generations of newspaper editors and publishers. Davies writes about the “Cartoons for the Classroom” project created by AAEC to “encourage children to learn about the language of the editorial cartoon and appreciate its historic and contemporary importance in the political dialogue.”
J.P. Trostle, a cartoonist and author of “Attack of the Political Cartoonists,” describes the loss of specific editorial cartoonists’ jobs and explains why they aren’t being filled. In an era of consolidation and cost cutting, Trostle writes, “… who’s more expendable than the ink-stained wretch hunched over in the corner drawing silly pictures?” Another reason, Trostle says, is the controversy that strong editorial cartoons can inspire in readers and the fear editors and publishers have of this, especially in times of decreasing circulation. Bruce Plante, editorial cartoonist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, corresponded with several publishers to ask them about the value of having an editorial cartoonist on staff, and he reports on their replies. As one publisher wrote of his paper’s two editorial cartoonists (one in news, one in sports), “They help create an atmosphere of questioning, of laughter, of serious criticism.” Ted Rall, a syndicated cartoonist, chronicles his interviews for staff cartoonists’ jobs at three newspapers. His experiences illuminate some newsroom and management issues that make such hires difficult these days.
John Zakarian, who recently retired as editorial page editor of The Hartford Courant, shares a series of questions editors should ask when editing cartoons and writes about his long-time working relationship with his paper’s editorial cartoonist. What he’s learned in this 24 years is that “if an editor is the type of person who abhors volcanic eruptions from a cartoonist over the editing of his or her work, don’t hire one. Instead, rely on syndicated cartoonists over whom you have far more effective control through the process of choosing one from many purchased inexpensively.” What is lost, however, in doing this is “the local flavor that they must have in fully engaging audiences.”
Chris Lamb, author of “Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons in the United States,” asserts that cartoonists “should not be government propagandists,” as happened with some in the wake of 9/11, when any criticism was labeled unpatriotic, and he explains why newspapers need independent-minded cartoonists. Doug Marlette, editorial cartoonist for the Tallahassee Democrat, writes that “cartoons are the acid test of the First Amendment” and claims that “the insidious unconsciousness of self-censorship can be discerned in the quality of editorial cartoons today.” Political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant examines how this “once-potent galvanizer of opinion, the kick-starter of conversation and discussion, has been allowed to atrophy from disuse and is, after several centuries of successful use as a castigator and common scold of the body politic, in great jeopardy of fading away altogether.” Syndicated editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes notes that “as a whole, American editorial cartoonists were slow to break free of flag-waving images” after 9/11, and she writes that “if in our roles as cartoonists we don’t challenge and poke the pompous and the powerful, then all we do is illustrate propaganda.”
Signe Wilkinson, editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News, explores reasons why so few women do this kind of work. “Who would like receiving a daily dose of hate mail—besides puerile little boys who love picking fights,” she writes. “In other words, who besides editorial cartoonists?” Joel Pett, editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, lines up the usual suspects considered responsible for cartoonists’ job losses, then sets about debunking the validity of each. Steve Kelley, the Times-Picayune editorial cartoonist, brings us inside the debate editorial cartoonists have among themselves about the role humor should play and reveals that “our increasingly conspicuous failing is that we make obvious attempts at humor only to come up short.”
Mary Ann Lindley, editorial page editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, describes why her small paper hired a prize-winning editorial cartoonist (Doug Marlette) and how his jabs at local leaders, events and issues “get the phones ringing, the e-mail popping up, and put a signature on our paper.” Scott Stantis, editorial cartoonist for The Birmingham News, constantly looks for local angels and contends that “if the role of the cartoonist is viewed as being like that of a columnist—someone whose work truly engages readers— then local cartoons are essential.” Ed Stein, editorial cartoonist for the Rocky Mountain News, sees the rise of “a depressingly homogenous American style” of cartooning, and “not just of drawing but of the way we conceive ideas,” and tells how he transformed his cartooning to create a distinct local connection with readers. Mark Fiore left a newspaper job as a political cartoonist to devote his energy to creating animated cartoons that are read on various Internet news sites. “Message comes first, humor second, and ideally both arrive at the viewer’s eye together,” he writes.
Jeff Danziger, a syndicated cartoonist, reminds us how cartoonist Bill Mauldin “proved, time and again, that when the times demand, a drawing can pierce the emotional heart of a story deeper than the most gifted verbal lapidaries.” Harry Katz, former head curator of prints and photographs at the Library of Congress, explores cartoons’ past to discover important lessons to guide editorial cartoons’ future.