Let me draw a picture. It’s not a pretty picture. The number of editorial cartoonist staff positions has dwindled from a high of almost 200 in the mid-1980’s to about 85 now. The future seems dim. At many newspapers, cartoonist positions left opened by death, layoffs, retirements and resignations remain unfilled.

The discouraging news about the growing number of unemployed cartoonists seemed so bad during my year (September 2002-September 2003) as the president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) that I received more than a few calls from reporters who started by saying something like this, “I would like to ask you a few questions for an article I am doing on the demise of editorial cartooning in American newspapers.” I heard the statement so many times even I began to wonder why any newspaper publisher would ever invest in a fulltime staff editorial cartoonist when it would be cheaper to buy syndicated cartoons.

Cartoonists’ Value

To arrive at an answer, I recently asked several publishers two questions: How valuable has having an editorial cartoonist on staff been for your newspaper? And are there any unexpected benefits? These questions inspired many publishers to air their views about the current state of cartooning at American newspapers.

What follows are e-mail responses from publishers, in their own words.

“Are We Witnessing the Dusk of a Cartoon Era?”
– Matt Davies
Gary Sherlock, publisher and president of The Journal News (168,668 Sundays) in White Plains, New York writes: “Without a doubt, having an editorial cartoonist of the quality of Matt Davies on our editorial staff has been a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace. Each day we compete with the much larger New York City dailies. And having his work in our paper provides our readers with a real different reason for buying our newspaper. Whether the topic is local, regional or national, his work is just that much better than the competition. Matt Davies’ willingness to go out into the community and talk about his work has been an unexpected benefit to The Journal News. In particular, he really connects with young kids in a way that cannot be duplicated by other staffers. He is building future readers at every turn.”

Tim Kelly, publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky (144,528 Sundays) writes: “Clearly, the greatest value of having an editorial cartoonist on the staff of a paper our size is the added dimension Joel Pett gives us in terms of local commentary. We all know that we can purchase the work of the best cartoonists in the country (Joel included) on national and world topics for a fraction of the cost of a staff cartoonist. But we and our readers can’t get the local angle anyplace else. That is why it is essential that local cartoonists draw locally. Not all the time, but a considerable percentage of the time.

“Are there any unexpected benefits? You mean aside from the bleating that one can hear whenever a particularly ripe ox is gored? I’ve always felt that cartoonists have a special place when it comes to reader reaction. It’s a variation on the picture-tells-a-thousand-words theme. People can respond to our editorial words in kind, but it really challenges them to respond to a masterfully executed editorial cartoon. They certainly can’t do it in kind, but it’s clear that they want to respond in some way. The best cartoonists function as do the best columnists: They elicit a reaction—a chuckle, a groan, a gasp, a fit of anger. And the good ones cause people to come back to the paper on a regular basis looking to see what (fill in the blank) drew today.

“Debunking the Explanations Given for Lost Jobs”
– Joel Pett
“Aside from that, the fact that Joel’s national and world cartoons appear in papers from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to USA Today gives the Lexington Herald-Leader a visibility—certainly at least in the in-dustry—that we would not otherwise have. I figure that can’t be bad for our recruiting. And when he does things like win a Pulitzer Prize, be a Pulitzer finalist, or win the Robert F. Kennedy Award, among others, he brings honor to the newspaper.”

John Temple, publisher, president and editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado (275,135 Mon.-Fri.), adds: “We have two editorial cartoonists: Ed Stein in news/commentary and Drew Litton in sports.

“Having an editorial cartoonist is very valuable. I think readers love the impact of an editorial cartoon, when they’re as pointed and hard-hitting as Ed’s. People don’t cut out columns and post them on their fridge or computer. But they do cartoons. There’s something about a cartoon that distills so much into a small space. Opinion is a critical part of a good newspaper, and a good editorial cartoon is at the extreme end of opinion. Good editorial cartoons have to be very uncompromising. This makes them difficult, challenging. I think that engages people, even when it enrages them.

“Squeezing Originality Out of Editorial Cartoons”
– Ed Stein
“The unexpected benefit in our case has been the creation of Denver Square, a locally oriented comic strip. Ed’s strip lets him explore subjects with much more ambiguity and complexity. Readers see themselves, their lives, in that strip. So that’s been a big hit for us. Another unexpected benefit is that editorial cartoons can be so sharp that they help everyone figure out where they stand, including the editorial board. Also, newspapers thrive by having creative people feed off each other. There’s no question that cartoonists are among the most creative people in the room. They help create an atmosphere of questioning, of laughter, of serious criticism. And they put editors on the spot, by forcing them to consider where they draw the line. Ed gets a kick out of that, and so do I.
Walter E. Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (283,538 Sundays) in Little Rock, Arkansas, who has a long tradition of employing editorial cartoonists such as John Deering (not to mention the author of this article, who has worked for Hussman twice—first at the Democrat-Gazette and now at the Chattanooga Times Free Press) shares: “A n editorial cartoonist is very valuable. Readership studies consistently show that editorial cartoons enjoy higher readership than editorials. A good local cartoonist is an immense sense of pride to readers (‘our cartoonist’). It communicates to readers that the newspaper is a quality product, especially in this day and age where more and more papers have eliminated their cartoonist. This builds ‘brand loyalty’ to the newspaper and reduces subscriber churn.”

Burgett H. Mooney III, publisher of the Rome (Georgia) News-Tribune (19,216 Sunday) responded: “Having an editorial cartoonist is both a luxury and a necessity for small newspapers. I believe newspapers have given up a huge part of the ‘franchise’ by letting the editorial page become generic. We have a full-time editorial page editor (Pierre Noth) and assistant (Kathy Davis) along with an editorial cartoonist (Mike Lester) on staff. I believe the editorial page is more important for the 20,000-circulation newspaper than the larger ones. If we pay attention to the editorial page and drive it towards local issues we can be more in touch with the reader, and that puts us more in touch with the community. A local editorial cartoonist is an integral part of our overall strategy to push and pull the community through as many topics as possible.

“Mike has reached out to all constituents. He may be speaking to a third grade class today, to Rotary club another day, and to a senior citizen group another. This is a great opportunity to push the newspaper deeper into the community.”

What Publishers Don’t See

These publishers’ comments demonstrate that there is good news for editorial cartoonists.

But the news should be better. As cartoonists, we have never enjoyed more readership. More of us are widely syndicated. Because of the Internet, millions of readers worldwide see a cartoon drawn in Chattanooga. Sites devoted to editorial cartoons are among the most popular cartoon Web sites. Many cartoons often are reprinted in major magazines, newspapers and television networks around the world. Our work is fun, popular and accessible to all ages. We’re the Jon Stewarts of the newspaper industry.

All of this makes it difficult to understand why the majority of newspaper managers can’t see that these qualities can easily be translated into a way of attracting, engaging and retaining readers for their newspapers. I’m beginning to think some newspaper managers don’t want to know.

During my tenure as president of the AAEC, I contacted the Readership Institute at Northwestern University’s Media Management Center to find out how editorial cartoonists faired in their comprehensive 100-newspaper readership study. I was surprised to learn that none of the 100 newspapers had requested one specific question to be asked about editorial cartoons. That fact is curious, considering that virtually every newspaper in the study publishes at least a syndicated editorial cartoon every day.

I asked the members of the AAEC if their newspaper had done any readership surveys and if they had received any results. Only one cartoonist had received feedback from any studies. His editor told him his cartoons had polled better than any other feature. When the cartoonist asked what the editor had learned from that information, the editor said, “It doesn’t mean anything. Everybody reads the cartoons.”

According to the Readership Institute, surveys consistently point to the fact that readers of all ages, especially the younger reader, want more visual elements, local content, and local commentary. Stories published in the Winter 2003 issue of Nieman Reports tell us that young readers especially want commentary with an edge and an attitude—exactly what cartoonists offer.

But judging by the diminishing number of staff cartoonists and the lack of interest most publishers seem to have in learning about their readers’ perspective on this part of the newspaper, I’d have to conclude that most publishers do not appreciate the benefit an editorial cartoonist would bring to their newspapers.

Perhaps, someday, someone will draw them a picture.

“Cartoonists Reach out to Educators”
– Matt Davies
Bruce Plante is the editorial cartoonist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, a former president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), and current chairman of the AAEC/Herb Block Committee.  The committee recently received a grant from The Herb Block Foundation for a three-year “Cartoons for the Classroom” effort to encourage editorial cartooning by educating students of all ages, including journalism students and professors as well as newspaper publishers and editors.

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