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From AJR,   December/January 2009  issue

Cutting Cartoonists   

As newspapers dispense with their editorial cartoonists, vibrant local commentary is diminished.


By Lindsay Kalter
Lindsay Kalter (lindsay.kalter@gmail.com) is an Ann Arbor-based writer.      

On August 15, editorial cartoonist Stuart Carlson took a break from social and political commentary to depict a different kind of bleak reality his own. His final illustration for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed a dimly lit office with an empty chair sitting before a drawing board. On the board hung a piece of paper with a quote from Dr. Seuss: "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."

On his 25th anniversary at the Journal Sentinel, Carlson left the paper during its second round of buyouts in a year. His departure was far from voluntary. When his editorial page editor, O. Ricardo Pimentel, sat him down in July to discuss a buyout, he couldn't imagine leaving the paper.

"I said, 'I'm 52 years old and I love what I'm doing,'" Carlson recalls. "He said, 'We're going to make some cutbacks on the editorial page, and you'll be the first to go.'"

"I was just stunned," he says. (Pimentel declined to comment.)

Carlson, 53, is one of a number of editorial cartoonists who have been eliminated from newspaper staffs without replacement during major industry downsizing. Many have been dismissed or forced to take buyouts in the past five years, including Kevin Kallaugher of the Baltimore Sun, Michael Ramirez of the Los Angeles Times, Chip Bok of the Akron Beacon Journal and Steve Greenberg of the Ventura County Star. The Cincinnati Enquirer's Jim Borgman recently took a voluntary buyout, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press laid off Kirk Anderson in 2003. The Chicago Tribune's Jeff MacNelly died in 2000 and has yet to be replaced.

Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, says there are fewer than 100 staff cartoonists in the country, down from about 150 in 1990 and about 280 in 1980.

"Why on God's green Earth would you not want to give people unique commentary that you can get in a cartoon?" asks Carlson, whose exit from the Journal Sentinel left Joe Heller of the Green Bay Press-Gazette as the last remaining editorial cartoonist in Wisconsin. "I guess I attribute it in part to a lot of executives not knowing what to do next. They're desperate, they're flailing. I think too often newspaper executives are like lemmings."

According to several editorial cartoonists, a cruel irony exists in the newspaper business. While many publications are reducing syndicated news content to emphasize local coverage, there has been a gradual decline in local editorial cartoons and a heavier reliance on syndicated ones. Rall says this change has led to a dearth of full-time job opportunities for cartoonists, which could deter the best and the brightest new artists from entering the field. "In the past, what encouraged people to be cartoonists was the possibility to make a living. Now I don't think young people will be going into it as much," says Rall, a cartoonist for Universal Press Syndicate and editor of acquisitions and development at United Media. "Syndication is really just beer money for most cartoonists." Carlson, whose syndicated cartoons appear on Slate and washingtonpost.com, plans to seek a university teaching position so he can earn a stable income.

Rall says this low point in the editorial cartoon business comes during an all-time high in the field's talent and creativity. In the past 50 years, cartoons have evolved from a craft of limited range into an edgier, more sophisticated art form. "The state of the art is more vibrant than ever. What you have currently is the most talented, most brilliant and diverse cartoonists in American history doing the most relevant, best-loved, most widely read work," he says. "Readers never counted on them as much as they do today."

And, of course, when the product suffers, consumers notice. Fewer local cartoons mean less local commentary on issues specific to different regions material that can't be found through syndication. "I think it's shortsighted of them to fire or buy out people who provide unique content specific to their readership, because that is exactly what brings people to their newspapers," says Lucy Shelton Caswell, a professor of newspaper cartoon history at Ohio State University and curator of the Cartoon Library and Museum. "In addition, I think that it's very shortsighted not to understand that the editorial cartoon is an important part of a newspaper's mission to educate voters."

Rall thinks the cutbacks are to the papers' detriment. "Print journalism is not dying, it's committing suicide," he says. "Management has no idea what readers want and need. A strong graphic art presence is something readers respond to."

Nick Goldberg, editor of the Los Angeles Times' op-ed page, says his staff cartoonist's position was eliminated to save money.

"Michael Ramirez did great work, and I personally was very sad to see him go," Goldberg says. Still, he notes that syndication is far cheaper than paying a staff cartoonist, with one syndicated cartoon usually going for no more than $100 to $150 per week.

Dwane Powell, who has worked as an editorial cartoonist at Raleigh's News and Observer for 33 years, was informed over the summer that the paper's financial limitations would require his position to be reduced to part-time. At AJR's deadline, he was waiting to hear back from editors about the status of his position: would he be able to remain a part-time employee, or would his job be terminated entirely?

"They essentially killed a full-time editorial cartoonist" position, Powell says. But, he says, "Even under the part-time arrangement it seems like my work gets around quite a bit. It's nice to be able to have your say."

Powell says that when the public got wind of his possible departure, readers began approaching him on the street asking him not to leave.

"People do identify with your work, and even though it's the artist's opinion, you do become sort of a voice for your paper," he says. "Who knows, maybe we've killed ourselves with syndication."

Powell adds that by getting rid of specialized staff members like columnists, movie reviewers (See "The End of the Affair," August/September 2007) and cartoonists, newspapers are cutting positions that are crucial to a newspaper's identity.

Rall thinks newspapers should keep cartoonists because they offer a distinctive element that improves quality and drives sales. "Having them isn't something you should do to be a good member of your community. You should do it because it's ballsy and cool, and it makes your paper better," he says. In the end, "Controversy is what's going to sell papers."

Rall says that although it's the "worst time in memory" for editorial cartoonists, he believes local graphic arts content will regain significance and the roster will eventually be restored.

"Trends don't last forever. This is not going to last forever," he says. "Cartoonists have been with us since cave paintings. They will be with us forever."