"When I was younger, the highest compliment you could get was a reader cutting out your cartoon and putting it on your refrigerator with a magnet to share with friends and family," says Politico editorial cartoonist Matt Wuerker. "The Internet is just one giant refrigerator door, supercharged in people's ability to share cartoons that they like."
That's good news for editorial cartoonists, an embattled bunch who certainly could use some. In recent years, as newspapers have struggled to cope with the digital revolution and an economic downturn, cartoonists have sometimes seemed like an endangered species. Many papers have eliminated the position.
While no hard numbers are available, there is widespread agreement that the total has declined sharply over the years. There were about 200 editorial cartoonists in the U.S 50 years ago, and now there are about 75, says Daryl Cagle, a cartoonist for MSNBC.com who also operates a cartoon syndicate.
When Politico's Wuerker won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning on April 16, it was a major breakthrough for digital cartooning. Though Politico publishes a print edition several days a week, it is a primarily Web-based news outlet, and Wuerker's cartoons range from traditional to animations and games.
This is the first time a predominantly online news organization won the prize, but many cartoonists think it is not likely to be the last. While the list of online cartoonists so far is not huge, enthusiasts predict that it will mushroom as the digital transformation of journalism continues.
As many print newspapers have dropped cartoonists, moving online seems like a logical move, both for the cartoonists themselves and Pulitzer judges. "Naturally, the Pulitzer board has been searching for a way for years to increase the size of the universe from which the cartooning prize could be selected," says Tony Auth, the Pulitzer-winning former Philadelphia Inquirer cartoonist turned digital artist at NewsWorks, the local news Web site of Philadelphia public radio and television stations WHYY. "It was getting tiny. You had to expand the number eligible."
Auth sees the Web as a way to pursue his broader interests. Tired of creating five cartoons a week, he found a job that allows him to spend half of his time doing traditional political cartoons and the other half creating digital sketchbooks and animations.
Well, there's an app for that.
Brushes, a new iPad app with which Auth has been working, allows you to create a drawing then press a button that plays it back, showing the step-by-step creation of your work in a seamless animation that begins with the first stroke and ends with a finished cartoon. It also allows you to add sound to the animation so you can narrate your work.
His first brushes animation at NewsWorks, titled "Wallowing in the Archives," reflects his life's work, and viewers watch as the boxes pile higher and higher with the artist's stroke. This new tool has helped him create different kinds of cartoons that Auth says have been well received by audiences.
"Having visited schools, I realized people love to see drawings being made," he says. "It's magical."
While few news outlets have hired online cartoonists, Wuerker says it's just a matter of time before other organizations follow Politico's lead. "I think paper editors have been slow to realize the Internet is a much more visual environment than newsprint, and they're waking up to that," Wuerker says.
Some, he points out, have already climbed on board. The Los Angeles Times, for one, created an online-only political blog called Top of The Ticket by David Horsey (also a Pulitzer-winning cartoonist) that is part textual commentary and part cartoon.
Washingtonpost.com features animated cartoons created by Ann Telnaes that comment on major news issues and political developments. Telnaes, who has been doing the cartoons for the Post since 2008, thinks that animation is part of editorial cartooning's future. And although she admits many news outlets have not yet jumped on the animation bandwagon, she has faith in the new, digital-age generation of cartoonists to come.
"It is time-consuming, and one has to have a good grasp on animation, so that limits how many of today's print cartoonists can successfully switch to the medium," Telnaes says. "However, I'm hoping that younger people, who are more inclined to be experimental and tech-savvy and are interested in visual commentary, see the possibilities the Internet offers and consider a career in editorial cartooning."
But MSNBC's Cagle doesn't anticipate a large platoon of digital cartoonists anytime soon. Although he, like Wuerker, is first and foremost an online cartoonist, he believes that they are exceptions, not part of a trend.
Cagle, who started his syndication site, The Cagle Post, in 2001, says that the majority of his customers are print papers, not Web-based publications, and he doesn't see that changing.
"In the 15 years they have been saying animation is the future, it hasn't happened," Cagle says. "No culture of people wanting to commission editorial cartoonists has developed on the Web."
But John Cole, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, thinks that won't be the case forever. "I think you're going to find more cartoonists, and fewer positions being cut at daily papers, as they figure out how to make the transition to the Internet," Cole says. "Color and animation are as much a part of the future as anything."
But will news outlets create new positions for Internet cartoonists?
"They would be crazy not to," Telnaes says. She adds, "People love looking at cartoons. The Internet offers so many more creative possibilities than print. Combine that with a hard-hitting, skillful cartoonist, and you'll have readers regularly visiting your Web site."
Politico's Wuerker also believe cartoons are "perfectly suited for the Internet." "If you have something that gets into the bloodstream of social media like cartoons do, it's really helpful to the overall Web site," Wuerker says. "People can come into Politico through the back door because someone sends them a cartoon through Facebook."
As consumers adjust to new technology, news outlets are working to deliver content the way people prefer it. Wuerker believes cartooning is no different. "I think the kind of media consumer that we're creating with all of our new Web devices»our iPads and iPhones and Droids» are people that are looking for short, entertaining hits," he says. "Somebody riding on the bus can glance at it on their iPhone, get a chuckle and slip it to their Facebook friends."
Cartoons have the appeal and shareability that makes for great Web content. And thanks to the ease and immediacy of the Internet, they can be produced and distributed quickly, which is of great importance in journalism.
"You've got to strike while the iron's hot," Cole says. "And technology made that possible."
But there is one major downside for digital cartoonists, Cole says. They can Google their names and find out where their work is appearing, but that doesn't mean all those sites are paying for the material. "The irony is most cartoonists are enjoying the largest audience they've ever had," he says. "The challenge is getting paid for it at the end of the day."
Cagle says print cartoonists often syndicate their work to other publications. But he hasn't seen much of a market for digital syndication. He points out that for years online material has been distributed for free, which isn't helpful for cartoonists trying to sell their work.
But in the last year, there has been a major switch, as more and more online content providers have started charging for material. That's potentially good news for cartoonists.
And Cole says he remains optimistic about the future.
"Some economic platform will allow cartoonists to continue to make a living doing what they're doing," he says. "Hopefully there will be more Politicos as time goes by."