By Paul Fell
Once upon a time, vast herds of editorial cartoonists roamed the Great Plains and indeed most of the United States. Well, okay… I exaggerate a bit, but I AM a cartoonist, and I’m guilty of that from time to time. The fact is, back in the day, most cities of any size had at least a couple of daily newspapers, sometimes more, and they all competed fiercely for readership share. Newspapers were run by old-fashioned newspapermen, the kind who had risen through the ranks from copyboy to reporter to editor. These curmudgeonly publishers tolerated little interference from advertisers and influential citizens in their quest to print the news and to put forth their editorial opinion on the issues of the day. The in-house cartoonist was often among the highest paid newsroom staffers and in many cities enjoyed celebrity status. Readers looked forward to every edition of the daily paper to see which institution or political figure their local cartoonist would skewer. The daily editorial cartoon often generated a firestorm of outrage from the readership, which the publisher, editors and cartoonists looked upon as a good sign that readers were paying attention and engaged with what the newspaper was putting out on their opinion pages.
Sadly, those glory days are behind us as the number of U. S. daily newspapers continues to drop and the number of full-time editorial cartoonist positions has diminished from several hundred back in the 1950s to currently less than 90 today. In our part of the country, the only daily papers with staff cartoonists are Des Moines, Kansas City, Denver, and the Omaha World-Herald
, bless their hearts.
Theories on why this is happening abound, but here’s my take on the situation. First of all, there is a lot more competition for the public’s attention these days. Years ago, the newspaper was THE vital source of information and entertainment for everyone. The local paper was pretty much the only game in town. Radio and television arrived on the scene, and then the Internet made information instantly available to everyone 24/7. Newspapers also struggled with rising costs, plunging subscription numbers and diminishing advertising revenues.
These days few cities remain that are two-newspaper towns. Today most daily newspapers are no longer run by real newspapermen. Bean counters and managers who are mainly interested in increasing ad revenue and quarterly profit reports to please corporate bosses and stockholders now hold those leadership positions. Being profit-oriented is not a sin by anyone’s reckoning, but this new breed of newspaper bosses fails to see any benefit in employing their own in-house editorial cartoonist. First of all, they can purchase nationally syndicated cartoons for just a couple of bucks, so why deal with the expense of keeping a cartoonist on staff? Secondly, editorial cartoonists are often viewed as high maintenance individualists, not the “team players” that business types profess to value so much. These ink-slinging misfits persist in drawing cartoons that annoy the powers that be and generate lots of reader reaction in the form of letters to the editor, e-mails and phone calls. Timid editors and publishers find it troublesome to be dealing with controversies about their cartoonist when they could be crunching numbers in peace and quiet. One can only imagine what a hassle it must be to deal with readers who care enough about what’s in their daily paper to take the time to write or call.
So where does that leave the editorial cartoonist who wants to continue to work at his craft while facing the prospect of fewer and fewer newspapers and available staff positions?
At the recent 50th anniversary convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in Washington, D.C., it was reported that our membership has grown to an all-time high of almost 400. However, the makeup of this group is markedly different than it was in 1957 when our founders assembled to battle the very problem that we wrestle with today … the loss of full-time staff cartoonist positions. Nowadays full-timers are outnumbered three to one by freelancers, part-timers and Web cartoonists. We even sport a small but growing number of women in the profession, a thing unheard of back when the AAEC was founded. In Nebraska, the Omaha World-Herald
features the work of Jeff Koterba on a daily basis on their opinion pages. The only other editorial cartoonists in the state are Wayne Stroot of Hastings and Neal Obermeyer and myself in Lincoln, and we’re all freelancers, trying to make a living doing all sorts of cartoon and humorous illustration work in addition to our editorial cartoons.
So what is the future of editorial cartooning in the Plains states and nationwide? Nobody really knows, so here are a few guesses on my part. Despite predictions about newspapers becoming extinct, I believe they will always survive in some form. I’m not, however, optimistic about their remaining a place where editorial cartoonists will find an outlet for their drawings dealing with state and local issues. Some believe that daily papers will morph into little more than shoppers, where you will be able to peruse the latest supermarket and automobile ads and clip coupons—and little else. Alternative newspapers, like Prairie Fire
, have been growing in number and rather than competing with the dailies are delivering what the local papers don’t seem to provide anymore. In-depth reporting, thoughtful articles and provocative opinion pieces along with visually arresting cartoons and illustrations are just some of the reasons readers are turning increasingly to the “Alties.”
Cartoonists are also looking to the Internet as a new and exciting outlet for their work. Everyone is still trying to figure out how to make money on the World Wide Web, and it’s only a matter of time until we get that ironed out. Web sites allow cartoonists to work in new and exciting formats, using full color and, increasingly, animation. With a laptop computer, a compact scanner and wireless Internet access, the cartoonist can live and work wherever he or she chooses and still be in touch with clients and readers worldwide.
With that in mind, one can’t help but wonder if editorial cartooning in its current form will survive. History tells us that this unique art form had its American roots in Benjamin Franklin’s famous drawing of the segmented snake representing the American colonies with the caption “Join or die.” While I believe that newspapers as we have known them will continue their decline, editorial cartooning will, on the contrary, continue to go through an evolutionary process. Cartoonists will take advantage of the new media as a means to deliver their messages to an ever-wider, growing number of readers. After all, we editorial cartoonists consider it our sacred duty to attempt to annoy as many people as possible on a daily basis.