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An open letter to members of the AAEC

Dear AAEC members

I didn’t get a chance to respond to one of Dave Astor’s stories about the blogging session at this month’s AAEC convention. The discussion apparently didn’t go well and was received luke warmly.

The most egregious comment, in my opinion, came from David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who Astor reported as saying, “writing a blog was too “trivial” or entertainment-oriented to be worth a cartoonist’s time.”

It worries me that many editorial cartoonists seem to be infatuated by their own victim status and thus not then able to see (or possibly don’t want to face) a sinking trend in the newspaper industry. In the last week, I’ve read at least four articles about the decline in advertising revenue and circulation. Three of them are linked here:

  • Gannett Company has announced that while their profits rose (due to sales of newspaper assets), their revenue dropped due to “weaker advertising sales as fewer people subscribe to its papers.”
  • Tribune Company’s last quarter was “one of the worst quarters we have ever experienced” (Los Angeles Times publisher David Hiller). The culprit is blamed on “advertising has fallen faster at Tribune than at its competitors” according to a memo written by Hiller.
  • The New York Times reports that young adults (18-30) aren’t getting into the habit of paying attention to the news.
  • The one place where things are looking up are online. Biz Report has a story that says online newspaper sites are not only growing in the number of people who visit them, but also the amount of time they stay on the site. That last indicator is key. Recently Nielsen/NetRatings has changed the way they weigh popularity of a site. No longer is it key to have a large audience, but now it’s more important that they linger. So consider this. If your editorial cartoon can be read in seconds, what value to you provide to the newspaper’s online efforts compared to an editorial cartoonist who also keeps a blog or creates animated cartoons which require minutes of attention?

    So to those who are still resistant to blogging, animation or other internet efforts I say, “fine, don’t blog; don’t do animate; don’t expect to retire as a staff cartoonist.”

    Community Comments

    #1 Rich
    July/24/2007
    @ 7:53 pm

    “The New York Times reports that young adults (18-30) arenâ??t getting into the habit of paying attention to the news.” Must be code for not in the habit of reading the newspaper. Duh, boring! If it weren’t for the funnies there’d be no valuable content in the paper anyway … except for wrapping fish and starting my grill!

    Sounds like sour grapes to me. You’d think some introspection was in order … why are we losing touch with our audience. I know some papers are trying to figure it out … eventually they will. [Or they’ll continue to try to sell buggy whips to the automotive consumer]

    #2 Mikhaela Reid
    July/24/2007
    @ 8:34 pm

    Hi Alan,

    I was at that panel (I believe I was part of that E&P writeup) and I don’t think the reaction was as lukewarm as it might have sounded. It was more mixed. Part of the problem is that some cartoonists who have no particular interest or excitement about blogging are being told by their newspapers that they have to blog, just because that newspaper publisher or editor heard that blogging was the thing to do.

    Which just means more hours of work for the same pay. And not necessarily that many hits or any ad revenue or interest from readers. And those blogs aren’t necessarily popular, especially if their hearts aren’t in it.

    I don’t know if it’s fair to say that cartoonists are too focused on their own “victim status” to see newspaper trends as a whole. Newspapers and journalists as a whole are in big trouble, but editorial cartoonists ARE being particularly hard hit.

    Some cartoonists have become quite good bloggers or have turned initial disinterest into blogging into something quite cool. And some got into blogging on their own, for their own reasons (like Tom Tomorrow, who was also on that panel).

    I actually transcribed 95% of that panel, and I’ll get around to posting it on my blog at some point soonish.

    -Mikhaela

    #3 Eric Burke
    July/24/2007
    @ 9:11 pm

    Blogging, or even posting on forums, etc., is such a great way to really strengthen a cartoonists relationship with their audience that I don’t understand why some cartoonists wouldn’t blog? How much time does it really take?

    I know that I now read several comic strips/panels because I’ve come to “know” the cartoonist online(Loose Parts, Clear Blue Water, Candorville, Rudy Park), where without “knowing” them online, I probably wouldn’t have known about their features. Look at how webcomics have flourished by interracting with their audience.

    Are some editorial cartoonists really that out of touch?

    #4 Jeff Stanson
    July/24/2007
    @ 11:06 pm

    Basically, it’s the same thing that kills any business, organization, profession, or trade…

    “We’ve never done it that way before”

    People who are stuck in the print world are going the way of the dinosaur.

    #5 Daryl Cagle
    July/25/2007
    @ 3:29 am

    I was also there and I agree with Mikhaela.

    Newspapers are moving to the web because they don’t know what else to do – most newspaper web sites are not successful, draw little traffic and generate so little revenue that it is hard to argue that it is worth the effort. I think it is clear that the goodwill that newspapers have built over the years with their print audience doesn’t carry over to the web. Yes, cartoonists need to embrace the web, but being pressed into writing a blog that few people will see on a newspaper web site is, most often, a waste of time.

    Tom Tomorrow was a great example of a cartoonist doing an effective blog and building an online audience. The panel wasn’t such a downer. Lots of cartoonists do a good job of buiding an audience on the web – but it is rare to find them on newspaper sites.

    #6 Garey Mckee
    July/25/2007
    @ 7:36 am

    I believe cartoonist blogging is redundant. A cartoonist’s outlet for his or her thoughts on events should be their cartoons, not a blog. A cartoonist’s dialog with his or her readers should be their cartoons, not a blog. You want my opinion on something, read my strip. That’s where you will find it.

    #7 Alan Gardner
    July/25/2007
    @ 8:16 am

    Garey – that’s the issue. An editorial cartoon isn’t a dialog. It’s a one way conversation. The reader has no means of carrying on a discussion about your ideas (positively or negatively). The older generation will write a letter to the editor, but they are dying off – the replacement is a generation that expects the ability to interact, comment, and be apart of the dialog. If a newspaper is going to survive, they’ve got to start catering to this “you” (to use Time magazine’s person of the year) generation and offer content that they will be drawn to – and just looking at something isn’t going to cut it in this new era.

    #8 Neal Obermeyer
    July/25/2007
    @ 10:56 am

    Garey, I am often told by visitors who have come to either the newspaper’s site or my personal site that one of the big things they appreciate that keeps them coming back to read my cartoons is the fact that I make myself available to interact with the readers. Of course I’m conveying my thoughts in the cartoon, but I’ve always believed that cartoons should be the discussion starters – not finishers – and who am I to be above conversing with the very people I’m speaking to?

    #9 Anne
    July/25/2007
    @ 11:15 am

    There’s blogging and there’s blogging. Some blogs seem to be nothing more than journaling online which would still be a one way conversation. This may be the type of blog Garey is thinking of. Others invite comments and interaction such as the Daily Cartoonist, which I think of as more of an e-mag/blog actually, and that is more what Alan seems to be referring to. Add to that the whole discussion forum/message board thing and there are a wide range of choices. I think part of the question of whether or not blogging is important for cartoonists, editorial or otherwise, is which model we are talking about.

    #10 Alan Gardner
    July/25/2007
    @ 11:21 am

    Good point, Anne. I think there are some great cartoonist blogs out there that do exactly what advocate – create an opportunity for the cartoonist and the audience to interact, and communicate. Jim Borgman, Marshall Ramsey, Nick Anderson are a few that have been very successful in building a loyal audience. If the cartoonist simply uses the blog as a publishing device – they’ve added very little to the newspaper’s online efforts.

    #11 David Horsey
    July/25/2007
    @ 12:53 pm

    For the record, David Astor’s summation of what I said did not exactly capture my actual words or my full opinion. I was asking a purposely provocative question of the AAEC panel based on my view that editorial cartoonists who merely host a traditional blog to make their editors happy are not doing a service to journalism or to themselves. However, contrary to what Alan Gardner said, I am not at all averse to taking my work online. Quite the opposite is true. In fact, I am now in a transition phase that, within six months, will make seattlepi.com the primary focus of my work, rather than the print editorial page. I will be doing animation, visual and sound reporting and written commentary, as well as more traditional editorial cartoons. My opinion, as expressed to my AAEC compatriots, is simply that cartoonists should define for themselves what they want to do rather than have an imagination-challenged editor do it for them.

    #12 Alan Gardner
    July/25/2007
    @ 1:13 pm

    David – thanks for the clarification. I’ll be excited to see your animations and commentary. Please drop me an email and I’ll make sure to point everyone in your direction.

    #13 Dawn Douglass
    July/25/2007
    @ 7:30 pm

    Blogging isn’t for everybody. If your heart isn’t in it, or you use the blog just to schill for a newspaper, or you come off as arrogant and narrowminded, it can hurt your feature rather than strengthen it.

    There are risks to blogging. Politics is very polarizing these days. Cartoonists who do lots of political posts can expect to turn off as many readers as they turn on.

    Would you (or your newspaper?!) rather have somebody read your cartoon just as a cartoon — without really knowing or caring who created it — or have them purposely avoid your art because they have come to know you through your blog and think you’re a total jerk?

    The decision to blog or not blog must be on an individual basis, IMO, and only the wouldbe blogger can determine all the pro and cons that are relevant in his or her particular case, what the individualized goal is, etc.

    If somebody decides the answer is no and wants to have only his cartoons speak for him, I think that’s valid and should be respected by all, including newspapers and readers.

    #14 Garey Mckee
    July/25/2007
    @ 7:55 pm

    Well I agree with making yourself available to your readers, I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise in that regard. But I maintain that a cartoonist’s “journal” should be his cartoons and NOT a blog. I don’t want to read what a cartoonist thinks about a particular issue in a blog, I want to SEE a cartoonist’s TAKE on that issue in his cartoons.

    #15 Anne
    July/25/2007
    @ 9:21 pm

    How much of this is really about editorial cartoonists blogging and adapting to the web and how much is really an excuse for papers to reduce their staff in favor of freelancers. Businesses all over the country are dropping full time employees in favor of “independent contractors”. Even colleges and universities – those bastions of the secure tenured faculty – are drastically reducing their tenure track positions in favor of ad hoc staff. Could this be part of that bigger picture with “blog or else” as a convenient cover story?

    #16 John Auchter
    July/26/2007
    @ 6:38 am

    My only issue with blogging (and from conversations at the AAEC convention I believe this is generally true among editorial cartoonists) is that it tends to be oversold by enthusiasts. The sarcastic title of the session â??Blog or Die!â? kind of tells you that.

    Creating and maintaining a decent blog requires a great deal of effort. Money is not easily made. Two-way conversations can be difficult to start and are often less than worthwhile when they do (just like in real life!).

    That said, blogging provides an excellent opportunity to extend and grow. It doesnâ??t have to be just one more thing to do; it can be part of a solution, which is the tack David Horsey seems to be taking. Iâ??ve gone from email newsletter, to website, to blog, and am now trying to figure the next evolutionary step. Taken with a spoonful of realism, blogging can be a good thing….

    #17 Neal Obermeyer
    July/26/2007
    @ 10:41 am

    My blogging doesn’t appear in the paper and I use the help of several other people to do most of the work, so I’m hoping that means I’m at least a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer.

    #18 DT
    July/27/2007
    @ 9:14 am

    With regard to the newspaper industry, I hope this doesn’t come as too big a shocker, and I’m sure this comment will be met with derision by those of a liberal bent, but it could just be that newspapers are missing a key ingredient that they used to have – objectivity. It reminds me of Joseph Pulitzer’s warning that “A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself.” I think, since he couldn’t see the internet in the future, he got it a bit wrong. Instead of the people becoming “base” due to a demagogic press, they’ve instead stopped reading newspapers in favor of a more sensational and sensationalized source of infotainment. I think the great silent majority (and the majority is silent, whether due to apathy or just because they’re too damned busy living life to complain about it) don’t want preachy news … they want to know what’s going on, the “who, what, where, when” of things. The “why” is somewhat more tricky and perhaps motives should be more circumspect, at least in reporting.

    If the newspapers (and broadcast news as well) would go back to reporting the news with less of a bias, more folks might read them, advertising would increase and the editorial cartoonist, whose job it is to present his view of the MOTIVE for news events, could get back to doing his job and leave the blogging to folks like, oh….the “Baghdad Diarist”.

    just my two cents worth.

    #19 Rich
    July/27/2007
    @ 11:43 am

    Two thoughts. 1) I haven’t read an editorial cartoonist’s opinion about a cartoon they created that ever added to it or made their position more clear. The cartoons speak well for themselves. A blog to have a relationship with readers is a good reason for doing it … but to add insight into the thinking behind a cartoon … just don’t even bother. Usually it takes away from it.

    2) Blog news can range from pure crap to extremely excellent journalism (way better than the 6th grade level, monolithic view that is printed in most newspapers). So if you believe in the democratic process, blogs and alternative media will help to broaden newspapers (or kill them) and a filtering out will occur to improve the product delivered. Part of the problem with newspapers is that other than local articles and features (and the comics of course), is they seldom do much other that pass along the AP wire and seldom carry a variety of viewpoints. They’ve gotten lazy and always go for the sensational bad news. Investigative reporting seems all but dead … it’s mostly pile on the big story and recycle other’s findings. The real competition with the internet may well be between big news services and the better blogs. Anyway, just my opinion from the sidelines.

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