Ted Rall: Why Political Cartoons Matter

As his first act as president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, Ted Rall has written a column that appeared in Alt Weekly about the importance of a professional class of editorial cartoonists.

Imagine a world without professional journalists — only bloggers. The news would lose its credibility and thus its relevance. The results would be the same if newspapers ran editorial cartoons by amateurs. In California last year, the Vallejo Times-Herald invited its readers: “Are you better at drawing than writing? Now’s your chance to show your stuff to the world, with a Cartoon to the Editor.” But its pitch revealed the editors’ cluelessness; if anything, the writing/idea of a cartoon is more important than the artwork. Moreover, people who draw cartoons on the side can’t provide the contextual consistency needed to establish credibility with readers.

If newspapers are to have a future, they need to attract younger readers. The latest attempt to find out how comes in the form of a study by Northwestern University’s Media Management Center. One major recommendation is to add “alternative storytelling like graphics.” “Humor is a powerful tool, one that The Daily Show, Slate, Politico, etc. use well and it compliments their brand,” adds Andrew Satter, an online video producer for Congressional Quarterly. “We have to own engaging explanatory multimedia journalism.”

Speaking of graphics and humor, editorial cartoons are the most read — often the only read — feature on a newspaper’s opinion page. Slate and the Politico both place a big emphasis on cartoons. It’s paying off. Papers out to increase circulation should be hiring professional cartoonists.

51 thoughts on “Ted Rall: Why Political Cartoons Matter

  1. Many professional journalists (and professional authors, and professional cartoonists, and doctors, and lawyers, and engineers, etc) are also bloggers.

    Many bloggers are PROFESSIONAL bloggers. Does this make their opinions less valid than those of professional journalists?

    I agree that political cartooning is important. Those features are the only ones I read when I pick up a newspaper or a news magazine. But I don’t pick up papers or magazines at all anymore.

    The result? The only political cartoons I read are the ones that are provided on the web. If political cartoonists wish to remain relevant for me and folks like me, they need to be present in the medium I’m consuming.

    Provide an RSS feed for political cartoons. Embed an ad. I read, you get paid, we all win.

  2. Re: 2% — yeah, that’s the way disruptive technologies and business models work. They meet SOME of the needs met by the status quo, so they don’t get adopted by those embedded in the status quo.

    But before long they meet ALL those needs, and address new problems, and become the new status quo. The old model vanishes entirely.

    How much would a targeted advertiser (the kind newspapers so aggressively solicit) pay to have an ad running alongside a political cartoon in a feed? How many subscribers would the feed get?

    It won’t amount to much this year, but in years to come that model will be the only game in time. Start now, or let the rising generation of amateur political cartoonists and bloggers (who already have RSS feeds, and already make money embedding ads in them) own the field.

  3. Using 1 medium to get your work seen doesn’t work today. I don’t know of any cartoonists who don’t have some kind of web presence. Why? because you can sell books, swag and your original work. Not once have I made a freelance contact through the paper. It has always been through the web. I’m just vain enough that I like seeing my cartoons in print.

  4. I do agree that there need to be professional journalists and that they are by and large working for newspapers or news services. Even so what is truth these days.

  5. “many bloggers are PROFESSIONAL bloggers”

    A point Ted seems to be making when using the term “professional” is whether or not the blogger has been vetted or has any accountability rather than whether said blogger is making money blogging. Currently there are laws in place dealing with the media (newspapers, radio, TV) that hold the parent company responsible for the statements made by their contributors. The internet is a free-for-all and there IS no parent company or editorial control, leaving bloggers to the honor system.

    I am sure there are many professional journalists who are hacks and many bloggers who practice the highest journalistic standards but the internet still needs to address the issue of credibility.

  6. “Imagine a world without professional journalists â?? only bloggers. The news would lose its credibility and thus its relevance. The results would be the same if newspapers ran editorial cartoons by amateurs.”

    These are the same people who cite wikipedia as if it were a real and credible resource.

    “Moreover, people who draw cartoons on the side canâ??t provide the contextual consistency needed to establish credibility with readers.”

    You would think that this would be a no brainer, but it seems this point always has to be driven home.

  7. “Ironically, this is the golden age of political cartooning. Never has the form been blessed by so many talented artists drawing in such a dazzling variety of visual styles.” -T.Rall

    Name twenty.

  8. Daryl-
    I think Mike means it would be difficult to name 20 that he would agree are talented. But that’s just a guess on my part.

  9. Like any other consumer, I may not know art but I know what I like and I don’t see a lot that’s mutinous, non-conforming or dangerous. If you want to be read, you have an obligation to challenge. But from retreads to stolen styles to hackneyed saw-it-coming-from-a-mile-away work, what the art form needs is less pandering to editors and more honest submissions. And, evidently like the economy, a kick in the pants.

    Didn’t your shorts get a little burnt when you read Ted’s piece about editors asking the public for cartoon submissions??? Maybe we deserve the disrespect and while naming names is unnecessary, I stand by my own 20 cartoonists statement.

    I love cartoons and cartoonists but for some reason it seems we forgot along the way that we’re anarchists. If you can’t count on a cartoonist to spike the punchbowl, who can you? Cartoonists have an incredible skill set for communicating what others can’t but I don’t see many using them. If you can sing, why would you hum?

  10. OK Mike, I’ll bite. Here’s a list of the last 20 Pulitzer Prize winners who are still working in print. I think they are all still doing great work. Which of these do you think are not “talented artists drawing in such a dazzling variety of visual styles”?

    Michael Ramirez
    Walt Handelsman
    Mike Luckovich
    Nick Anderson
    Matt Davies
    David Horsey
    Clay Bennett
    Joel Pett
    Steve Breen
    Jim Morin
    Steve Benson
    Signe Wilkinson
    Tom Toles
    Jack Higgins
    Paul Conrad
    Dick Locher
    Ben Sargent
    Tony Auth
    Garry Trudeau
    Paul Conrad

  11. “Didnâ??t your shorts get a little burnt when you read Tedâ??s piece about editors asking the public for cartoon submissions??? ”

    It sure did for me. I just shook my head and mumbled bad words…a lot of bad words.

  12. You know I love you, Daryl, but no one’s going to be baited by an invitation to say which of the 20 on your list DON’T qualify as great cartoonists. That said, I’ll rise to the Lester Challenge–even though I never said there were 20–just more than there used to be.

    Bear in mind that the following list is just people I can think off the top of my barely-caffeinated brain at this hour. Also, I’ll avoid repeating those on Daryl’s list.

    There are many more, and to them and their fans, I apologize in advance for my advance:

    Ruben Bolling
    Andy Singer
    Clay Butler
    Tom Tomorrow
    Ward Sutton (dba “Kelly”)
    Scott Stantis
    Lloyd Dangle
    Stephanie McMillan
    Mikhaela Reid
    Jen Sorensen
    Matt Wuerker
    Barry Deutsch
    Tim Kreider
    Ben Sargent
    Matt Bors
    Eric Millikin
    m.e. Cohen
    Steve Kelley
    Jeff Danziger
    Justin Bilicki
    Jack Ohman
    Chuck Asay

    And I could go on. You might take issue with any or all of the above, but there’s no doubt that they work in a dazzling variety of styles. Look at any compendium of editorial cartoons from 1980 or 1950 or 1920 and you’d be hard-pressed to find as much innovation.

  13. Mike wrote:

    “I love cartoons and cartoonists but for some reason it seems we forgot along the way that weâ??re anarchists. If you canâ??t count on a cartoonist to spike the punchbowl, who can you? Cartoonists have an incredible skill set for communicating what others canâ??t but I donâ??t see many using them. If you can sing, why would you hum?”

    And I totally agree. The First Amendment is a Ferrari, not a Yugo. It’s meant to go 140 mph. One of the things I love about Mike Lester’s work is that it’s rock ‘n’ roll, balls to the wall, no holds barred–as all editorial cartooning should be.

  14. It’s the “Name Game” (banana-fanna-fo-fanna) but I’ll give you one:

    Matt Bors. Same age as my son. Young guy w/ a ton of talent who knows he could pander but works his ass off to put out something like I’ve never seen before and deserves to see old farts like me not mailing it in. I respect that sense of craftsmanship and labor immensely. O.K. I’ll name two: ditto Jen Sorensen

  15. How about


    all Canadian, all drawing in circles around you guys any day

  16. â??Didnâ??t your shorts get a little burnt when you read Tedâ??s piece about editors asking the public for cartoon submissions??? â?

    YES! It sure doesn’t generate a lot of faith in an industry already clamoring for a foothold. It would be an interesting experiment to see how a major newspaper’s comic section would hold up if managed by true industry pro rather than a battered publication veteran.

  17. You’ll be happy to know that not only does the Media Management Center report recommend the use of alternative story forms to attract young people but we recommend specifically that news Web sites make more use of editorial cartoons in their attempts to attract and serve millennials. Interestingly, not only were the young people we interviewed delighted and compelled by the cartoons, they were also surprised. A number apparently hadn’t seen editorial cartoons before and didn’t realize they have long been staples of newspaper editorial pages. FYI, I’m co-author of the report, which you can download at http://www.mediamanagementcenter.org/research/youthelection.pdf.

    Vivian Vahlberg, Managing Director, Media Management Center

  18. Mike echoed something similar to what we often hear from editors, that there are only a handful of editorial cartoonists that do good work, and the rest are hacks. Editors say this out of ignorance and indifference; it is an excuse for them not to take the time to consider other cartoonists that are available to them. Unfortunately, editors repeat this prejudice to each other; they really come to believe it.

  19. I can’t believe all of you guys making lists of talented editorial cartoonists left of one of the best working today, Ann Telnaes. She’s one of the few who actually editorializes instead doing lame gags, which is standard for the majority of so-called editorial cartoonists today.

  20. And, by the way, Daryl, you do know she was one of those Pulitzer Prize winners over the past 20 years, don’t you?

  21. The only way we can ensure professional editorial cartooning will exist for future generations is to pickle the remaining staff cartoonists in formaldehyde and display them in a museum.

    In reference to the contest at the Vallejo Times-Herald, yes gentlemen, you did bring this down upon yourselves.

    When I first applied to work at a student newspaper in college as a cartoonist I was employed as an editorial cartoonist. I was totally inept and they hired me purely to spite the guy who worked before me. While I was familiar with the art form, I’d frequently read Gary Markstein’s and Stuart Carlson’s work in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, I really had never thought much about it before.

    So the first thing I did is I stumbled upon the largest collection of editorial cartoons online at cagle.com and I started researching. Quickly I learned all about making references to movies, songs, using beaten to death metaphors, and other garbage like that. Within two weeks I figured out the formula the majority of professional editorial cartoonists use 90% of the time.

    Any nominally competent artist could duplicate this formula and be as good as your average professional. You can decry the editors of the paper as ignorant, but in doing so you completely ignore the message blazing in neon.

    In the eyes of the general public editorial cartoons have devolved into meaningless laugh-a-day gags much like comic strips. You should all be alarmed that public doesn’t seem to understand that editorial cartoons are SUPPOSED to be offensive and unfair. Can’t say I know much about the profession but it seems the AAEC runs a lousy PR campaign.

    While the profession may be at a high point creatively good luck in finding that talent an audience. If they can’t figure out how to market themselves their careers are dead in the water.

  22. Ann Telnaes is still working in print, Daryl. The Guardian in London and Women’s eNews. Regardless, she’s still working as an editorial cartoonist on the Washington Post web site. I don’t see how that would suddenly not make her an editorial cartoonist… and, I repeat, one of the best today.

  23. Monty makes some good points but I would like to remind him and all that cartoonists do NOT publish cartoons.

    It is the editors and publishers that publish cartoons and it is the publishers and editors who kill the best editorial cartoons.

    It is the E&Pers who force editorial cartoonists such as Bassett, Sherffius, Fiore, Wiley, Waterson, Powell, Carlson, etc,etc…. off of newspapers.

    It is E&Pers who hand out awards for the laugh-a-day toons… pressure for safe, non-offensive cartoons that don’t say a damn thing….and employ those cartoonists who produce the ‘entertainment’ they want.

    It is the E&Pers who do NOT want offensive and/or unfair commentary and THAT is why the profession of STAFF editorial cartooning has been dead since before all of us started drawing.

    And that is why newspapers are quickly becoming irrelevant.

    An idea that is NOT dangerous is not worthy of being called an idea. (Oscar Wilde- I believe)

  24. After several lists of almost 60 cartoonists and nobody mentioned a cartoonist by the name of Pat Oliphant….. I hear he’s pretty good…..and he’s won a pulitzer!

  25. Not to sound like a “yes man” or anything, Milt, but I quickly wrote up my own list after asking Mike if anybody else besides Ted could “name twenty,” and both Oliphant and Telnaes are on my list. Since the point has already been made, by Daryl and TAB and Ted, that there are, in fact, MORE than twenty talented editoonists practicing today, I won’t add my list to the discussion. For what it’s worth, Mike Lester, you made my list, too. Personally, my “shorts get a little burnt” more from the suggestion there aren’t twenty talented cartoonists working out there than what some idiot newspaper editor says.

  26. A valid comeback, JRead. I’m in the biz of and accustomed to heating peoples shorts. This is a healthy exercise for us and my intent when I made the statement. Flame on.

  27. “Iâ??m in the biz of and accustomed to heating peoples shorts. ”

    You sell burritos too, Mike?

  28. Give us a break; while it is much easier to pick on editors and amateurs, from my perspective, it is disingenuous at best to fault them when syndicates are at least equally responsible for the slow death of the genre.
    Case in point: Cagle and Universal (in particular) effectively ensure Iâ??ll never rise to the vaunted rank of a â??professional,â? at least to lofty AAEC standards. Our one local daily paper doesnâ??t have the budget to pay a measly fifty bucks for even a weekly panel that deals with local issues, let alone a salaried position or livable wage.
    Why? In part because those syndicates undermine and devalue the work of independent creators by selling cut-rate subscriptions (approximately $25 per month here) that one cannot possibly compete with, and are thus relegated to doing it on the side or as a hobby. While itâ??s a nice example of circular logic serving a groupâ??s insular self-interest, it hardly makes one sympathetic to the cause.
    And given the shrinking industryâ??s fighting over table scraps, the threat of free web-based content has to be the ultimate irony. On the one hand now you can read new advice on this blog to â??never give away your work,â? but simultaneously syndicates are the very ones offering it for mere pennies. Or in the cited examples of Slate and Politico, on websites for free. Oops.

    Plus, rackets aside, disparaging and belittling the efforts of so-called â??amateursâ? â?? whatever that means â?? with an attitude that thinks artists who â??draw cartoons on the sideâ? are somehow a threat to the professional class comes across as arrogant, presumptuous, and more than a little petty. Seems to me the â??amateursâ? arenâ??t the ones who canâ??t provide â??contextual consistencyâ? or â??establish credibilityâ? especially given the syndicates marketing and pricing tactics coupled with the decline in editorial positions.

    But hey, keep on with the condensation and circling the wagons, keep adding bells & whistles, i.e. bright colors and movement to entice the targeted â??younger readers.â? In the meantime keep losing readers, general readers, period; and continue losing relevance because local issues of interest to readers in their own communities arenâ??t addressed, and local independent creators arenâ??t supported because they are amateurs. And yes, the same also goes for editors.

  29. Newspapers have been using syndicated material since the 19th century. Whether the syndicates charge enough for what they offer is a separate issue from whether editors have the brains to know the value of cartoons or to tell a good piece of work from a bad one.

    I think local cartoons are of tremendous value. I remember when Chuck Asay was drawing for the Colorado Springs Sun. I didn’t (and still don’t) like his national/international political views but loved his weekly roundup of local events — a collection of little gags and commentary, sometimes in multiple panels, sometimes all in one. Chuck also provided comic illustrations for light features, and did some of the headers for standing features. His style and presence were absolutely identified with the Sun; he was the essence of a franchise player just as columnist Kup was in Chicago. Heck, he even staffed the booth at various public events and did free caricatures for people.

    Now, I’m not suggesting that every cartoonist should do all that, but when you see the Cincinnati paper cutting Jim Borgman loose, you have to question the brains of the boys in the big offices. If they really think buying gag-a-day syndicate cartoons saves them money, they don’t understand that money is also supposed to come in, not just go out.

    Which I suspect, based only on a decade of freelancing to newspapers and a quarter century of working in the newsroom, they do not.

    Syndicated cartoons should be what you run between good local panels. They are the TV dinners of the editorial page.

  30. but when you see the Cincinnati paper cutting Jim Borgman loose, you have to question the brains of the boys in the big offices.

    Just to make sure the record is straight, the Enquirer did not cut Jim. He voluntarily left the paper. He was very much apart of their community identity and they didn’t want him to leave.

  31. They may not have wanted him to leave but they WERE looking to drastically reduce their staff and reportedly did so by at least 6%. When they cast their net out for voluntary buyouts they probably never dreamed Jim would be one of the folks taking them up on it. It will be interesting to see if they replace him or just breathe a sigh of relief over the $ they’ve saved.

  32. Precisely. First of all, there are ways of structuring a buyout offer to avoid losing key people you want to retain. Then, when someone accepts a buyout, there is also the chance to sit down with them and make a counteroffer. “We hope you’ll still freelance for us” is not a counteroffer — it’s the business world equivalent of “I hope we can still be friends.”

    Not to get off track — there are any number of other examples where the line is more clearcut, of course.

  33. “It will be interesting to see if they replace him or just breathe a sigh of relief over the $ theyâ??ve saved.”

    Highly doubtful they’ll hire a new cartoonist. Newspapers today just look at the bottom line and realize that they can run the work of the past 10 Pulitzer prize winners through syndication for a fraction… a very small fraction… of hiring a staffer. This is the core problem of job loss in staff positions for cartoonists. If any of us were editors or publishers, we’d have to make the same decision. It’s a financial no-brainer.

  34. Ah, but Wiley, as I know you well know, no number of Pulitzer-winning national issue cartoons can substitute for a staff cartoonist who provides local and state-issue cartoons. The one thing that newspapers still do better than anyone else is local journalism and commentary.

    Local is their brand, and papers that embrace local are and will thrive. An editorial cartoonist can deliver that level of engagement that brings in readers, as well as become a star attraction that prompts people who might not otherwise be interested in doing so to buy a paper.

    If the Cincinnati Enquirer doesn’t replace Borgman, they’ll be making a poor business decision. That’s a no-brainer.

  35. If the Cincinnati Enquirer doesnâ??t replace Borgman, theyâ??ll be making a poor business decision. Thatâ??s a no-brainer.

    I pity the cartoonist who has to come in and fill those shoes.

  36. And, Ted, you know me well enough to know that I agree with you on what newspapers SHOULD do. What I’m saying is what they HAVE BEEN doing for over 20 years now, which is why no one will get this or any other staff job in the country, regardless of the size of the paper. I continue to mourn the loss of staff cartoonists and how editors can’t see that it’s as valuable a position as the staff columnist. They are equally justified financially, but editors and publishers simply don’t understand that simple business decision because it can’t be easily quantified by the accounting department. Again, it’s the bottom line that’s calling shots, but we don’t have newspapermen running newspapers anymore. They’re people who came out of business school, not journalism school, and haven’t a clue what actually produces that bottom line.

    Don’t worry, Alan. No one will be asked to fill those shoes. But someone should.

  37. I doubt you’ll see this comment Mr. Rall but I’ll put it out here anyways. There are plenty of good points in your argument the problem is outside of the cartoonists and the fans on this blog the don’t seem to matter.

    How DO you turn these arguments into something that can persuade the editors and the owners that staff cartoonists do have value? This is what MUST be done. Those are the people that need to be convinced. So far it doesn’t seem like their buying it.

  38. Hello
    I am an American artist who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art & have completed over 60 editorial cartoons in brush, ink, watercolor & colored pencil on national & international affairs.
    I would be grateful if you could look at my work or inform me of newspwpers on the Northeastern coast where i could submit my work as many newspapers don?t answer my mails.
    I would be grateful for your reply, I don’t know where to go.
    Thank You & Best Regards.

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