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Rex Babin: local cartoons deserve more credit

Sacramento Bee editorial cartoonist and current Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) Rex Babin has told Editor and Publisher that he believes more attention should be given to cartoonists drawing local issue cartoons and that even nation competitions like the Pulitzer should recognize effective local cartooning.

“There are a lot of exceptional local cartoonists out there doing exceptional work on state and local subjects,” says Babin, a 10-year Bee editorial cartoonists who admits he includes himself among those cited. “Cartoon competitions should take them into account when reviewing their work. Cartoonists are trying bold, non-conventional approaches that include local issues, not the widely-publicized events that most people cover.”

When asked if that included the Pulitzers, he said, “very much so.” He added, “It takes a lot more work trying to understand the background of a topic not everyone is familiar with. There are some artists doing great work on subject matter not everyone knows about — work that is having an effect in the local community.”

Community Comments

#1 Sam Wallace
October/23/2009
@ 11:37 am

I whole heartily agree! Smaller hometown news papers really are committed and focused on their community. They can always pull cartoons from their service, but it shows more community support when the cartoons they publish are on local issues and topics. These artists should not be over looked.

#2 John Read
October/23/2009
@ 11:37 am

I’m not an editorial cartoonist, but having spoken to many of them in the last couple of years, I wonder if there’s any real research (by the AAEC, maybe?) to show that cartoonists whose work is mostly local are less likely to be marginalized (i.e. fired) than those whose subject matter is usually national issues. It would be interesting, I think, to poll the cartoonists who’ve lost their jobs recently about their usual ratio of local to national cartoons.

#3 Ted Rall
October/23/2009
@ 11:38 am

Given all the blind spots the Pulitzer Prize committee has when it comes to cartooning, it’s amazing they ever pick anyone at all.

A cartoonist need not apply if he or she is:

an artist with an “altie” drawing style (even though there are more “alties” than “mainstream”;

not based at a staff paper (even though very few are);

conservative;

hard-hitting;

works in multiple panels.

The list goes on…the Prize is nearly as much of an embarrassment as the Nobel.,

#4 John Read
October/23/2009
@ 11:40 am

Of course, you also have to wonder if the rash of editoonists losing their jobs is more connected to whether their papers are locally-owned.

#5 John Read
October/23/2009
@ 11:41 am

One thing I AM pretty sure of, having won a Pulitzer does NOT seem to protect a cartoonist from getting the ax.

#6 Steve Greenberg
October/23/2009
@ 11:48 am

John, a couple of editorial cartoonists who really specialized in local material nonetheless found themselves axed: Stacy Curtis and Lee Judge. It may be that the emphasis on local work delayed their jobs being cut but did not prevent it.

#7 Alan Gardner
October/23/2009
@ 12:11 pm

I think local cartooning is significant, but it’s nature of being reactive commentary makes it difficult for national organizations to recognize it’s impact. The Pulitzer, for example, has a category for local reporting because one can make a case to the board that their local reporting of corruption/injustice/wrong-doing resulted in something being done about said corruption/injustice/wrong-doing. The cartoonist doesn’t break the news s/he only comments about it. It’s harder to make a correlation between the cartoon(s) and whatever community impact is the result of the paper’s involvement to bring an injustice to light.

#8 Phil Tograph
October/23/2009
@ 12:12 pm

Thanks for saying what most “local” editorial cartoonists think. I am a small city ed cartoonist, 15,000 + below, and am limited by the editor to covering subjects; stae wide, county wide or within city limits, frustrating at times but none the less challenging.

#9 Clay Jones
October/23/2009
@ 12:47 pm

Alan, a nominee to the Pulitzer can show the impact of a local cartoon by including letters and clippings to the cartoon’s reaction. I don’t think the Pulitzer committee really cares about local cartoons unless that local topic made national headlines.

I can only speculate about the committee and judges’ mindsets. But it appears they have to be already familiar with the cartoonist who wins (like lots of national reprints). Lately, it seems they only pick cartoonists who have won previously.

#10 David Cohen
October/23/2009
@ 5:01 pm

The newspaper I do work for hired me to draw about local issues; issues that hopefully the readership could relate to more readily. I have two cartoons a week published, and realistically, the amount that I am paid isn’t even worth considering a fire-able expense. Not to say that they wouldn’t drop me, but that maybe they see the value of local cartoons on local subjects and figure that it is better in the long run to let an advertising salesman go before they get rid of me.
As for awards, I don’t worry too much about them. You either get them or you don’t. It doesn’t affect how I feel about what I am doing. And probably for the majority of cartoonists out there, I would think…..

#11 Mike Peterson
October/24/2009
@ 6:07 am

I’ve noted this before, but Chuck Asay was an integral part of the Colorado Springs Sun, not only drawing a mix of local and national cartoons each week but also doing illustrations for light features and for column heads.

Didn’t save his job when the paper shut down, obviously, but I’ve always thought of him as the model for how a cartoonist could be vital at a small paper. (He also used to sit a booth at a local kid’s fair and draw caricatures of the little ones — earning their parents’ gratitude and giving them some interest in the paper.)

#12 Ted Rall
October/24/2009
@ 8:34 am

Local is king. The fact that the Pulitzers don’t care doesn’t change that. Local adds the most value to a paper.

The real question is, why does anyone care about the Pulitzers?

There was a exhibit of past Pulitzer cartooning winners at one of the AAEC conventions. It was notable for its mediocrity; while most of the profession’s giants went unrecognized over the years, all manner of hacks have won. There were exceptions every few years, of course, but usually even the better cartoonists won for their weakest years.

Alan, I don’t understand your post.Cartoons about national and international issues are necessarily reactive too.

#13 Milt Priggee
October/25/2009
@ 3:53 pm

The reason why anyone cares about the pulitzers is because most in the journalism world do NOT now what an editorial cartoon is…plain and simple. They do know that the pulitzer is generally recognized as THE top journalism prize. You win the pulitzer you’ve won unquestioned credibility in the journalism world. Until then you’re just jumping from iceberg to iceberg and dodging boulders.

If the cartoonist is foolish enough to believe that creating local content for their publisher is a psoitive….. they are more likely than not to be fired or at least on the bubble.

Why you may ask, would a content creator who is producing content that the newspaper can’t from any other source be a prime candidate to be fired?

It’s simple….You give the customer what they want….and
the editor/publisher does NOT want local cartoons. Especially in todays economic climate, editor/publishers are even more sensitive to ANYTHING that would cause ANY reaction from ANYBODY.

Editorializing is a leftover aspect of newspapers when there were owner/publishers who were competing for readers. Editorial cartooning was the result of a perfect storm of competition between publishers for readers. In the past management wanted a reaction, today they want the complete opposite.

Times have changed, newspapers are no longer the big dog in the yard. Editorializing in newspapers is dead, most editor/publishers would prefer safe entertainment, if they are even going to consider keeping an editorial page in their downsizing.
Editorializing represents risk, it means taking a stand on an issue. The powers that be don’t want to risk anything, they would prefer and believe that an editorial cartoon should be funny.

Local cartooning represents an even BIGGER risk that management would prefer not to deal with at all.
Local cartoons means a cartoonist will be zeroing in the artillery right down on his own head. Local cartooning is suicide.
SO, yes local cartooning deserves more credit, but if your a cartoonist who is trying to protect your paycheck, just make sure your illustration of the Jay Leno monologue is super safe and funny.

#14 Tom Wood
October/25/2009
@ 6:28 pm

What Milt said.

Also, I think the time of expose Tammany Hall/Boss Tweed editorial cartooning is long gone. Most political fights today involve two sides that are sharply opposed, but no one side is necessarily ‘evil’.

So it would be seen as being unfair and arbitrary for a local newspaper to take a side and express it in an editorial cartoon. Given how polarized we are, they’re going to piss off 50% of the readers every time if they do.

What seems typical in many cities is that the local daily usually leans toward a pro-business attitude, while the alternative weekly skews liberal. Here in Austin, the Statesman will be more pro-development while the Chronicle is pro-environment.

If local is king, then hopefully it’s just a matter of time before both the Statesman and the Chronicle end up being twice-weekly publications with opposing attitudes, and then we’re back to where we started with competition for readers by way of causing a reaction. Hooray!

#15 John Cole
October/26/2009
@ 8:52 am

The cynic in me says local ‘toons — no matter how effective — will never be a factor in the Pulitzer competition. Simply, the judges are too lazy to take the time to study and understand local issues.

Instead, cartoonists who hope to win are forced to submit entries that are all about the same topic(s). The judges — some of whom wouldn’t know a good cartoon if it wore a nametage and bit them on the … leg — decide who drew the funniest Obama cartoon, the most poignant Hillary cartoon, the hardest-hitting Palin cartoon, etc.

Imagine if the Investigative Reporting category was run the same way: Every entry would be about the same basic investigation. Never mind there are thousands of issues worth the time and expense to investigate; the judges don’t want to invest the time and effort to understand all that.

Bottom line: There’s plenty to suggest the Big P frequently doesn’t take cartooning seriously.

#16 wade brumett
October/26/2009
@ 9:20 am

Milt may be right, but my editor wants local first.
After all he can pull mainstream stuff off syndicate sights.

I also get more comments from the local toons than the National ones. The few that I can remember him killing were when I got a little too personal in attacking the individual. And the only time I remember a complaint that was threatening to drop her subscription, was because the paper was daring enough to print Obama toons. Go figure.
I was also allowed to attack Walmart locally, a big advertiser for our paper. They are building a new store in a controversial historical (maybe) sight. I was proud the paper stood its ground in tight times.

People want to see their local nucklehead council and boards lampooned, I think. And it kind of brands the local paper’s editorial page. They can’t get that from the other papers in our community.

When it comes time for the State press competition, I am told to pick from the National or State topic stack, as the judges would not be familiar with the locals.

#17 David Cohen
October/26/2009
@ 10:15 am

Milt’s comments ring pretty true to me, as well.
There have been times when I was told that it appeared that I was picking on a certain town council member, even though that said council member continued to do and say lampoonable things.
And in the current economy and state of the newspaper business, anything that even hints that a large advertiser is up for satire or has done something wrong is a subject that I might have to self-censor; my editor has balked at times.
I was told that if I concentrated on situations, and not personalities, it would probably be better all around.
One thing I have done is to cultivate a relationship with a local news blogger who also works for my city’s alt-weekly. If the daily won’t print a cartoon, he is happy to post it on his blog.
I just have to figure out the money thing.

#18 Milt Priggee
October/26/2009
@ 2:43 pm

John-
you are NOT cynical, you are just totally correct about the pulitzers concerning local cartoons.

I have heard from more than one journalist that if you are to be a pulitzer judge, is that THE judging committee you really want to be on is the one for editorial cartooning.

WHY? Because it’s the most fun, least amount of work and quickest to be done with so you can go out and eat ‘n’ drink with yer new journo buddies.

John, is also correct because the pulitzer judges (or ANY contest judges for that matter) are NOT going to take the time to learn the local background for them to appreciate an insightful visual commentary.

On the other hand and to be perfectly honest, I really can’t blame the/any judges. I’m sure they are doing the best job with the limited background they have about the art.

Plus, how can anybody out of the circulation area REALLY appreciate the cause, the power and impact, the fallout and result of a local cartoon, unless they are actually living in that community. Yes, you can lobby the judges by including testimonials, letters to the editor and follow-up stories,etc,etc….but is that really the cartoon or the lobbying?

The only (or best) way to appreciate a good local cartoon is by opening your local paper and seeing the cartoon about a local issue that your community has been dealing with for a certain amount of time. The best cartoons are the cartoons that create a community BUZZ. Those cartoons that are being talked about around the water cooler,etc,etc..and causing readers to pass around the paper to other citizens.

Nobody can expect any judge for any contest to judge local cartoons unless they have actually been aware of the background and history of the local issue BEFORE seeing the cartoons. That’s why the punch lines are usually at the end of the joke….they have more impact at the end. And reading a little paragraph describing the issue before looking at the toon don’t cut it.

I salute the new AAEC Prez Rex Babbin for bringing up the issue that local cartoons deserve more credit. The big question is to how best to do that. Trying to do that by bestowing some title on somebody is a lose, lose, lose situation. (besides Clay Bennett has enough awards)

I believe the best way to recognize the value of a local cartoonist can be easily achieved by simply not firing the cartoonist. Or as the Chicago Tribune just did with Scott Stantis, hire back at least one of the three you let go. Or better yet, quit threatening your local cartoonist because the ‘chilling factor’ is not helping them, your readers or your company’s bottom line.

#19 Ed Hall
October/26/2009
@ 8:45 pm

I lost 6 local newspapers in December of 2008. For a few of them I was doing safe, local, har hars, and the reasons for dismissal were recession based. For one of them I went after the local board & superintendent of schools(publisher’s golfing buddy) and was quickly let go there as well. It was the best thing that ever happened to me because a ballsy local newspaper editor right down the street, read about my plight and just happened to want a hard-edged local cartoonist to keep the local tongue draggers in check. Now I’m actually having fun cartooning again, the paper absorbs the letters, and the public is engaged. Go figure.

#20 Pat Bagley
November/9/2009
@ 12:32 pm

My best stuff is local, but Utah culture is so quirky and idiosyncratic that much of it is impenetrable to outsiders. I can just see the judges scratching their heads wondering what the hell that seagull and cricket have to do with anything.

#21 Brian Duffy
November/21/2009
@ 7:10 am

I am new to this site and conversation but not new to the profession after spending 25 years as the front page cartoonist For the Des Moines Register.
Since being marched out of the paper last December I have been on a mission, and that mission as JFK once said was not to “mad but to get even”. I used my name recognition, and all cartoonists have that, to layer myself across as many different media platforms as I could. The good people at King Features have kept me on, I have also picked up a gig at the weekly alt., or should I say INDEPENDENT paper, where they give me a whole page. I sell Iowa-only cartoons to daily and weekly newspapers, many of them family owned around the state, and I have come up with a quasi-animated feature that appears on KCCI TV on their nightly news show. Oh yeah, and I have my own website, and send stuff into Cagle. All told, I reach more viewers in more ways than I did at the Register whose circulation by the way dropped another 13% in less than a year.

As a profession we have break ourselves of the mindset that we need to be a staff cartoon for A newspaper to have meaning. Corporate newspapers are DYING, there is no two ways about it. Eventually some of the these properties, or what is left of them will be sold for pennies on the dollar, but the damage will already have been done.
I have heard folks refer to us as canaries in the coalmine, but we’re not the only feature that have been jettisoned over the years. I think the situation is more like a bird that continues to pluck it’s own feathers off in hopes of lightening it’s load to stay aloft. At some point it just goes into a death spiral, and that’s what happening to corporate newspapers right now.

Our profession still has a future, and we are an imaginative lot, so let’s start blazing new trails and see where they go.

This little rambling was meant to be answer to an email that Steve Greenberg sent to me that I lost. I lose a lot of things, sorry Steve I hope you see this.

As for awards, what could be better than someone walking up to you and telling you that they loved your cartoon, or asking you to step into the alley so that the two of you could discuss it further over a knuckle sandwich.

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