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CSotD: The future of political cartoons (if any)

This isn’t actually an editorial cartoon, except that it is.

It’s one of HJ Ford‘s illustrations for Andrew Lang’s 1894 retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Blockhead Hans,” a story that suggested Andersen had a low opinion of the press in general and of editors in particular.

There are enough editors in the world who think I’m a blockhead and vicey-versy that it makes a good illustration for my comments on Michael Cavna’s well-wrought Washington Post story on, specifically, diversity in editorial cartooning and, generally, the future of the form.

That extended link being my strong suggestion that you go read it, and I hope you don’t hit a paywall because it’s important and he assembled a grand collection of cartoonists as sources.

So here’s my take:

Obviously, I agree that editorial cartooning is dominated by straight white male cartoonists, with the proviso that there’s nothing wrong with being straight, white, male or all three, but we need to see more voices in political cartooning.

I go through a little over 200 cartoons each morning, and I say “go through” because they don’t all update every day, particularly the roughly half that qualify as political cartoons (as opposed those like Candorville or La Cucaracha that are politically hip social-commentary strips).

I’d say that, of that half, about 10 percent are drawn by women or visible minorities, though both of those stats would rise if I toted up the numbers at the Nib.

But not enough to offset the trend.

And the article is specifically addressing the political cartoons that run on the editorial pages of daily newspapers.

Or at least the editors of those newspapers and the political cartoons they purchase.

Which brings us to this Jack Ohman classic, which originally ran in the Oregonian but which I found, B&W, in Editor & Publisher and used enough times here that Jack finally sent me a color version.

The reason I’ve used it so often is that the fellow on the left, for all his crudity, would have been more likely to laugh at, or at least understand, a cartoon, while, as I’ve said before, the fellow on the right was promoted because he understood that you shouldn’t split an infinitive.

Having that sort of editor pick out cartoons is like asking your vegan roommate to buy sausages, and he comes home with Oscar Meyer wieners.

His utter lack of imagination and devotion to duty might argue in favor of the current popular goal of diversity, except that, if he were tasked with creating an ethnic/gender mix, the percentage would be met but the particular cartoons would suck and he wouldn’t know the difference.

Still, it’s too bad that goal has never been handed down.

Because, for instance, some years ago the editors all decided “in lieu of bail” was jargon and began coming up with clumsy alternatives for a phrase everybody understood, and recently they’ve apparently decided the standard “President Pro Tem” we learned in eighth grade won’t do any more, and so everyone has to say “President Pro Tempore.”

Which certainly deserves a handful of mud in the face, but at least they run in an unquestioning herd.

In any case, we’re talking today about the kinds of cartoons that run on the editorial page, and the question is how to make those cartoons more reflective of a wide readership.

 

With the additional blockhead barrier Bill Hinds addressed in this 2010 Cleats, which is that their inability to process cartoons leads editors to preserve the strips that appeal to the retired people who have time to respond to faux-surveys, rather than using a little plain marketing sense to run strips that might attract a diverse readership.

And, on the editorial page, they also play to their existing audience rather than trying to pull in new readers.

The fact that they’re clinging to their jobs doesn’t help, and now a whole bunch more of them will be.

The Tribune company of newspapers is about to be taken over by Alden Capital, the hedge fund that reduced the Denver Post from a major, award-winning thump-on-the-porch newspaper to a sad little pamphlet and that reduced its staff similarly.

 

As demonstrated in the photo of their Pulitzer-winning newsroom that accompanied a brave editorial pushback.

 

The laff being that the company kept Mike Keefe’s Pulitzer-winning cartoons displayed in the lobby long after they had kicked him to the curb.

Then they sold the lobby.

(Disclosure: I freelanced for the Post full-time for a decade, ending this past May.)

 

However, the Baltimore Sun has escaped the Tribune family just in time and will be operated by a non-profit and, if you don’t think they understand the significance of the move, here’s the picture they ran with the announcement.

There is hope, and I’d add that the Salt Lake Tribune is also in the hands of a non-profit. Pat Bagley‘s work appears there; Kal Kallaugher cartoons for the Sun.

And whatever you may think of Amazon, Jeff Bezos has breathed life into the Washington Post, where Ann Telnaes contributes on-line cartooning and they are pledging to replace a retired Tom Toles on the printed page.

But now let me throw a more technical bucket of cold water on you.

Speaking as a former editor myself, if you want to sell a cartoon to a print paper, make it horizontal, because that’s the size of the spot on the editorial page template.

Which brings us to this point in Cavna’s piece:

(Jen) Sorensen is asking for a complete layout change, but there are practical reasons for a set format, not simply efficiency in laying out the page, but also the proven fact that readers want consistency.

Shifting format in the paper is as unsettling as when a grocery store changes where things are shelved.

And the current, familiar format calls for a horizontal cartoon.

If you have a six-column format, with the two left columns combined for your lead editorial, a vertical cartoon in four-column width would expand to absurdly dominate the page.

By contrast, Doonesbury’s strip format works in four-column because it’s short and wide and several papers run it on the editorial page.

You could “float” a multi-panel vertical elsewhere in the paper — that is, run it on whatever page it fits that day — but now you’re talking about adding a feature, because you still need something for the editorial page.

Newspapers are slashing features, not adding them. Even an editor who loves cartoons would run into a stone wall with the beancounters.

Telnaes is closer to the answer, which is to not bank on print but look to a day when more news providers have a hearty on-line presence.

At which point, we tear up the old game plan, and realize that adding diversity would further attract a more demographically balanced audience.

This could happen, and a variety of voices would certainly be good for journalism and thus for society as a whole.

I had a lot to say about that, but I’m well over length and the cartoonists in Cavna’s article have spoken with eloquence on the topic, so I’ll let it go, having, I suppose, thoroughly discouraged anyone who looks to the print format for a living.

I’ll admit to being lucky: I hit retirement age as the medium was imploding. I don’t envy anyone depending on making a living in media these days.

However, I do believe the future for cartoonists is on-line, if you can just tighten your belt and perhaps find an undemanding second job until the new format sets itself up.

Having been a low-paid, if not starving, ink-slinger most of my life, I assure you it can be done, and, if you doubt it, let me come to your house and demonstrate the Kirby Classic, because I know how.

But let me leave this ray of hope, which Drew Friedman posted on his Facebook page about eight years ago and which I snagged to lift my own spirits.

Because we all start somewhere. It’s where you end up that counts.

 

 

Community Comments

#1 Paul Berge
February/17/2021
@ 8:24 am

I suspect that there are plenty of editors – and even more publishers – who would happily run Stan Kelly as a conservative editorial cartoon feature if it were offered to them.

#2 Mary McNeil
February/17/2021
@ 6:35 pm

When the Akron Beacon Journal began to run “Peanuts” – ca. 1954- they put it on the “section page” and rearranged the four panels as needed – sometimes 2 x 2, sometimes stacked vertically, sometimes as a traditional horizontal strip. But they got it in there. It was years before they moved it to the comic pages.

#3 William Ramwell
February/18/2021
@ 8:18 am

Sadly, the article you reference is behind a paywall. I wish there was a microtransaction system where I could read one article and not have to subscribe for as “little” as $1/day.

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