CSotD: Bankruptcy of another kind

(Jack Ohman — Pulitzer Prize, 2016)

(Joel Pett — Pulitzer Prize, 2000)

(Kevin Siers — Pulitzer Prize, 2014)

This is, alas, a Juxtaposition of the Fired.

The McClatchy chain of newspapers, which has been struggling in bankruptcy for more than three years, has decided to cut costs by eliminating three of the nation’s leading editorial cartoonists. You can click on the above links to view their Pulitzer entries. They’re quite impressive!

But quality is irrelevant. According to a letter the Charlotte Observer received from the chain’s opinion editor, the newspapers will simply no longer feature editorial cartoons on a daily basis.

We made this decision based on changing reader habits and our relentless focus on providing the communities we serve with local news and information they can’t get elsewhere.

“Relentless focus” is the kind of self-serving Peter-principle bafflegab you get used to when you’re at the bottom of the pile getting memos from Corporate HQ.

As noted here before, sometimes at the end of the day, I would sit in my boss’s office and he’d read me the latest memos from Corporate and we’d laugh, and cringe.

When I gave my two-weeks notice, he stood to shake my hand and congratulate me on my escape. It was, IIRC, three months later that he was awarded the Cardboard Box.

So it goes. And so it goes for Ohman, Pett and Siers.

At least, I hope.

But I had a friend at the Daily News who didn’t even get to fill the box. She was called into the office and, while she was getting the bad news, they cut off her phone and Internet connections. Then they frog-marched her out of the building; she had to ask friends to retrieve her personal items.

Nice folks to do business with.

I hope the three Pulitzer Prize winners at McClatchy were treated with more dignity than that, but, then again, wotthehell difference does it make?

I used to joke that it was just me and the dog, and he thought sleeping in the park and eating out of Dumpsters would be a blast. But not everybody is that unfettered: When my boss got his box, he had a mortgage, two kids in high school, a wife who was a tenured teacher and in-laws who had just bought a house in the area.

And yet he was relieved to finally be out from under the Corporate Thumb. He started a new career in which he didn’t get idiotic memos about anybody’s “relentless pursuit” of anything.

I certainly hope Ohman, Pett and Siers will continue to draw pictures and puncture hot air. The country needs them, even if McClatchy readers will have to go elsewhere to find intelligent, piercing graphic commentary.

Ohman and Pett are syndicated by Tribune, and Siers gets some additional distribution through Cagle, but you need to recognize that that isn’t the same as having a job at a major paper. It may not leave you sleeping in the park and eating out of Dumpsters, but it sure means tightening your belt and thinking hard about how you spend your grocery money.

I expect to see the trio in San Francisco this October, when the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists has its convention. For one thing, they’re not quitters. For another, if they’re like me, they’ve already got their airline tickets and hotel reservations, except for Ohman who is AAEC president and hosting the thing, lucky devil.

Message to other editorial cartoonists: Show up. These three cartoonists are not the only ones in crisis. “I’ve had a tough year” is not an excuse to stay home. It’s why you need to come join in a crucial conversation.

That conversation will be crucial for editorial cartoonists, but the conversations they spark on a regular basis are crucial for everyone.

We needed Bill Mauldin to help us process the horror of JFK’s murder.

Just as we needed Clay Bennett nearly half a century later.

We needed Ollie Harrington to wake us up to the shortcomings of the new laws that were supposed to outlaw racial segregation in schools. (Too bad most of his cartoons ran in the Black press where readers already knew this.)

We needed Jeff Danziger to point out the way the free press was being choked off in Russia.

And we needed Ann Telnaes to add her sarcastic scorn to the horror of the murder. Yes, Anna Politkovskaya’s life was snuffed out on Putin’s birthday.

Their commentary on the murder opened a topic that continues to be critical today. How many murders have followed at Putin’s direction, not counting people in Ukraine? And how many if you count Ukraine?

Good cartoons set a tone for understanding wider topics. Good newspapers value that contribution.

Dan Froomkin recently took the Washington Post to the woodshed over its decision to add funny New Yorker-style cartoons to its editorial page, but one of the Post’s own cartoonists, Richard Thompson, had long since given the entire industry a paddling for losing focus and for attempting to adapt to “changing readers’ habits” they have been following rather than directing.

Newspapers used to be community leaders, but, then, newspapers used to be locally owned by passionate entrepreneurs, not by distant bean-counting hedge funds.

Even publishers who didn’t understand editorial cartoons knew their value, because they heard people talking about them in the grocery store and at church and at Rotary and on the golf course. They knew that a good cartoonist was a solid connection between the newspaper and its readers.

Keeping a cartoonist on staff was good business, back when newspapers made an effort to matter.

The question now is whether people will chip in to support cartoonists at GoComics, Comics Kingdom and through Substacks and Patreons.

Because Corporate HQ obviously isn’t listening and doesn’t care.

For those who have ears and who can listen, however, Ann Telnaes has explained the value and the need for editorial cartoons and editorial cartoonists.

5 thoughts on “CSotD: Bankruptcy of another kind

  1. I’ve been seeing Cameron, the Repubble gubernatorial candidate in Kentucky, railing against Pett in the media and on Twitter. How pleased he must be to see how the hedge fund mismanagers run things.

  2. When American media barons demonstrate such disregard for their great cartooning talents, they show themselves to be more fickle than newspaper owners in countries where the press is less brave, and less free.

  3. That “flip-book animated editorial cartoon” idea is sheer genius. I’m surprised it doesn’t actually exist in order to appease the both-siders…

  4. I absolutely agree with all you’ve said about the critical importance of the free press. It is deplorable and outrageous that McClatchey Newspapers has fired Jack Ohman, Joel Pett, and Kevin Siers. Thank you for your excellent post.

  5. Comics can be very moving. In “The Best of H.T. Webster”, Philo Calhoun describes the best compliment that Webster ever received about one of his political cartoons: “A man went into convulsions and was carried off to a hospital in critical condition. Webster said that it didn’t matter whether the convulsions were caused by laughter or wrath; it was the violence of the reaction that warmed his heart.”
    Summarized from: https://archive.org/details/bestofhtwebsterm00webs/page/9/mode/1up (at the end of the page, continuing to the next).

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