Political cartoonists took up their pens to offend the powerful and defend the downtrodden as soon as the first publishers began hand-cranking newspapers through their printing presses in the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin created his own political art to fire up the American Revolution. So did Paul Revere.
Now, two-and-a-half centuries later, with thousands of newspapers having gone out of business and most of the rest struggling to survive, political cartoonists have become an endangered species. When newsroom jobs get trimmed, the cartoonist is often among the first to go, even though “those damned pictures” — as Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed characterized the jugular art of Thomas Nast in the 1870s — are perennially popular with readers.
According to numbers provided by two of my friends at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, there were just over 100 full-time editorial cartooning jobs at U.S. newspapers in 2008, down from as many as 150 full- and part-time positions in 1997. Today, a mere 20 or so are paid newspaper employees. A few more are contractors (count me as one of them) creating work for one particular newspaper. All of the rest are scrambling to pay the bills through freelance or syndication or have left the profession.