Cartoons have a long and storied history with newspapers, going all the way back to “The Yellow Kid” in the late 19th century. Popular among readers, cartoons about sports, politics and the absurdity of everyday life have been bringing readers back to their daily newspaper for well over 100 years.
So, why are editors reluctant to use cartoons online?
Cartoons work perfectly in print, where a reader’s eyes tend to be attracted first to the simple imagery associated with most cartoons. Before they even contemplate reading it, they’re already engaged with the page. On the web, there is so much content saturated on a single page that finding space for a well-drawn cartoon is almost impossible. Most editors are simply content to throw some cartoons into a slideshow and focus their energy on the next problem.
But some enterprising news outlets have found a unique way to utilize cartoonists in the age of social media with “live drawing.” Instead of relegating social media to an afterthought of lazy hashtags and story dumps, several media companies have begun to deeply integrate the idea of social into their content itself.
That’s where cartoonists can be a valuable asset, both in terms of branding and standing out from the herd.
One of the first media companies to experiment with using live cartoons to cover events was the New York Times. Back in 2011 and armed with a sketchpad and smartphone, illustrator Christoph Niemann live-illustrated the New York City Marathon for the New York Times Magazine. Over the course of 26.2 miles, Niemann created 46 sketches which ran the gamut of pre-race worries to overly-loud music, with time to chronicle his dying phone battery in-between.
Niemann’s live-coverage was an inspiration for New York Times senior staff editor Jim Luttrell. During panning meetings in November for the Times’ Super Bowl coverage, Luttrell, looking to push the boundaries of the newspaper’s coverage, asked, “Why don’t we try to illustrate it live?”
Enter Bob Eckstein, a longtime New York cartoonist whose work appears regularly in the Times and the New Yorker. Eckstein, a contributor to the Times’ sports pages for years, jumped at the chance to try something new.
“Although I’m not a hardcore sports fan, I always enjoyed watching the game as an event,” Eckstein said. “Once I noticed the instant commentary appearing on social media, I decided I wanted to be at that lunch table in the cafeteria… the one with the wise-alecks.”
In addition to a couple of illustrations commissioned by the Times to cover the pre-game atmosphere, Eckstein drew a total of nine cartoons during the game itself, ranging from a pre-game cartoon drawn from a Seahawks bar in New York City to a cartoon questioning the decision to have the Red Hot Chili Peppers perform during the NFL’s first cold-weather Super Bowl (Eckstein thought Coldplay or Ice Cube might be more appropriate performers).
In addition to the cartoons being pushed out along the Times’ various social media accounts, they were also embedded in their live blog, which featured content from many staffers and contributors. They were also used in a slideshow after the game and in the final print product, showcasing the cross-platform possibilities of having cartoonists cover events.
“I think Bob’s cartoons were able to cross-over into many different audiences,” said Luttrell. “I just think it really plays to people that wouldn’t ordinarily come to our sports blog.”
The New York Times wasn’t the only media company interested in Eckstein’s live cartoons. The New Yorker, famous for its emphasis on cartoons, reached out to Eckstein to cover a much different event: the Oscars.
Michael Agger, the culture editor for The New Yorker, was trying to figure out a unique way to cover the Oscars online outside of the traditional live blog. He also wanted to stand out from the herd and cover the Oscars in a “New Yorkery” way. Enter Eckstein and his tightrope act of drawing cartoons live.
“So much of the web is visual these days, leading people to share and pass around things,” said Agger. “Anything I can do to show that the site is the New Yorker at web speed is great, and Bob’s cartoons were the leading light of that on Oscar night.”
The New Yorker also reached out to famed cartoonist Liza Donnelly about drawing live cartoons during the Olympics. Donnelly, who discovered on Twitter the popularity of providing visual commentary live during events, decided to stick with the prime-time coverage of the games, when more people amassed on social media.
“I think that the New Yorker has a respect for cartoons that is ingrained in its ethos and thus translates to online,” said Donnelly. “Readers are hungry for meaningful imagery, if only in part because we are so laden with words on the Internet. A strong cartoon with few words can carry a lot of punch, and reach people in new ways.”
Another media company that has quickly realized the advantage of using cartoons in real time is the sports giant ESPN. Traditionally using cartoons to highlight articles, ESPN’s social division has expanded the role of cartoons into covering sporting events live.
Chris Morris was one of many cartoonists approached by ESPN’s social media marketing team to draw cartoons for NFL games each week. Morris, also the art director for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, was required to draw two cartoons for each game, illustrating both possible outcomes. After the game, ESPN would tweet and share the cartoons, which would spread like wildfire among fans amassed online watching live. So, call it “live-ish” cartooning.
“The pieces I drew for ESPN last year would get seen by millions of people and generate thousands of comments in a very short window of time, striking while the iron was hot and people were still pissed at (New England Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady ‘stealing the game,’ ” said Morris. “So if nothing else, we created an image that would speak loud and fast and generate conversation, good and bad.”
Cartoons are more popular than ever, and media companies have the advantage of being their traditional home for more than 100 years. Using cartoons in innovative ways to cover events large and small can help media companies in this age of hyper competition stand out from online competitors while creating relevant content that can be used on social, web and print simultaneously.
How would local readers react to seeing cartoons about a local peach festival, or seeing a cartoonist drawing for the paper at the state fair? According to Luttrell, it’s all about creating engaging and unique content and putting it in front of readers.
“The internet is a huge audience, it’s just a matter of people finding you, and you finding people,” Said Luttrell. “Cartoons can help people find you. It’s as simple as that.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.