For years, newspapers knew how to harness the power of cartoons. Chains waged high-stakes circulation wars leveraging the popularity of their cartoon offerings. With simply the stroke of their pen, cartoonists took down corrupt politicians like William M. Tweet and Richard Nixon. Since 1922, editorial cartoons have been recognized by the Pulitzer’s as one of 14 important pillars of journalism.
So why do legacy media companies have such a hard time harnessing the power of cartoons online?
That’s a question New Yorker cartoonist Chris Weyant hopes to answer. Next month, Weyant and his family are leaving their home in Northern New Jersey and heading up Interstate 95 to Boston, where he’ll spend the next year as a Nieman Fellow studying the conundrum of cartooning in the digital age.
“What I’m hoping to find is a relevance for the business model for newspapers,” said Weyant. “Topical cartoons can really be a critical asset to drive up traffic numbers and create a deeper bond with readers, all in a very affordable way.”
Weyant knows what he’s talking about. His cartoons for the New Yorker website have become among the magazine’s most popular offerings. A cartoon he drew following the Boston Bombing, featuring a father and daughter wearing Red Sox shirts saying, “Yes, we like the Yankees, but today we’re all rooting for Boston.” went viral, with tens of thousands of shares driving immense traffic (and new readers) to the New Yorker’s website.
“The New Yorker uses the images to promote its brand and sell subscriptions,” Weyant said, pointing out an often-overlooked opportunity to contribute to the business side of the ledger he thinks media companies are missing.
Weyant first became aware of the digital strength of cartoons while drawing political cartoons for The Hill, a local Washington, D.C. newspaper that covers Congress and politics. Weyant drew primarily for the newspaper and his cartoons were uploaded to the website. One day, a new owner looking to get rid of his position complained about the lack of traffic his cartoons were receiving online.
Weyant looked into the half-hearted way his cartoons were being loaded and devised a new strategy making them more visible to readers. Sure enough, Weyant’s cartoons beat out every other piece of content on The Hill’s website they were placed against, while also dominating The Hill’s social media offerings. It didn’t save Weyant’s job, but it opened his eyes to an industry-wide problem.
“It speaks to the problem newspapers are having online when they axe their cartoonist despite seeing how their cartoons perform among readers,” Weyant said.
Some media companies have had success employing the unique skills cartoonists offer digitally. Over at Politico, their only Pulitzer Prize is held by their staff cartoonist, Matt Wuerker, a grizzled cartoon veteran who still draws cartoons using pen, ink and watercolor while creating a digital path for cartooning that legacy media can follow.
Not only does Wuerker post new and topical cartoons daily that are exclusive to Politico, he curates a popular weekly cartoon roundup of cartoons that are a consistent traffic winner. He has also dabbled with animation and created interactive Flash games for the website, and is an important branding tool for a company that has successfully competed in a highly-competitive marketplace.
“The tools cartoonists possess allow them to make really sophisticated points that are accessible to a majority of people — that’s the essence of journalism,” said Politico’s editor-in-chief John Harris. “I don’t see them as an endangered species, but one that should be relevant for a long time to come.”
Some newspapers are also figuring out new ways to take advantage of their cartoonist’s popularity online. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been posting videos of their two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mike Luckovich explaining his daily cartoons as a time-lapsed video of him drawing plays for readers. One recent video that generated a large amount of traffic featured Luckovich taking readers through his cartooning process following a tragic shooting inside a church in Charleston, S.C.
Over at the Arizona Republic, they’ve thrown Steve Benson, the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, out on the street to draw caricatures of everyday people. Not only are they getting rich, unique video content they can feature on their website, the Republic is also wisely using Benson to brand their product within the community and attract new readers.
The New Orleans Advocate (itself in a circulation war with the Times-Picayune) hired two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Walt Handelsman away from Newsday to draw local cartoons to attract new readers. Handelsman’s animated cartoons, which were cited by Pulitzer judges in 2007, often feature local angles and politicians and are a popular feature for the Advocate’s website.
To say that Weyant is an unlikely choice for the Nieman Fellowship is an understatement. In the program’s 75 year history, only one other cartoonist, Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Marlette, has accepted a role as a Fellow.
Marlette used his Nieman Fellowship to craft the idea for his beloved and popular comic strip, “Kudzu.” The strip, a depiction of southern life in the fictional town of Bypass, was syndicated in upwards of 300 newspapers through 2007, when it ended after Marlette was killed in a car accident.
“I wasn’t interested in the topicality of ‘Doonesbury’ or ‘Bloom County.’ Sometimes you have the feeling that the more topical strips are written for the editors of Rolling Stone,” Marlette told the Washington Post. “I wanted to write something that didn’t require a master’s degree to read.”
So what makes Weyant’s study of digital cartooning as a journalist necessity vital at this point in time?
“Chris is a truly gifted observer and communicator, and he’s doing a form of journalism that has a long an important history in American newsrooms,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
Lipinski noted that readers are keenly aware of the one-panel ink drawing they’ve seen for years in newspapers, but thinks editorial cartoons as a form of journalism ripe for reinvention, thanks to the host of digital tools now available to cartoonists and editors.
“It’s a time of very rich possibility, and we’re at the very beginning of that exploration,” she said.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.