By nearly every measure, it’s been a brutal year for American journalism.
More than 3,100 journalists have been laid off in 2019, putting the industry on pace for the worst job losses since the recession of 2009. The pain inflicted on the industry have been widespread, impacting newspaper companies (Gannett, McClatchy, GateHouse Media), digital media companies (BuzzFeed, Vice Media, Verizon Media Group) and even cable news channels like CNN.
But 2019 has been a particularly brutal year for editorial cartoonists, a once prized commodity for news organizations being quickly pushed into oblivion. It’s estimated that less than 30 full-time staff cartoonists exist at media companies in the U.S., down from nearly 100 just 10 years ago and 2,000 at the turn of the last century (it’s worth noting I also draw cartoons for Editor & Publisher and the Philadelphia Inquirer, to name a few).
The most recent victim is Michael de Adder, a longtime cartoonist for the Brunswick News newspaper group in Canada whose contract was ceremoniously canceled at the end of June after a cartoon he drew mocking President Trump’s handling of the migrant crisis at the border went viral on social media (though the company denies it ended its relationship with de Adder over the cartoon).
De Adder is far from alone. In May, Gatehouse said goodbye to three long-time cartoonists at newspapers recently purchased by the hedge fund-owned newspaper chain: Nate Beeler of the Columbus Dispatch, Rick McKee of the Augusta Chronicle, and Mark Streeter of the Morning News in Savannah, Ga. The New York Times killed all cartoons (including the work of longtime contributor Patrick Chappatte) in its international edition after an illustration playing on anti-Semitic tropes was printed in the paper, leading to a wave of criticism. The Arizona Republic laid-off Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson in January after 38 years at the paper.
Obviously, the decision to shed cartoonists is mostly driven by economics, with declining revenue at just about every newspaper spelling doom for roles not considered essential to the company’s digital future. But cartoons remain as popular as ever thanks to social media and the internet, and in an era where digital subscriptions remain a key focus of a successful digital strategy, they remain an overlooked asset in terms of engagement and developing brand loyalty.
Where media companies are failing, two digital upstart efforts are aiming to show how the popularity of cartoons can be harnessed into a successful business model (or at the very least, a stable new revenue stream).
The first is a start-up called Counterpoint, a news outlet that features a free weekly newsletter which delivers political cartoons to readers across the political spectrum. The new effort is headed by Nick Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist whose job at the Houston Chronicle was eliminated in 2017. While at the Chronicle, Anderson took it upon himself to figure out how to drive traffic and create engagement with his cartoons, and Counterpoint is an effort to harness that popularity into a small but self-sufficient outlet that can support several cartoonists.
“They think of cartoonists as some kind of luxury…but they’re dropping one of the most valuable assets they have,” Anderson said of newspapers. “People are very visual, the internet is very visual and we all see how cartoons can go completely viral on social media. We’re going to try to make that work for us.”
Anderson said the model is to grow newsletter subscriptions to 50,000, which will allow them to offer sponsorship opportunities. Despite only being live for a few months and relying mostly on word-of-mouth to promote the newsletter (with some paid marketing thrown in), Counterpoint is well on its way with more than 20,000 subscribers. It also sports an enviable newsletter open rate of between 30 and 50 percent, well above industry norms.
Each newsletter features the work of between eight and 10 cartoonists, and things have gone so well Anderson is exploring the idea of upping the frequency to biweekly. He’s also open to the possibility of working with an online media company to show how engaging cartoons can be as part of a digital subscription model, but it’s unlikely he’d partner up with a newspaper anytime soon.
“They play it so safe in terms of content, and they just don’t know what they’re doing online,” Anderson said. “They may have one foot in the future, and they may have an online department that gets it. But they still have one foot in the past, and that makes it difficult to work with them.”
Another digital outlet showcasing how engaged readers are to cartoons is The Nib, a publication founded by editorial cartoonist Matt Bors back in September 2013 that focuses on political cartoons and graphic journalism.
Over the past six years, The Nib has survived by the shifting focus of two online media companies—Medium and First Look Media, which made the decision to stop funding the website in June as part of a company-wide business decision that also impacted Topic.com.
As of August, the only revenue The Nib receives comes from more than 5,000 loyal readers who have pledged to pay between $2 and $40 a month in a membership model that mimics the listener-supported fundraising that supports local NPR affiliates. Only instead of tote bags, supporters of The Nib receive a print magazine which publishes quarterly.
“A lot of readers want to see comics, and cartoons have a long history of being part of the news media. But for whatever reason… a lot of editors kind of overlook them,” Bors said. “I think media companies are missing out on something. I mean, honestly, I feel like The Nib almost shouldn’t be able to exist because the cartoonists should be pulled away and hired for staff jobs.”
The Nib has carved out a nice little niche in part because the focus all along has been to keep the website simple to use and let the content speak for itself. In fact, in their popular five-day-a-week newsletter (which Bors said has “tens of thousands of readers”), fans can read the cartoons in full without having to click over to the website.
“We want people reading these things and spending time with us wherever they are,” Bors said. “Those (newsletter readers) are devoted, and they’re making us part of their day, every day…so when we turn to them to support our cartoons, a lot of them step up and do so.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.