By: Rob Tornoe
Back in the days when cities had multiple newspapers competing for the same readers, they coveted the skills of political cartoonists, whose deft wit and visually compelling content could sometimes make the difference between growing readership and getting lost in the shuffle.
As print competition declined, and a good number of newspapers found themselves as a local newsgathering monopoly, many editors were forced to make the difficult and painful choice to cut their staff cartoonist, choosing cheaper syndicated material to fill the slot.
Unfortunately, this short-term thinking hampers them now as newspapers once again find themselves in an ultra-competitive market where content, especially visually compelling original content, is king.
“They’ve done some kind of financial calculus to figure out a head count they can get rid of,” said Al Olsen, senior editor at msnbc.com, which uses the cartoons of Daryl Cagle (syndicated by Cagle Cartoons) to drive Web traffic. “Their math suggests they can fill their pages with content that everyone else has, and do it at a cost where readers aren’t going to give a damn. I think it’s tragic and misguided.”
Fortunately, several news organizations have gone back to the well and found innovative ways to leverage the popularity of their staff cartoonist to help their newspapers retain and grow readers in our 21st century media market.
Newsday occasionally runs full-page cartoons on its front cover by its Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Walt Handelsman (syndicated by Tribune Media Services). The Oregonian’s staff cartoonist, Jack Ohman (syndicated by Tribune Media Services), produces long-form sequential cartoons for the Sunday edition. And several cartoonists, from Handelsman to Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press (syndicated by Creators), create animated cartoons for their newspapers’ websites.
One cartoonist who takes a varied approach is Scott Stantis, staff cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune (syndicated by Tribune Media Services). Hired in 2009 to fill the long-open position vacated by the death of Jeff MacNelly, Stantis has become a popular asset at the paper in a short amount of time, due in no small part to the creativity he brings to his various projects.
“Scott has become a multimedia star,” said R. Bruce Dold, editorial page editor for the Tribune. Recently, Stantis created a feature for the paper called “Draw Rahm,” soliciting readers to draw and send in their own drawings of Chicago’s new mayor to the paper. According to Dold, the response was overwhelming, a signal that a cartoonist can be vital to a newspaper’s crowd-sourcing efforts.
“We had everyone from kids to grandparents sending drawings in, some in beautiful framed portraits,” Dold said. “We had to run two days’ worth of them, because one day just wasn’t enough.”
Stantis and the Tribune have developed many different avenues for readers to communicate and become part of the creative process, including caption contests and a blog where Stantis regularly interacts directly with readers. He also has a recurring segment on WGN-TV in Chicago called “Stantis Rant.” But for Dold, it all comes down to local content and the unique voice Stantis brings to the community.
“Lots of cartoonists do great work, but none are doing Rahm Emanuel cartoons day after day. That’s where we find our readers connect,” Dold said. “Newspapers need to build that great sense of commitment from readers to keep them. A good local cartoonist like Scott does that.”
The Web has created new avenues for newspapers to experiment and leverage the popularity and uniqueness of cartoons. The Washington Post, long the home of great traditional cartoonists like the famous Herbert “Herblock” Block, has embraced the Web with the help of its Pulitzer Prize-winning staff cartoonist Tom Toles (syndicated by Universal Uclick).
Toles has branched out and creates a good deal of unique content for the Web, including posting drafts and unused cartoon ideas, creating a caption contest, and interacting with readers on his blog, all of which helps cement brand awareness for the paper, according to editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.
“The caption contest has done terrifically online,” Hiatt said. “I think (Toles) helps define The Post’s editorial page.”
In addition to Toles’ daily cartoons, The Post has gone a step further by bringing in another Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Ann Telnaes, to produce three animated political cartoons a week exclusively for The Post’s website.
“It’s one of the most popular features on The Post’s website,” said Marisa Katz, opinions editor at The Post. More than just investing in a popular feature, Katz said she believes that cartoons can help define the future of newspapers and set them apart from their competition, growing and retaining readers amid the current technology shift.
“Obviously, The Post thinks cartoonists are important to our future — that’s why we have two,” Katz said. “I think a lot of the newest technology is very visual technology. If you’re on an iPad or a smartphone, or even browsing at home, a cartoon works perfectly for that space.”
Another organization that has invested in cartoons in an age of technological growth is the popular political website POLITICO. Award-winning cartoonist Matt Wuerker produces traditional political cartoons for a non-traditional environment — an online niche site geared toward political junkies and the workings of government.
For editor-in-chief John Harris, Wuerker’s irreverence is a perfect fit.
“Matt’s especially valuable for our content and readers,” Harris said. “He captures the absurdity of public life and exaggerates for comic effect, although sometimes it’s more serious than that. He’s just really good for us.”
Once the questions about technology and newsgathering are settled in a more concrete way, Harris said he sees a need and a place for cartoonists in 21st century journalism.
“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,” he said. “I don’t see them as an endangered species, but one that should be relevant for a long time to come.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher Magazine and edits the satirical humor magazine Delaware Punchline. He can be reached at [email protected]