By: Rob Tornoe
The so-called “new media” moved up into the ranks of the big boys this year, with two online news sites claiming Pulitzer Prize victories. But for the D.C. insiders at Politico, it wasn’t their obsessive reporting of Washington politics that garnered their first Pulitzer. Instead, that milestone went to their scrappy cartoonist, Matt Wuerker.
For Wuerker, who left a life of freelancing to join Politico in 2006, the third time was the charm. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2009 and 2010, as well as the 2010 winner of the Herblock Prize and the Berryman Award.
Even in a world of smartphones and high-tech computers, Wuerker’s cartoons remain uniquely old school, still drawn using pen, ink, and watercolor. And even though the 55-year-old cartoonist is decidedly liberal, no politician is safe from the sharp point of his finest quill.
I spoke with Wuerker about his Pulitzer win, his daily process, and how he ended up drawing cartoons for one of the most popular political news sites on the Web.
What were your thoughts when you found out that you won the Pulitzer?
I was just stunned. I’d been a finalist before, which was very exciting, but nothing prepared me for the excitement of winning. For a brand-new outfit like Politico, it meant a lot to the whole team.
Tell me a bit about your career as a freelance artist prior to joining Politico.
I started selling cartoons to a truly odd assortment of publications right out of college. I loved the work, but it was impossible to make ends meet just doing political cartoons, so I also ferreted out other kinds of art-related jobs such as work on a number of mural projects. I also taught classes in cartooning, worked on several music videos as a designer and animator, and did a fair amount of commercial illustration assignments.
Eventually the political cartoons found enough outlets, and also enough other publications were commissioning editorial illustration assignments that I could shed the tangential gigs and concentrate on working as a political cartoonist and illustrator.
How did the job with Politico come about?
I heard that a new paper was starting up here in D.C. to compete with Roll Call and The Hill, and I took a portfolio by thinking I might get some freelance assignments out of them. They liked what I was doing and instead offered me a part-time slot and gave me a desk in the newsroom. After six months I was doing a lot of additional illustration and caricature work, and they moved me to full time. I was very lucky to be in on the ground floor as Politico was launched.
In an online newsroom, did you ever feel out of place with your ink bottles and watercolor paints?
Not at all. Twenty-five years of freelancing has meant I’ve picked up varied and odd graphic skills — from animation and graphic design to painting, among other things. Having such an odd toolbox has really been perfect for Politico. As a startup, my editors have encouraged me from the get-go to play around and try new things. So while I do the editorial cartoon in a very classical way — pen and ink and watercolor, I’ve also got to play around with animation and interactive Flash games for the website. I’m both old school and new school and sometimes both at the same time.
What’s your daily process like?
I do four editorial cartoons a week. I usually start work on a cartoon at about 10 a.m. and finish at 2 p.m. when I need to upload them to the production server for our print deadline. A lot of folks don’t know that Politico is not just a website, but also appears in print here in D.C. and in New York.
Then if there are illustration assignments I get to those after lunch and usually have until about 6:30 p.m. to get those together. The other stuff, like the caricatures of our writers and bloggers or the animation projects, happens around the edges, but all in all I’m in the newsroom drawing 40 to 50 hours a week.
What have you learned about presenting cartoons online for Politico that other news organizations could learn from?
First and fast response to breaking news means everything on the Web. It’s very different than the daily newspaper game. The same is true with cartoons. A timely response to something that everyone is thinking about or reacting to is rewarded with links, tweets, shares, and likes, and those all drive traffic, which is what it’s all about.
Politico put together a whizbang gallery for my cartoons that has lots of handy share tools that make spreading the cartoons much easier. This also brings people into Politico through the back door opened when they come looking at a cartoon.
How can cartoonists convince editors that their work is valuable in the world of online media?
Bringing a prize or two home to your online master certainly helps. But much more importantly, anyone who’s paying attention has to see that the Internet is a visual medium first. Combine that with the short attention spans that it fosters, and you’ve got something that is made for cartoons.
Anyone who wants to have a successful news or opinion site is crazy to not hire an in-house cartoonist. It’s the best way to give your site a unique look in an otherwise noisy space where too many people either rely on photos or stock art. I really hope those folks running these sites will wise up and hire some of our cartoon brethren and sistren as staffers just like Politico hired me.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at email@example.com.