By: Rob Tornoe
Mike Thompson spends hours creating the art, voices and sound effects for the animated editorial cartoons he produces weekly for the Detroit Free Press. Thompson started doing animated cartoons for his paper back in 2002, and since then, his work has proven a hit among readers and critics, generating a huge amount of traffic to freep.com.
But is there a market for his work beyond Detroit?
“I haven’t made any serious attempts to market my animations,” Thompson admits. “I’ve been less worried about marketing it, and more worried about creating it. I’m still trying to get my head around the process and where I’m going with what I want to do with it.”?
In the small circle of animated editorial cartoon creators, Thompson’s is a familiar story. The animated ’toons generate traffic, but their marketability remains untested. Certainly animation is getting more respect. After all, this year’s Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning went to Mark Fiore, who self-syndicates his weekly animated editorial cartoons to clients such as San Francisco area news site SFGate.com and NPR.org.
Does his success mean it’s time for cartoonists, who have traditionally stuck with newspapers, to branch out and embrace these new avenues for satire?
“I think there is a potential shift happening, and I think it’s important that the Pulitzers have acknowledged that this is a valid form of satire,” says Fiore, who is one of only a handful of national cartoonists producing animated cartoons on a regular basis and getting paid for them.
Another cartoonist that has successfully ditched traditional cartoons and moved exclusively to animation is Ann Telnaes. A Pulitzer prize winner in 2001, Telnaes does animated cartoons for The Washington Post’s Web site, producing quick, bite-size pieces three times a week.
“Ann’s cartoons are one of the most popular features on the entire Web site,” says Marisa Katz, the Post’s online opinion editor. “Readers like the interactivity and the ability to comment on each animation.”
But the Post remains an exception among newspapers — a publisher that actually purchases animated cartoons exclusively for its Web site. Katz is proud of the commitment to political cartoonists at the newspaper, which also employs Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist Tom Toles.
As much as she likes the format, though, Katz says that animated cartoons are a tough sell. “Creators [of editorial cartoons] syndicate their cartoons today to local newspapers, which can print their work with the guarantee they’re the only place in town to see it,” she explains. “For online content, it can be posted anywhere on the Web, which newspapers might see as losing their exclusivity to the content.”
Not everyone agrees newspapers should care about keeping exclusivity online, however. That’s the opinion of Ted Rall, syndicated editorial cartoonist and columnist for Universal Press Syndicate. In addition to his traditional offerings, he produces animated editorial cartoons with the help of animator David Essman. “What most newspaper Websites want, or should want, is to be a one-stop portal for cool content,” Rall says. “It doesn’t matter if other sites carry the same material if you have that perspective.”
Rall hasn’t had much luck selling his animated cartoons to clients, and posts them on YouTube, where anyone is free to use them on their Web sites. But he still thinks that traditional syndicates have an opportunity to sell these products to their subscribers.
“A forward-looking syndicate could and should hire a salesperson who specializes in marketing video content,” he adds. “It’s really a no-brainer.”
Daryl Cagle, cartoonist for msnbc.com and owner the Cagle Cartoons syndicate, doesn’t see much of a future in animated editorial cartoons. According to Cagle, political cartoons lose their uniqueness as animated pieces.
“The reason political cartoons exist is to fill a spot on the editorial page,” Cagle says. “They make sense in the form they are. Put them into animation, and they become just another type of animation, rather than existing in their own form as a political cartoon.”
Cagle’s cartoon syndicate gets calls all the time about animated editorial cartoons, but it’s usually from cartoonists wanting to sell their work, rather than clients interested in purchasing them for the Web sites.
According to Cagle, Fiore and Telnaes are unique examples of cartoonists selling animated cartoons, and cartoonists get it wrong by thinking they represent a new movement among newspapers and publishers to buy content exclusively for their Web sites. “The nature of newspapers is to decide what readers want to read and packaging a lot of different things together to sell to them,” Cagle says. “That’s not the way the Web works.”
Regardless, according to Fiore, as staff cartoonists jobs decrease and newspapers cut back, cartoonists have to experiment and find new avenues to sell their work: “The old days of being a staff cartoonist and getting a regular check from a newspaper is quickly being thrown out the window.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist for E&P, The Press of Atlantic City and Cagle Cartoons, and is the editor of Laugh! magazine. He can be reached at Rob@LaughDE.com.