Cartoon Confab: Pro-Cartoon Editors Speak

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By: Dave Astor

Why should newspapers employ a staff cartoonist?

“Look at The Wall Street Journal. It’s not very inviting” without a staff cartoonist, said one man at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention Thursday. A staff cartoonist who comments on local issues “gives readers something they can’t get anywhere else,” said another.

Those quotes were from AAECers, right? Wrong. They were made by editors — Bob Kittle of The San Diego Union-Tribune and Henry Freeman of The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y. — invited to speak on a convention panel. Unlike some of their peers, they’re very supportive of editorial cartooning.

Kittle and Freeman, who were answering a question from AAEC “Notebook” editor J.P. Trostle, were joined on the panel by David Holwerk of The Sacramento Bee.

Holwerk said if a newspaper doesn’t want to hire a cartoonist, there’s not much that can be done. “It would be like persuading a cartoonist who doesn’t have a sense of humor to have one,” he observed.

The three editors also discussed the work of their papers’ cartoonists — convention host Rex Babin of the Bee and King Features Syndicate, AAEC President Matt Davies of The Journal News and Tribune Media Services (TMS), and Steve Breen of the Union-Tribune and Copley News Service.

Holwerk said the most pared-down cartoons are often the best. As an example, he showed a Babin drawing, captioned “Bad Intelligence,” that pictured a kid-like President Bush trying to force blocks into the wrong holes. But he also praised Babin’s more complex work, such as his not-quite-weekly “Caleeforneeya” editorial-cartoon feature.

And Holwerk has a thing for a certain cartoon symbol of the robber-baron rich. “In my estimation, we don’t have enough cigar-smoking pigs in cartoons,” he told AAECers. “I urge you all to put them in your repertoire — weekly, if not daily.”

Freeman — who said the Gannett chain, which owns The Journal News, has about 15 cartoonists — certainly supports 2004 Pulitzer winner Davies. He noted that this continued to be the case even after a nuclear power plant pulled a half-million-dollar ad campaign because it was angered by a Davies cartoon.

“I’ve been called a traitor for running Matt’s work,” added Freeman. “As a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps, I take offense at that.”

Kittle admires Breen’s cartoons, but did note that — per the wishes of the Union-Tribune’s publisher — some of them get moved from the paper’s editorial page to its Op-Ed page. This was the case for some Breen cartoons criticizing the Iraq War and tax cuts for the rich that ran counter to the Union-Tribune’s generally pro-Bush slant.

Audience member Walt Handelsman of Newsday in Melville, N.Y., and TMS took issue with changing the locale of some Breen cartoons. “At Newsday, if I disagree with editorial-page opinion, they love that,” he said. “Readers can see that we’re diverse. The cartoonist added that readers know his commentary doesn’t necessarily reflect Newsday’s because drawings are labeled “Walt Handelsman’s View.”

Why are fewer newspapers employing staff cartoonists? Kittle said it could be more because of cost-cutting than wariness of cartoon content. “You as a group are paid more than many editors and reporters,” he told attendees. “That may make your job a little less secure more than anything you draw.”

Moderator Rob Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and United Media opened the session by showing two of his drawings humorously outlining the differences between a cartoonist’s and editor’s brain. The biggest part of the cartoonist’s brain was devoted to toilet humor, followed by winning a Pulitzer, keeping a job, and a tiny area worried about taste. The editor was most concerned about not offending readers, followed by keeping the publisher happy, winning a Pulitzer, kissing up to advertisers, and a tiny interest in humor.

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