How Cartoonists Survive Without Staff Job

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By: Dave Astor

The session started with a Milt Priggee animation about all the editorial cartoon jobs newspapers have eliminated in recent years. Priggee, who lost such a position himself, depicted each of the departed jobs with a coffin.

Panelists at the session — which took place Friday at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention — then discussed how they thought outside the (coffin) box in order to stay in cartooning without a staff job.

Moderator Ted Rall, for instance, has many alternative-weekly clients for his Universal Press Syndicate cartoons and authored a number of books. Panelist Wiley Miller of Universal started the popular “Non Sequitur” comic when it looked like his job at the San Francisco Examiner was going to end. Another panelist, Paul Fell, developed a freelance career after he was laid off from what’s now the Lincoln Journal-Star. Panelist Mark Fiore focused on political animation after things went sour at the San Jose Mercury News.

Miller had previously been laid off from the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press-Democrat, so he decided to be proactive when things started looking bad at the Examiner. “I had to find a lifeboat,” he recalled, so he created “Non Sequitur” while still at the San Francisco paper.

Fell’s wife had a clothing business in Nebraska, so the cartoonist didn’t want to seek a new job outside that state. Instead, he self-syndicated cartoons to Nebraska papers, did work for magazines and other publications, taught classes, and more. “There are a lot of ways to do a lot of little things,” said Fell, who, ironically, now also freelances three cartoons a week to the Journal-Star.

Fiore was initially thrilled to have a long-desired newspaper staff job in 2001. But the Mercury News publisher left to protest cost-cutting, the new publisher wanted Fiore to “go easy on Bush,” and there were other problems. “I could feel the creativity sucking out of me,” he recalled.

The cartoonist ended up finding success self-syndicating his Web animations, and said there are advantages to not having a full-time newspaper position. “With a staff job, one person controls your destiny,” Fiore said. “When you have multiple clients, you can lose one but still have the others.”

Fell added: “It’s great to be your own boss.”

But freelancers do have difficulties, and speakers offered advice on how to deal with some of them. Miller said cartoonists on their own should incorporate themselves to protect against frivolous lawsuits. Fell discussed creative ways of obtaining health insurance, such as doing drawings for an organization in return for getting onto its group medical plan. Fiore recommended using an accountant to help with the complications of paying taxes as a freelancer.

And, said Miller, self-employed cartoonists “need to be disciplined or it won’t work.”

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