Marlette’s ‘Trib’ Work Stirs Off-site Cartooning Debate

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By: Dave Astor

Can editorial cartoonists do a good job living hundreds of miles from a newspaper?

That’s a question that’s been asked for years (“Artists Who Opt To Live on the Far Side,” E&P, Aug. 28, 2000) — and a question that has come up again with North Carolina-based Doug Marlette freelancing for the Chicago Tribune (Click for QuikCap). A Chicago columnist and a nationally syndicated cartoonist both said editorial cartoonists should be based near their paper.

Marlette, in an E&P interview on Thursday, acknowledged that there are advantages to that — but disadvantages, too. “Sometimes you miss things because you don’t have the objectivity,” Marlette said.

He added that in age of the Internet and other media, cartoonists can easily access information from afar — as Marlette did before recently drawing his controversial Tribune cartoon about racism in the Chicago Fire Department (E&P, March 18). “I saw the story on ‘Good Morning America’ and then went to the Internet and read about it in the Tribune and other newspapers,” he said, adding that good cartoonists develop instincts about what’s important to comment on even if they’re not living near the paper. Marlette, a Pulitzer Prize winner, also said off-site cartoonists can develop local sources to tip them off to things.

But former editorial cartoonist Wiley Miller feels being on-site is important. “Instead of buying something freelance from a cartoonist who has absolutely no connection with Chicago, the Tribune and its readers would be better served by having their own cartoonist who lives and works in the area and has a better understanding of the city and its politics,” said Miller, who does the “Non Sequitur” comic for Univeral Press Syndicate.

The Tribune, of course, hasn’t had a full-time staff editorial cartoonist since the 2000 death of Jeff MacNelly — who worked for the Tribune from Virginia. Editorial Page Editor Bruce Dold, when contacted by E&P Thursday, declined to discuss when or if the Tribune would hire someone. As for how he feels about Marlette doing Tribune editorial cartoons from afar, Dold would only say: “It’s a work in progress.”

Marlette’s main editorial cartoon job is with the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, but he does have a Chicago connection of sorts from being syndicated by Tribune Media Services.

The Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner, in his March 26 column, criticized the Tribune for not having its own cartoonist to comment on things like the firefighter matter. He wrote: “Marlette lives in North Carolina. He grew up in the south, and he finds his iconic images in the civil-rights movement of the south. I suppose he understands Chicago in the same general way that a Chicagoan caught up in March Madness understands Duke University. Why should a cartoonist who lives hundreds of miles away and doesn’t work for the Tribune be the one who makes the Tribune’s editorial statement on such a sensitive local issue? He shouldn’t.”

Marlette said he looks at issues not just from a southern lens — the cartoonist mentioned that he lived in New York part of the time during more than a decade working for Newsday — and that race, public safety, and various other issues are “universal.”

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