Syndicated Talents Band Together in Tough Times

By: Joe Strupp

Cartoonists are watching comics pages get slashed, columnists are being scaled back to part-time duty or cut altogether, and the number of full-time newspaper editorial cartoonists is falling at an alarming rate. These creators are in many ways the heart and soul of the syndicated world ? and with newspaper budgets shrinking, many of them find themselves turning to their professional associations for answers.

But how are those groups responding? Some say the answer is to recruit more members to their organizations in order to expand and gain leverage, while others contend they need to give existing members more tools to get through the tough times. Whatever the answer, three of the top associations ? the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the National Cartoonists Society ? are going through as many changes as the members they represent.

“We are not solely a newspaper editorial cartoonists group,” says Rex Babin, president of the AAEC and a 10-year editorial cartoonist at The Sacramento Bee. “We have made an effort to actively recruit others.” He says the requirements for membership are “kind of vague,” adding that the key requirement is that prospective members be professional cartoonists who are paid for their work. But he states: “There is an area where that is subjective, because it is changing just as being a professional journalist has changed.”

AAEC membership is at 334, its lowest in five years. In 2008, it stood at 398, and 402 a year earlier. “We have already gotten to the point where we are expanding our membership [eligibility] to all sorts of people ? part-timers, freelancers, graphic artists and people who do something else and double as cartoonists,” Babin says. Dues remain at $150 per year, and may go up, he adds.

Babin says convention attendance, which hit a high of 200 in 2007, dipped to 85 in 2008, and rebounded to 120 this year. The convention’s changing sponsorship is another sign of the times, he says, pointing out the 2009 convention in Seattle last June was to have been sponsored, in part, by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. But when the P-I folded, the AAEC had to revamp this year’s event with different sponsors. The 2010 event, set for Portland, Ore., will be at Portland State University without a newspaper base from which to operate. “We are playing with a new model with fewer and fewer newspaper editorial cartoonists,” Babin says of the convention’s effort to attract more people. “Newspapers are not underwriting it as much.” He adds that the big names, such as Pulitzer Prize winners Garry Trudeau, Matt Davies and Mike Luckovich, are still actively involved.

At the National Cartoonists Society (NCS), which has had a steady 580 members for the past few years, measures have actually been taken in recent decades to restrict who can join, according to President Jeff Keane, co-creator of the “Family Circus” comic strip started by his father, Bill. “It is not that you are at a newspaper, it is whether you are a working cartoonist making the majority of your income from cartooning for at least three years,” Keane explains. “About five years ago, we really wanted to make it so that everyone was qualified, and that dropped our roster down. We didn’t want a fan base in there. We wanted to make it more prestigious so that when you join, it is something that is the top level of the industry.”

The NCS also is expanding to bring in non-newspaper folks, such as those who draw greeting cards and do other illustrating. Among the three main syndicate organizations, NCS has had the best convention attendance of late, with 400 at its 2009 event in May in Los Angeles, more than its 2008 gathering in New Orleans. “We are making sure that our members are aware of what we can do,” Keane says of the group’s push to keep comics alive in print and stresses the need for cartoonists to expand into animation, as some have. He sees no end to the continued cuts on newspaper comics pages, a move he calls “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Even when comics are moved to a paper’s Web site, Keane says they lose much of their impact and audience. “They are two different things,” he says of Web and print comics. “Comics are one of the unique things newspapers have, and they have an ability to run them at a size people are eager to read.”

As for columnists, to consider the state of their profession, take Samantha Bennett, president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC). Like many of her members, she is no longer a full-timer, having taken a buyout last December from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after 14 years as a weekly columnist. She still writes the column, but on a freelance basis. “It has definitely been a difficult year or two,” she says of her organization. “A lot who are still columnists are having more work piled on them, they are expected to be beat reporters or critics or something else to help earn their keep.”

And the NSNC, she says, is having to revamp its services to help the changing needs of columnists. Bennett says its membership was dropping in recent years, but claims to have stabilized at the current 120 in the past year or two. “We are not bleeding as much,” she says, adding that expanded membership criteria are also being discussed. “We hear from people who want to stay as members, but they don’t have a column anymore.” The $50 annual dues has remained the same, with some offers to pay less if you get someone else to join.

“Our focus has been survive and thrive,” Bennett says. “You can’t control what your paper does or the economy, but you don’t have to be a helpless passenger on the Titanic.” Bennett says members are being urged to brand themselves and find more outlets for their work in place of a steady, full-time columnist gig. “Think of yourself as a free agent,” she has told members. “Anticipate the possibility that your job may go away some day.”

She says the group may take a page from the American Society of News Editors and remove “newspaper” from its name: “We are still on the fence about it. It could happen at some future date. But we have not given up yet, newspapers aren’t dead yet. But we are turning our focus beyond the print newspaper and looking more at new media.”

The NSNC is also not focused on big-name national columnists, as the mid-level and local folks need help more. “I don’t know if there is anything we could do for them,” she says of the well-known national writers. “We are kind of a networking support group, a lot of what we do is about networking and helping to get the word out. Charles Krauthammer and Maureen Dowd don’t really need us to help promote their next book.”

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