Digital Publishing

Cartoonists Still Thrive at Locally-Owned Newspapers

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This year’s Pulitzer Prizes have come and gone, a nice reminder of the types of stories the industry spent time tackling before we were forced to live and breathe coronavirus.

But a couple months later, and one fact from this year’s Pulitzers has stuck with me—none of the cartoonists cited, including this year’s winner Barry Blitt, call a newspaper home.

Blitt is an illustrator most often associated with the New Yorker magazine, while finalists Matt Bors and Lalo Alcaraz are freelancers whose work is nationally syndicated. Kevin Kallaugher’s work appears in the Baltimore Sun, but he’s also a freelancer who also draws cartoons for the Economist magazine and the new cartooning newsletter, Counterpoint.

As most newspapers have been swooped up by a handful of national chains looking to spread out costs and maximize profit, staff cartoonists have been discarded as unneeded and luxurious expense. By some counts, the number of editorial cartoonists remaining on staff at news organizations in the country is down to 20 or 30 pen dippers.

But if you take a slightly closer look, you’ll notice the remaining cartoonists on staff overwhelmingly work for locally-owned newspapers: Pat Bagley at the Salt Lake Tribune, Steve Sack at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Clay Bennett at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, John Cole at the Scranton Times-Tribune. The Washington Post, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, employs two staff cartoonists: Tom Toles and Ann Telnaes.

Not surprisingly, it’s those locally-owned newspapers that seem to be outperforming their chain counterparts when it comes to innovating and engaging readers, a vital component to selling digital subscriptions as print advertising dollars continue to decline (a trend not helped by coronavirus closures).

Among those surviving cartoonists is Pulitzer Prize winner Matt Davies, who is the staff cartoonist at Newsday on Long Island, right at the epicenter of the nation’s coronavirus pandemic. While Davies is among the nation’s most talented editorial cartoonists, he has won over local readers by regularly drawing cartoon unique to life on Long Island, whether it’s complaining about traffic on the Long Island Expressway or opine on the area’s famous beaches.

“When I was first hired by Newsday, part of the deal was me living on Long Island so I could understand its unique culture,” Davies said. “I was like, ‘Really?’ Now I get it—it’s like its own country.”

Hiring a local cartoonist might not sound that innovative—after all, cartoons have been part of the fabric of the newspapers since Thomas Nast drove William “Boss” Tweet out of Tammany Hall in the 19th century. But Newsday has certainly taken advantage of Davies’ varied skills and applied them in new and interesting ways that appear to have been a hit with readers.

For instance, when everyone on Long Island was ordered to remain in their homes by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Davies came up with the idea to do a coloring page for readers looking for something to pass the time. His editor loved the idea and gave it a full page in the paper’s Sunday edition.

“We can move on a dime,” Davies said. “I can tell my editor, ‘Hey, I’ve got this crazy idea. What do you think?’ And if she likes it, they can just open up a page and let me go.”

When New York decided to change the state’s license plate design, Davies put together a full-page cartoon with some tongue-in-cheek suggestions about what he thought it should look like. He also included a blank space and invited readers to submit their own ideas, which they did in droves.

“We got inundated. It was unbelievable,” Davies said. “It drew so much web traffic and even new subscriptions. It was really amazing.”

Davies, who started his career at the Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., beat the odds by even landing the job with Newsday. When his predecessor Walt Handlesman decided to leave Long Island to return to New Orleans and draw cartoons for the Advocate (another locally-owned newspaper), Newsday opinion page editor Rita Ciolli made the case to keep her budget for a staff cartoonist position.

“I think a local cartoonist reflects the times around our readers,” Ciolli said. “They either love the cartoons and stick them on the refrigerator door, or they hate the cartoonist. But it’s still the first thing they look at. It’s something that engages everyone.”

Fortunately, she convinced the publisher to fill the position, and said the paper benefits from the versatile of having Davies on staff, whether it’s providing local cartoons to their Instagram account or creating unique art for the paper.

“In a digital environment, sometimes I feel a lot of content just blends in. Commentary had a hard time online,” Ciolli said. “But cartoonists just smash you in the face and challenge your assumptions. And as a free press, we always need to keep doing that.”

Meanwhile, Handlesman—who was the first cartoonist to win a Pulitzer Prize for his web animations—is continuing his innovative streak alive down in New Orleans. Taking a page out of the New Yorker, Handlesman offers up a caption contest to readers a couple times a month, with the winner receiving a signed color print of the cartoon.

Not surprisingly, engagement is high on the caption contest, drawing upwards of 700 responses each from readers trying to out funny the newspaper’s resident funny man. That one-on-one engagement with readers is what newspapers across the country are attempting to attain. Yet given the choice to hire a cartoonist or another writer, editors tend to go with the writer every time.

“People just like cartoons. You can buy syndicated cartoons—and there are excellent cartoonists out there who are doing syndicated material—but there’s sort-of a generic quality,” Davies said. “But when you have a good cartoonist that can comment on the local issues your readers live and breathe day in and day out, you’re just going to get people’s attention. They’re going to engage.” 

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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