Drawing Flak: Editorial Cartoonists Discuss Future of Their Profession

By: Dave Astor Editorial cartoonists often lament that many newspapers don't appreciate them and staff jobs are being lost.

So they tried to do something about it Thursday by holding a session, at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists's 50th-anniversary convention, that resulted in numerous suggestions that AAECers might vote on this Saturday.

Before audience members came up with the suggestions, the problem was described by editorial cartoonist Paul Fell -- one of the session leaders.

"Part of the reason the AAEC was founded was a concern about the dimimishing number of editorial cartoon positions in the U.S.," said Fell, a Nebraska-based creator syndicated by Artizans. "Here we are 50 years later and we're facing the same problem -- only now there's roughly 25% of the staff positions [about 80]compared to 1957."

Another session leader, Milt Priggee of the Skagit Valley Herald in Washington state, added: "Will the AAEC become an organization of freelancers? That's where we might be going."

A third session leader, AAEC Vice President Ted Rall of Universal Press Syndicate, said reasons for the staff-position decline are many -- including fewer daily newspapers, and editors using inexpensive syndicated cartoons rather than paying a cartoonist's salary (despite losing the local commentary a staffer can provide).

"Now there's even a trend to eliminate syndicated cartoons," Rall added. "We're vanishing, and the Internet has not proven to be a viable economic alternative for most of us."

The fourth session leader -- Clay Bennett of The Christian Science Monitor and Christian Science Monitor News Service -- suggested that cartoonists speak about the importance of their profession at editors' conferences, educators' conferences, journalism schools, and in classrooms of younger students.

He added that the AAEC is already involved with the "Cartoons for the Classroom" program, which provides teachers with lesson plans using cartoons -- and which is popular with many students. "We're growing an audience that will hopefully bear fruit in the future," said Bennett.

Then audience members chimed in. Jerry Robinson, founder of the CartoonArts International (CAI) syndicate, said newspaper editors should be invited to AAEC conventions.

Signe Wilkinson of The Philadelphia Daily News and the Washington Post Writers Group brought up the possibility that the AAEC give awards to editors and publishers who appreciate political cartoons.

Jimmy Margulies of The Record in Hackensack, N.J., and King Features Syndicate suggested that the AAEC commission a poll to show how popular editorial cartoons are with readers.

Jim Morin of The Miami Herald and CAI/New York Times Syndicate added that a number of newspapers do internal polls that probably show the popularity of cartoons, and that AAEC members should find out the results of those surveys.

Gordon Campbell of the Inland Valley Bulletin in California said the high Web traffic many editorial cartoonists attract is another way newspapers can see the popularity of these creators.

Walt Handelsman of Newsday in Melville, N.Y., and Tribune Media Services, said cartoonists need to meet with their editors and publishers and ask: "What can I do to help the newspaper?"

In Handelsman's case, he began creating animations for Newsday.com that were one reason why he won this year's Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning.

Margulies also suggested that, while it may not fit the anti-spin sentiments of many cartoonists, the AAEC should consider hiring a public-relations person to help tout editorial cartooning.

Rex Babin of The Sacramento Bee and King said one thing people need to know more about is how editorial cartoons -- especially local ones -- "have helped change legislation and zoning laws, and have helped improve the quality of life in a community."

Rall noted that things like polls and PR aren't cheap, meaning the AAEC needs to raise more funds. "Money is power," he said.

Self-syndicated political animator Mark Fiore said the AAEC should try to raise more money via its EditorialCartoonists.com site. This could include efforts like the organization's recent online auction of cartoons, and more selling of books by AAEC members.

Rall, who's also an executive with United Media, reported that the AAEC might end up with about $4,000 from its July 3 "Cartoonapalooza" event in Washington that was open to the public. Rall said that, despite a snafu with a newspaper ad that mistakenly didn't run, about 150 people paid $35 to hear 10 speakers and mingle with cartoonists. "That shows there's a market for us as personalities," he said.

"In this time of 'cult of personality,' we need to brand ourselves," observed J.P. Trostle, news editor of EditorialCartoonists.com.

Trostle added that cartoonists should insist that their names be printed prominently when publications such as Newsweek reprint their work.

Part of the way cartoonists become prominent, at least locally, is when they're a staff cartoonist who appears in a newspaper many times a week. In comparison, a paper running just syndicated cartoons might publish the work of a particular creator only occasionally.

"When readers see a cartoonist five or six days a week, they establish a relationship," said Bennett, adding jokingly: "It's the difference between being married and having a one-night stand where you wake up the next morning not always happy with what you got."

"Minimum Security" cartoonist Stephanie McMillan of United suggested that editorial cartoonists should consider expanding their client base to include political newsletters and other publications.

Kevin "KAL" Kallaugher of CAI/New York Times Syndicate said wryly: "At the end of the day when a newspaper has only five people working for it, we want one of the five to be a cartoonist!"


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