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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 11/24/2008

The Rant: Just How Much Is a Political Cartoonist Worth?

By Michael Cavna

Listen to political cartoonists, newspaper editors and readers and one thing quickly becomes plainly, painfully evident:

In these downsizing times, there is no consensus on how much value to place on employing a staff editorial cartoonist.

Opinions on the matter are as diverse as artistic styles, but several thoughts expressed recently by artists keep resonating with us:

1. Alt-cartoonist TED RALL, prez of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, tells us: "Editorial cartoonists are rock stars [of the newspaper]. Readers LOVE us. ... It's still the most thrilling thing on the editorial pages."

2. Pulitzer-winning cartoonist JIM BORGMAN, in accepting the Cincinnati Inquirer's buyout offer this fall, tells us: "Newspapers are burning their heirloom furniture to heat the house when they let go of their cartoonists and columnists. We are the brand, we are what make newspapers more than the Information centers they foolishly aspire to morph into."

3. And pink-slipped political cartoonist STEVE GREENBERG, who puts in his final day at the Ventura County (Calif.) Star this week, tells us he thought he was "the safest cartoonist in the industry" because he was a one-man art department -- as well as the only staffer who had a profile beyond the region. No such luck: His editors gave him the ax.

So what is a top newspaper cartoonist worth in today's tough market? Obviously, the many variables include local and national profile, talent, connection to the community and the size of the newspaper. A superstar such as Mike Luckovich, Mike Peters or Tom Toles is the equivalent of a ball team's blue-chipper: High profile and worth their weight in newsprint. And lesser-known cartoonists who have strong regional followings -- especially when commenting on local issues -- are likewise precious commodities (and all but crucial in capital cities).

Some editors see dropping a cartoonist in favor of syndicated political cartoons as a palatable tradeoff, given that this option is (a) cheaper; and (b) typically means fewer controversy-induced "headaches." In most cases, the "wisdom" of this decision seems woefully shortsighted.

It's harder to argue whether a staff cartoonist is worth as much as a world-class war correspondent, or the best investigative journalist: This terrain quickly gets murky. But publishers and editors, we ask you to think of the position on these terms instead:

A top-notch political cartoonist is worth at least as much a star sports columnist. On balance, in fact, they can be strikingly similar:

1. Both, ideally, are "personalities" who draw readers by the force and familiarity of their strong voice.
2. Both address national stories and local issues alike -- which can lead to a national profile and a regional connection.
3. Both stoke sharp reader opinions and help build loyalty to their respective sections, if not the newspaper.
4. Both use humor, intelligence, hyperbole, topical relevance and a great deal of craft -- as well as many other tools -- to challenge how readers think.
5. Both are a tremendously valuable commodity when newspapers are desperately clinging to readers.

For those reasons, we implore America's editors: The next time you weigh laying off a great editorial cartoonist, please also consider whether you'd be as quick to drop your star sports columnist.

(This opinion, I should note, comes from someone who has worn a somewhat unusual array of journalistic writer/editor/artist hats, including: that of a newspaper cartoonist; that of a sportswriter; and that of a young cartoonist in a sports department.)

Lastly, one side anecdote is offered: The first time I ever toured a big-city newsroom, as a teenager, I most wanted to see where the sportswriters spun prose and where the political cartoonist summoned his magic. These men and women were my crucial entree into the print newspaper as a young reader. That first thrill of seeing these talented pros toil lingers still.

At all cost, some doors to readers should not be closed.

By Michael Cavna  | November 24, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Rants  
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Comments

A picture is worth a thousand words. A cartoon can convey a message that will reach far more people in 30 seconds than will a two-column editorial expressing the same content that will be read by those far fewer people who devote the time required to read it. It will also be remembered far longer, since that is the power of a visual image (much of the brain is devoted to the processing of visual information). At the water cooler, people don't share editorials, they share **jokes**. Cartoons are just too valuable a resource for a newspaper to choose to discontinue them when downsizing. It's a shame that the people who produce newspapers have a significantly different set of priorities than do the people who buy and read them.

Posted by: seismic-2 | November 24, 2008 12:25 PM | Report abuse

While you're exploring this topic, may I suggest asking some of these questions to Robert Arial of The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.?

He'd be a prime example of what you described as, "lesser-known cartoonists who have strong regional followings -- especially when commenting on local issues -- are likewise precious commodities (and all but crucial in capital cities)."

Posted by: greggwiggins | November 24, 2008 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Here in Atlanta I usually read the Washington Post, which says something about the amount of reverence I have for our town's Atlanta Journal-Constitution (where today's lead online story is "'HOUSEWIVES' GET NASTY").

But Mike Luckovich, the AJC's cartoonist, is fantastic--one of my very favorite political cartoonists. If the AJC were to dump him my last remaining reason for visiting the AJC website would be vaporized.

Posted by: kingpigeon | November 25, 2008 5:21 PM | Report abuse

The fact that an arrogant, radical hack like Ted Rall is in charge of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists tells me all I need to know about the future of the craft, and it's not good.

Posted by: LNER4472 | November 26, 2008 9:14 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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