The Rant: Just How Much Is a Political Cartoonist Worth?
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.
| November 24, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: The Rants
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