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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 11/13/2008

Requiem for the Staff Political Cartoonist (2009)

By Michael Cavna

The dire headlines come so fast and infuriating these days, it's rather like watching those sepia-toned, World War II-era newsreels -- the ones with the bold, fly-by headlines and clipped voiceover narration. We can imagine:

"Newspaper Cartoonists on the March --
To the Unemployment Line!"

"The Only Thing Many Editorial Cartoonists
Get to Draw? A Severance Check!"

"Platoon of Political Cartoonists Lost --
Feared Drowned in Red Ink!"

Yes, when it comes to cutting jobs, sometimes the pen is not mightier than the sword, or at least the ax. And recent days bring news that two longtime staff cartoonists -- the Ventura County (Calif.) Star's Steve Greenberg and the Kansas City Star's Lee Judge -- have been handed their walking papers. That, of course, follows such news in recent months that Dayton's Pulitzer-winning Mike Peters is cutting back his workload, for instance, and that Cincinnati's Pulitzer-winning legend Jim Borgman took the Inquirer's buyout offer.

So today, we pause to mourn anew the Endangered Species that is the Staff Political Cartoonist.

"Cartoon positions are disappearing -- probably forever," Greenberg told us yesterday. The artist, who was part of larger layoffs at the Ventura County paper, added: "I believe it's very counterproductive for newspapers to cut their best visual people, praying that the Internet will save them. ... They're cutting the people who are in the best position to help them survive."

Borgman told Comic Riffs recently that eventually, there will be room for only a few Mike Luckovichs -- that is, widely syndicated staff editorial cartoonists. He advised others seeking to pursue this field to "go local" in order to stay relevant and necessary.

And Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, recently told 'Riffs: "There ought to be 1,000 staff cartoonists, but the newspaper industry is committing suicide."

If what plagues almost all American newspapers continues to ail us, then for political cartoonists, 2009 could be a bloodbath -- and unfortunately, federal regulators may bail out a Bear Stearns, but not so the artists who can deftly draw a political pachyderm, donkey or stern Russian bear.

If there's a sliver of a silver lining in these headlines, such as it is, it's that no one has a more well-refined sense of gallows humor than political cartoonists. To wit, Jimmy Margulies of the Record (N.J.) sends along to 'Riffs this wonderfully satiric "parody announcement":

" NEW YORK (Nov. 12) -- Harper's Weekly has eliminated the position of Thomas Nast, famed editorial cartoonist, noted for his pursuit of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall as well as the creation of the Democratic donkey, Republican elephant, Uncle Sam and Santa Claus. Harper's executives cited a declining economic outlook in the decision. Nast will pen his final cartoon by month's end.

Nast had recently turned down a generous financial offer from Boss Tweed to stop drawing "them damned pictures" Since Harper's management's decision to terminate Nast achieved this same result, they announced their intention to seek the financial offer themselves.

Harper's pointed to this move as both a smart strategy to bolster its own profitability, as well as a model for the entire print media industry to follow."

Had Thomas Nast been laid off by Harper's Weekly, we never would have had such powerful cartoons as this 1867 illustration, "The Georgetown Election," which mocked President Andrew Johnson's (left) stance on suffrage based on race.

Bravo, Jimmy. From all of us perched at a newspaper desk, we need someone to keep us laughing in these dicey times.

By Michael Cavna  | November 13, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Riffs  
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In one sense, though, political cartoonists might be in a position to better weather this. Consider the following: suppose a laid-off cartoonist who already has a following, continues creating his cartoons. He sets up a blog to post them on (at no cost), and signs up with AdSense (for free). He uses Creative Commons to protect his material, while encouraging its distribution. How long will it be until his blog starts getting significant traffic and begins providing an income stream?

Posted by: rgraves1 | November 13, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Maybe the newspaper industry should sign up for a gov't bailout? Why not? All you have to lose is your independence and your objectivity. How much to make that happen? Is $5B enough? Let's make a deal...

Posted by: MSchafer | November 13, 2008 12:34 PM | Report abuse

The San Antonio Express-News contributed to the dimise of political cartoons with the "letting go" of Leo Garza who drew "Nacho Guarache". What made it perfect was the total San Antonio take on things that were, at the same time, totally relevant to the Texas/USA political scene. Did not always agree with him but still totally miss Nacho. Should have kept Leo and dismissed Branch.

Posted by: ZeldaJane | November 13, 2008 3:36 PM | Report abuse

This just makes me appreciate Tom Toles more. I hope the Post keeps him around.

Posted by: oceanchild | November 14, 2008 3:30 PM | Report abuse

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