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Posted at 9:45 AM ET, 06/12/2009

The Interview: Dan Wasserman's Inside Line on the Boston Globe's Labor Woes

By Michael Cavna

DAN WASSERMAN (Courtesy of Dan Wasserman / Boston Globe)

This week, Boston Globe political cartoonist DAN WASSERMAN -- responding to his newspaper's vote to reject a new labor deal -- created a brilliantly distilled cartoon. Because the New York Times Co. says it plans to cut Globe salaries by 23 percent as of next week, Wasserman drew an editorial cartoon from which 23 percent was missing --namely, most of the laugh-line panel (which made for a nice meta-joke, to boot).

The cartoon drew much attention, both in Boston and in national media circles. That's acclaim that I believe Wasserman richly deserves: He's a smart, distinctive cartoonist and "Out of Line" blogger who's been a staple of the Globe's opinion pages since 1985. Comic Riffs caught up with Wasserman yesterday to get the inside line on being a journalist working at the center of the Globe's labor woes:

MICHAEL CAVNA: How did the idea for the "23 Percent Cartoon" come to you? Had you mulled it for a bit, or was it a sudden creative thunder-clap?

DAN WASSERMAN: That was a morning-of idea. That came right out of the news [of the vote]. It's a funny thing, though, when [as a political cartoonist] it's your own paper and when your own situation becomes the news story.

MC: Does being in the middle of the situation yourself provide extra inspiration?

DW: I don't like to do a lot of self-referential stuff, but when you do it, you might as well do it all out. When you're staring at 23 percent [pay cut], that's a pretty big chunk of anything, especially if it's your livelihood. I thought: "How do I represent this?"

MC: What kind of reaction did you get to the cartoon?

DW: It was a big hit around the city. And I got a lot of feedback from people all over the country, especially from people at newspapers affiliated with these struggles. It's [rewarding] when you produce something that resonates with people in a tough spot -- people in our own profession.

MC: Within Boston, what's the reaction been to the Globe's labor struggle?

DW: The reaction tends to fall into two categories. One, "I can't live without my morning paper -- what can I do to help you guys survive." And the other school of thought is: "It's about time that the elite liberal media got its comeuppance." There's a cottage industry in Globe-bashing.

MC: You said your boss -- Renée Loth -- resigned [yesterday]. A good relationship between a political cartoonist and an editorial-page editor, of course, can be like a creative marriage. What, in particular, will you miss about your editor?

DW: Renée has been terrific [these past 15 years]. She's one of those people who only makes cartoons better. There are editors who meddle in a way that they muck them up and complicate them. Her eye always made me create clearer, simpler cartoons. If you can find someone who can help you distill, that's a real treasure.

MC: Speaking of influential people, who are some of your creative influences?

DW: Jules Feiffer -- he was a big influence on me. I never believed as a kid that I would end up in the same profession. ... [Pat] Oliphant also helped me enormously. ... I started out at the Washington Star, where Oliphant was the headliner act there and I was a wannabe who trundled in and did [several cartoons] a week. That was in the early '80s. ... I was doing four-panel cartoons, so I was really influenced by [Garry] Trudeau and Feiffer.

MC: So what's the mood like in the Globe newsroom?

DW: Very, very nervous.

MC: Did you have a sense of how the labor vote would go?

DW: It's very hard to predict. I knew the vote would be very close, but I didn't know whether it would be close "yes" or close "no." ... The gap is not that big. I hope there's a face-saving way to get to [an agreement].

It's tricky, with the New York Times acting through Boston management. It's awkward. No one from New York has been up to talk to employees -- not [Times Co. chairman Arthur] Sulzberger. .... It's all being done secondhand, and so communication has suffered. They've got a real problem. ... Nobody [in New York] has any idea how hard we work. We've all worked for four years without a raise. We work overtime without extra pay. There's no appreciation for how hard people are busting their butts here to make this a top-notch paper.

MC: What's your take on how the labor vote went this week, and how things look going forward?

DW: I can't fault people on either side of the vote -- neither of these options was a good one. It's 23 percent right out of our paycheck or we could be put on the installment plan. It really depended on where people were in life: Do they need the cash now? Do they have medical needs? Are they looking at retirement? I'm not in a position to fault anybody. ...

One hope is that there's an enlightened local buyer who could resolve this -- but then you don't know what you're getting. But this marriage between the New York Times and the Globe is over. Cleaning up the contract and getting a decent agreement would facilitate [a sale]. I may be dreaming, but there's no way of knowing. There are no guarantees as to what's best.

MC: So more broadly, how do you see the future of political cartoonists within the shifting state of print newspapers?

DW: Newspapers are really shortsighted in letting go of people who are distinct commentators. Because that's one of the few things [newspapers] have to offer that you can't get off of a CNN Web site or a Google news update. We have a connection to the community. We have accessibility. We have an unpredictability that is not reproducible by any of these news aggregators. [Political cartooning] brings people to our pages and to our Web site. It's a form of pungent commentary that people respond to. I understand they're strapped, but I think it's pennywise and pound foolish -- and punchline foolish.

MC: And what about the future of political cartooning at large, as an art form and as a trade?

DW: I think it will find a venue. It's going to be a wrenching transition. The type of jobs that we've had as editorial cartoonists will continue to be in jeopardy. Somehow, people's desire for news and people's desire for [editorial cartoons] will create a market. I wish I could predict what the medium was going to be. Maybe for the next generation, it will be a YouTube animator. It seems completely crazy to me that the jester -- the court jester -- is suddenly going to disappear. It's an institution that will be reinvented. It will survive.

MC: Let's certainly hope so, So, Dan, any last thoughts on how the Globe labor dispute might end?

DW: The situation is crying out for a scintilla of creativity in resolving this dispute. It isn't irresolvable. It requires people just thinking a little bit outside of the normal rut and acting for the common good. I'm cautiously optimistic when they meet on Monday that this will dawn on everybody and we get to a [resolution]. There's too much at stake to worry about anyone saving face.

By Michael Cavna  | June 12, 2009; 9:45 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Political Cartoon  
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I live in Boston and I love the Wasserman cartoons (He is linked to my blog)and my morning paper. Where else would I get stories about school lunch room inspections and know who got appointed Dean of the law school at Harvard as well as the real scoop on the Red Sox. I hope that a local buyer will be found for the Globe and it will survive for many more years.

Posted by: mhasegawa | June 12, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

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