As Cartoonists Feel Newspapers' Pain, Many Strike Out On Their Own
Matt Bors, a syndicated cartoonist based in Portland, Oregon said he is often
critical of Obama because many other cartoonists are not.
(Cartoon courtesy of Matt Bors)
"When editorial cartoons are at their best, they're like switchblades - simple and to the point. They cut deeply and leave a scar." -Chris Lamb
In this image, Barack Obama eyes his audience plaintively, dressed in a customary blue suit, starched white dress shirt, and off-red tie. He is standing in the desert, presumably of Iraq or Afghanistan, wearing a camouflage helmet. It reads, "BORN TO KILL," and is adorned with a peace button and five full metal jackets, a la Kubrick's famous film.
The arresting, paradoxical scene is a one-panel editorial cartoon drawn by Portland artist Matt Bors. The young cartoonist, now 26, is syndicated by United Media and has been published in some of the largest alternative media outlets in the country. He rarely sleeps.
"I have a 'last man standing' strategy," Bors said during a rare break from what is currently an 80-hour-a-week occupation. "I'm living in a shitty apartment, sleeping on an air mattress. I can't go down any further. Or maybe I could, but I don't plan on it."
Editorial cartooning is not a very good way to make a living these days. Bors said a combination of income from his syndication gig, some freelance work, and a soon-to-be-released graphic novel is just enough to get by. For many professional cartoonists today, this is a familiar refrain.
"I call it 'multiple small revenue streams,'" said Steve Greenberg, now a contributing editorial cartoonist at LA Observed and the Ventura County Reporter. Greenberg was one of the dozens of cartoonists fired by daily newspapers in the past two years when he lost his full-time artist position with the Ventura County Star two days after Obama's election.
Although there were more than 200 full-time editorial cartoonists in the 1980s, the number has been dropping steadily as newspapers cut staff sizes and page counts. Today, Greenberg estimates that there are between 70 and 80 full-timers. Some put the number even lower than that.
"Whole art departments have been eliminated," Greenberg said. "We're all scrambling to find new ways of cartooning."
Although a few veteran cartoonists are taking their layoffs as a time to retire, many have turned entrepreneurial on the Web, launching their own sites to promote their cartoons and gain exposure. Some, following Mark Fiore's lead, have turned to animated videos. Most, however, are finding that the Internet is not a very profitable place.
"There are a few [cartoonists] who make their money online," Greenberg said. "Very few." Daryl Cagle, full-time cartoonist for MSNBC.com, was one of the first to try his hand at profiting from the Web, launching the Political Cartoonists Index (formerly the Professional Cartoonists Index) in 1995.
"I was one of the first spammers," Cagle said. He first promoted the Index, which has grown to become the primary hub for cartoonists on the Web, by sending e-mail solicitations to schoolteachers. Today, it is the most visited education site by civics classes around the world, Cagle said.
For cartoonists, the paradox of the Web is that it has profoundly contributed to the decline of newspaper revenues, costing many full-timers their jobs, but has also given many the kind of exposure they never had at their daily newspapers.
Steve Greenberg is a contributing editorial cartoonist at LA Observed.
(Cartoon courtesy of Steve Greenberg)
Greenberg said his contributing position at LA Observed, a go-to site for many of the city's powerful people, made him "a player in L.A. politics overnight," exposing his work to various political bloggers, members of the mainstream media, and politicians.
"I realized L.A. was this wonderful, crazy market for cartooning." Greenberg said. The flip side? The job at LA Observed, an award-winning blog launched by veteran newsman Kevin Roderick in 2003, doesn't pay anything.
Also, the referrals Greenberg gets from his presence on sites like Cagle's and Roderick's are few, totaling about five requests for cartoons per month.
"You can't compete with free," Greenberg said, explaining that newspapers effectively ceded their ability to profit from the Web when they first launched their no-charge sites. "I think most newspapers didn't know what to do with the Net, and so they dumped their content online," he said. "They just knew that they were obliged to have a Web site."
Greenberg said he is not optimistic that newspapers will ever prosper online. "The Internet's kind of a lost cause because people are insistent that they get their news for free," Greenberg said.
Cagle, the most widely syndicated newspaper cartoonist in the world, spent 10 years illustrating for Jim Henson's Muppets, and created advertising campaigns for some of the largest companies in the world. He started courting an audience on the Web before most people even knew what the Internet was. And even he makes only a fraction of his income online.
The bulk of Cagle's revenue comes from packages of cartoons he sells to print clients, including more than 800 newspapers. Business at his syndication firm, Cagle Cartoons, is holding steady, he said, but selling in bulk drives down the price per cartoon.
"The price for cartoons is alarmingly low and disturbingly low," Cagle said. He explained that he's won business from his competitors, including King Features, Copley News Service, Tribune Media Services, and United Press International, by compiling a better variety of high-quality cartoons.
"Cartoonists sold alone are going out of fashion," Cagle said. The bundles of cartoons that his newspaper clients buy make business sense for the papers, but they reduce the value of individual cartoons.
Bors said that creating packages of cartoonists' work "kind of sucks because it means less money for all involved."
In an opinion piece for the Ventura Country Reporter earlier this year, Greenberg argued that syndication has also affected the content of cartoons, sparing many in local politics and generally softening the punch of political cartoons: "Inexpensive syndicated cartoons undercut staff cartoonists. Light topical gags fill the space, anything the least bit inflammatory goes in the trash bin, and there are no worries about offending a local councilman or advertiser who might be the publisher's golfing buddy."
But Cagle disagrees. He knows the cartoonists he represents are not getting rich selling their cartoons to newspapers, but doesn't think the professionals in his syndicate have had to declaw their work. The thing to remember, he explains, is that it has never been easy to be a cartoonist.
"We don't have an office; we work from home," Cagle said.
With fewer cartoonists working full time, Cagle has written that he sees a "McDonaldsization" of editorial cartoons. In April, he wrote: "We may soon be left with just a dozen political cartoonists, perhaps the best ones, drawing for all the newspapers," Cagle wrote. "Just as we all watch the same news on TV, buy the same products at Wal-Mart, and eat the same food at McDonald's."
Cagle said he's not optimistic about the Web providing a significant source of income for the editorial cartooning industry as a whole: "I don't see a business model for doing it."
Bors, who often works in 48-hour stretches without sleep, has never known the kind of job stability that the previous generation's cartoonists did. At one time, it was not uncommon for veteran newspapers cartoonists to earn six-figure salaries.
Bors began creating editorial cartoons during the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, while a student at the Pittsburgh Art Institute. At that time, the prospect of becoming a daily editorial cartoonist for a major publication was already remote.
Although his strip "Idiot Box" has a presence in alt-weeklies like The Cleveland Scene and Pittsburgh City Paper, the graphic novel he's working on, entitled War is Boring, may be his brightest prospect. He said he'd like to become a "five-day-a-week editorial cartoonist," but for now, will focus on raising his profile.
"We can't even get a lot of Web sites to run cartoons," Bors said. "I've inquired everywhere." Bors has reached out to editors at Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post, and The Atlantic about contributing, to no avail.
He said he finds it illogical that many of the left-leaning political sites are willing to link to clips from satirical news shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, but will not run editorial cartoons. With the rise in popularity of graphic novels and Web comics, Bors reasons, editorial cartoons should be due for a resurgence.
"The cartoons are the most read thing on the editorial page." Bors said. "It's almost hard to avoid getting a message from it."
Greenberg has been seeking full-time work for more than a year. As he wrote in a post on Cagle's site commemorating the one-year anniversary of his layoff, "here in my mid-50s I've never worked so hard for so little money. The market for outside jobs (when I'm able to look again) is wretched."
After some false starts pursuing employment opportunities outside the news industry, like commercial graphic design, Greenberg is now looking to pitch animations to television news outlets.
Meanwhile, the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists has provided a place where editorial cartoonists can find and commiserate with their peers. Although there has been little good news to share at the AAEC's recent annual conventions, cartoonists say it feels good to talk about their problems with others who can relate.
"We're kind of powerless in a way to do anything about the economic climate," Bors said. He finds comfort in a community of cartoonists he's joined in Portland. Many of them create comics, rather than editorial cartoons.
"Portland is a mecca of cartooning," Bors said. "There are an insane amount of indie people." Members of the informal community include Shannon Wheeler, creator of Too Much Coffee Man (now published in the New Yorker); Craig Thompson, creator of the graphic novel Blankets; and Joe Sacco, a former Angeleno, graphic novelist, and frequent contributor to Harvey Pekar's American Splendor.
Asked what the political climate is like in Portland right now, Bors said: "If I ever made it out of my apartment, I could let you know."
Once he finishes War is Boring, Bors said he expects things to slow down, a mixed blessing.
In spite of the bad news that keeps streaming out of newsrooms, editorial cartoonists are not giving up. Most of the small community of 300 editorial cartoonists is adapting, experimenting with new media and sharpening its business sense.
It is a rare person who creates cartoons that "cut deeply and leave a scar." The same goes for a cartoonist who leaves his or her audience grinning wistfully.
Bors, fresh-faced with a groomed, dark beard and the smiling eyes of a comedian represents a generation of cartoonists that has known only lean times, but which has continued to build upon an American body of work that begins with Benjamin Franklin. He said he is not going anywhere.
"I'm in it for the long haul," Bors said. "I'm going to be a political cartoonist forever. But I really hope something turns around."