Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Is Political Cartooning Dead? That'll Make Some (Bad) People Very Happy

Conservative pollster Frank Luntz recently said that Americans have lost their sense of humor, their ability to make jokes (and take jokes) about political ideas and leaders without everyone losing their cool and getting fighting mad. You can see just one aspect of that development the next time you open up a newspaper. Today, daily newspapers are much less likely to have their own political cartoonists providing sharp commentary on local or regional events, and they're more likely to run syndicated political cartoons from an artist in another city and state who couldn't spell the name of your city if their life depended on it.

Who wins? Certainly the local politicians, crooks, activists, swindlers, and other people who prefer to do their work in secret, because they know that people would never approve of their methods or means.

Weekly newspapers are also going through a de-cartooning. Daryl Cagle posts an interesting article by Steve Greenberg examining the steep decline in the numbers of political cartoonists and political cartoons in American newspapers, especially in the alternative weeklies found in many cities. "The number of papers carrying the politically left-leaning [Ted] Rall’s work over the years — as many as 140 at one point nearly a decade ago — has dropped to just 72. 'But they don’t have a lot of pages, because they don’t have enough advertising to support the pages. That’s what’s really going on,' Rall explains. And newspapers find it not only saves money and space to cut cartoons with strong views, but also eliminates controversy, which is more tolerated in the alt-press than the daily press."

All too true.

My stepfather, Lyle Lahey, worked as a daily editorial cartoonist at the Green Bay News-Chronicle for 35 years until the paper's death earlier this decade. It was, I read somewhere, the smallest daily newspaper in the country to have its own political cartoonist, but it did -- and it possibly had the nation's hardest-working political cartoonist. Lyle drew six and sometimes seven cartoons a week, in addition to editing the paper's opinion pages.

He would be a good case study for newspapers considering throwing their cartoonists over the side of the ship. His cartoons were often the main draw to readers of the Chronicle, which was the much smaller of two dailies in the Green Bay metro market. I even saw that close-up; the family of one of my best friends subscribed to the paper only because of Lyle's cartoons; remove the cartoons, and they would've canceled. His fans were not only loyal, they were intense. I remember having a nice argument with a classmate in high school over how to pronounce my stepfather's last name. He was incorrect, and he bizarrely refused to believe I knew how to pronounce my own stepfather's name. Nonetheless, here was a high school student who regularly read political cartoons and identified with the artist.

And yes, offending people is part of the job of any political cartoonist worth his or her salt. Lyle did his share of that, earning heated letters and phone calls from the offended (Catholics, powerful business interests in town, Packers fans, conservatives, liberals, local politicians, activists, polluters -- whoever got angry and took crayon in hand to write a letter to the editor). But he remained independent in his beliefs, and -- a key to his success and to the paper's, as long as it lasted -- he remained committed to concentrating on local topics in his cartoons. He felt he owed it to the people of Green Bay to take on the things happening in and around their town. The bungled investigations of crimes, the toxic wastes pumped into the Fox River, the $43,000 open-air heated bus shelters, etc. As much as he upset some people, he gained the appreciation of others.

And that's what a local political cartoonist can bring to a paper, weekly or daily. I saw that when I was the editorial pages editor of my college daily, the Badger Herald. For a long time, our editorials and columns were dreadful college-student musings on national and international issues. That's what you get when your editorial page editor and associate editorial page editor are both political science students with a focus on international relations. And our editorial cartoons were national syndicated cartoons -- great ones, indeed, with the likes of the Chicago Tribune's incredible Jeff MacNelly. But two things happened that suddenly increased the amount of mail -- positive and negative -- we received and made the editorial pages relevant on campus: First, we learned to write about local, campus topics; second, we got a great campus cartoonist who combined professional-level art with sharp commentary. Bingo -- we were producing a page that people on campus had to read, because no one could provide the text and cartoon commentary that we were providing. We'd made the paper a part of students' lives in a way that the best MacNelly cartoon (and the best MacNelly cartoon was indeed awesome) could never do.

What next? To quote Homer Simpson when asked who would take care of the children if all the parents ran away: "The internet?" Well, the internet is a place of refuge and even success for some political cartoonists. Lyle Lahey has a web site and a blog, where he continues to produce three cartoons a week, now freed to cover topics national and international. Other cartoonists have done the same, but I think monetary compensation (you know, paying the rent or mortgage is a nice feature in life) remains to be figured out.

I spoke to one political cartoonist several years ago who was quite bullish on using the web to spread his work to readers and distribute it to newspapers nationally. I wish him luck. But I think most political cartoonists are talented at drawing and writing commentary, not marketing themselves. I understand that the modern market-based, Schopenhauer-esque response is that they have to adapt or die. But Schopenhauer's theory of creative destruction isn't a universal salve. (Geez, is it a "salve" for anything?)

They will adapt and change, I don't doubt. But it's a tremendous waste for newspapers and editorial cartoonists to lose their symbiotic relationship. They were good for each other.

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