Tag Archives: Jeff MacNelly

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Want to Support Free Expression After Charlie Hebdo? Hire a Political Cartoonist.

Here’s what you need to understand the state of political cartooning in the United States:

After the massacre of four cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo last week, 25 remain on staff at the French publication, whose circulation ranges between 30,000 and 60,000 per week.

In the United States, a total of 25 staff political cartoonists are employed by the nation’s 1,350 newspapers, which have a combined circulation of 44,000,000 daily in print, plus 113,000,000 unique online visitors.

The total number of political cartoonists employed on staff by all American websites is one.

The total number at all magazines is zero.

It wasn’t always like this. According to a report issued by the Herblock Foundation, there were 2,000 political cartoonists on staff at newspapers a century ago.

Sure, print media has had to cut back due to a half-century of declining circulation. Writers, photographers and others have all suffered. But cartoonists have been eliminated at the highest rate of any journalism category by far: 99%.

New online media outlets like the Huffington Post, Salon, Slate, Vox, Yahoo News and The Intercept have hired hundreds of journalists — yet no political cartoonists.

There are more political cartoonists working in Iran and China than here.

Why has the U.S. become such a satirical desert?

In candid moments, editors confess that they’re afraid. They’re scared of angry emails from readers. (Prose doesn’t elicit as much reaction.) They’re worried their boss’ country-club buddies will complain about a cartoon. They’re terrified that a major advertiser might cancel its account. Narrowing profit margins and post-9/11 conservatism have amplified editorial cowardice.

When cartoons make the headlines, like last week, it’s another story.

News outlets couldn’t get enough political cartoons post-Charlie, noted Tjeerd Royaards, editor of the Dutch cartoon web magazine Cartoon Movement. (Disclosure: Cartoon Movement has published my work.) But they wanted it all for free: “the majority of media website[s] simply embedded the cartoons from the[ir] Twitter feed[s], foregoing the courtesy of asking the artists for permission to show their work, let alone pay for it.”

Royaards continued: “Although the media certainly seemed to wholeheartedly support cartoonists in the wake of the [Charlie Hebdo] attack, this support proved to be dubious, and might even be considered a greater threat to political cartooning than any terrorist attack could ever hope to be.”

Writing about the state of the profession this week, my colleague the alternative political artist Mr. Fish painted an even bleaker portrait of the future:

“The significance of those [declining cartoonist job] numbers might best be understood when compared to the dwindling numbers of an endangered species, not unlike the polar bear, who draws worldwide sympathy primarily when pictured drifting forlorn and alone on a shrinking block of ice or lying skinless and butchered by mindless thugs on a crimson bank. Likewise, it should be noted with some urgency that something systemic in the culture (similar to global warming, corporately inspired, government subsidized and willfully ignored by a disempowered public) is substantially diminishing the cartoonist population and threatening the very survival of the rendered word and the contemplative caption — and the very essence of creative dissent.”

Mr. Fish’s biological metaphor is an apt one.

Over the past few decades we have warned editors that we were in trouble. It’s worse now.

We are probably already past the tipping point after which political cartoonist extinction becomes inevitable.

One major threat is the loss of artistic diversity. In the same way that insufficient genetic diversity can cause a species to enter a death spiral — the cheetah is a famous example — American political cartooning no longer has enough practitioners to grow via cross-pollination, by being influenced by and against one another the way that I, for example, saw the work of the cartoonists Mike Peters and Pat Oliphant in the 1970s and wanted to ape the first and rebel against the latter. Most working political cartoonists in the U.S. are over age 55. So many have been laid off or discouraged that, even if I were given a zillion dollars to hire all the best cartoonists left, I’d have trouble finding 10 or 20. A profession that offered a dazzling variety of styles as recently as 2000 looks increasingly cut-and-paste.

There are only two basic styles left: the older, crosshatched, donkeys-and-elephants single-panels influenced by the late Jeff MacNelly, and the wordier, multi-panel approach that emerged in alternative weeklies during the 1990s.

Getting back to the polar bear analogy, there aren’t enough “newborn cubs” — young political cartoonists in their 20s — to form the roots of the next wave of political cartoonists if and when editors gain the courage to start hiring. Aside from the fact that there’s no way for a young political cartoonist to earn a living, young adults don’t see political cartoons in the media they consume.

The top websites read by Millennials, like Vice, Upworthy and BuzzFeed, refuse to hire political cartoonists. You can’t get inspired to pursue a profession if you don’t know it exists.

What to do?

I’m hoping for greed. Nothing gets clicks like a political cartoon. At some point, some twentysomething editor at a news start-up is going to figure that out.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

 

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Editorial Cartooning, R.I.P.

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A Powerful Form of Journalistic Commentary Falls Victim to the Digital Dark Ages

This week I’m heading to Salt Lake City for an annual ritual that may soon come to an end: the annual convention of the nation’s top political cartoonists. This is bad news for my summers. It’s terrible for America, which is about to lose one of its most interesting art forms.

The AAEC convention is always a blast. Hundreds of intelligent, quick-witted and hilarious guys — sadly, it’s almost all men — talking politics, the media and culture, one-upping each other with one witticism after another, even during serious panel discussions and the you’d-think-it’d-be-deadly-dull business meeting. Partisan divisions fall away as drinks flow, gossip unfurls and jokes fly; one of my dearest friends is a conservative cartoonist.

Turns out, even the dumb editorial cartoonists are smart. The same men who crank out Uncle Sams and avenging eagles blasting feckless Talibs, cartoons choked with outdated labels and metaphors no one understands, turn out to be hilarious, funnier and a shitload smarter than the stand-up comics (hi, Louis C.K., hi Jon Stewart) we’re supposed to be worship these days. (Why the dumb cartoons? They say that’s what their editors want.)

Alas, editorial cartooning is dying in the United States. After decades of decline (punctuated by countless warnings), there are so few political cartoonists left that it’s hard to see how the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists can survive much longer. If the current trend continues, political cartoons — which are thriving in pretty much every other country on earth, helping to effect radical change in places like Syria, Iran and Spain — will disappear from the United States, which perfected the art form, at the peak of its golden age.

A hundred years ago, political cartoonists ruled the earth. Like dinosaurs. There were thousands of newspapers and thousands of cartoonists working at them. Bill Mauldin, Paul Conrad, Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant were stars, boldface names. As newspapers declined, cartooning jobs vanished. In 1990 there were about 280 professional political cartoonists left. By 2000, roughly 80. Now less than 30. Many states don’t have one.

The layoffs continue. The Bergen Record just laid off Jimmy Margulies. He won’t be coming to Salt Lake City.

It’s the same story with syndication. It costs a paper about $15 or $20 a week for three to five cartoons by an award-winning cartoonist, but even that’s too much for cash-strapped newspapers. They’ve slashed their syndication lists. (They say they’ll use the savings to hire local cartoonists — but never do.) Many papers are doing without cartoons entirely.

In a field where bad news is the new normal, the New York Times’ 2012 request to cartoonists to produce hundreds of pieces a week for free stood out. Enough, we said. We refused. So the Times told us to take a walk. No other change at the Times has prompted as many reader complaints — but editors don’t care.

We joke — what else would we do? — that we should, like World War I veterans, go in on a bottle of champagne to be opened by the last man standing. Demographically and actuarially, that will be Matt Bors. At age 29, Bors is the youngest professional political cartoonist in the U.S. Despite the long hours he puts in supplementing his syndication income as an editor, blogger and freelance illustrator, he earns $30,000 in a good year. “I feel honored to be the youngest band member on the Titanic,” Bors says.

No wonder no one else wants to get into the field.

One of this year’s convention speakers is Victor Navasky, the author of a new book about political cartooning. Its subtitle references the “enduring power” of political cartoons. Yet Navasky mostly ignores developments since the 1980s, when Jules Feiffer and Matt Groening (“Life in Hell”) sparked the “alternative editorial cartooning” movement that includes artists like Bors, Ruben Bolling, Tom Tomorrow, Jen Sorensen, Keith Knight, Stephanie McMillan and yours truly.

American editorial cartoons have never been this smart, funny or relevant. Yet the best and brightest cartoonists of our generation are being pushed out of work because they can no longer earn even a meager income. In recent years talented cartoonists including Lloyd Dangle (“Troubletown“), David Rees (“Get Your War On”), Mikhaela Reid (“The Boiling Point“) and Tim Krieder (“The Pain—When Will It End?“) have called it quits because they couldn’t pay their bills.

The causes:

No jobs. No newspaper or magazine has hired a cartoonist from the new generation in more than 20 years.

Fewer opportunities. Fewer papers or magazines are running work by freelancers. Just last week, Time magazine quietly announced that it would no longer run cartoons. They’d been buying reprints for $20 each — a big change from 2001, when they were paying $800 to four artists, including me, for original content — but it was still too much.

Shrinking rates. The Village Voice, which gave Feiffer and Groening their starts, was famed for its cartoons. Groening got the Voice to pay $500 a cartoon in the 1980s. By the time I came on board in 1999, it was $100. Five years later, they slashed it to $50, take it or leave it. Now they don’t run comics at all. If I had a dime for every email I get from editors that start out “I’m a big fan of your work but I don’t have a budget for cartoons,” I’d be rich. Yet there’s always a budget for writers.

Censorship. It’s often what you don’t see that has the biggest effect. The cultural and political establishment has ruthlessly suppressed the new generation of cartoonists (I’d say young, but it’s been going on so long that some of these “new” cartoonists are over 50). You’d have to ask the gatekeepers why, but I suspect that our style (snottier, influenced by punk rock), politics (further left) and demographics (Gen X and Gen Y) are hard to relate to when you’re a Baby Boomer editor, producer, museum curator or book publisher. They don’t hate us; they don’t get us. So they don’t give us any play. (For example: Navasky’s book.) Which translates to less visibility and fewer dollars in our pockets.

There are bright spots. The liberal blog Daily Kos reposts edittoons. Nsfwcorp, a subscription-only print periodical, commissions original work, exclusive to them. But those are not nearly enough to sustain the medium.

Anyone who reads cartoons understands that they’re unique. Mixing words and pictures delivers commentary in a compelling, memorable way that prose — I say this a writer — can’t match. As editorial cartooning disappears, reformers lose an arrow in their quiver. Corrupt politicians and greedy CEOs get away with more.

The bloodbath in journalism in general and cartooning in particular is usually blamed on the Internet. Professional cartoonists work for newspapers and magazines; they’re forced to cut back as print display ad dollars are replaced by digital pennies. What revenues cartoonists can earn by selling directly to their readers — books, original drawings, merchandise — is getting sliced ever more thinly by online competitors: online meme generators, amateur webcartoonists, YouTube videos.

But that’s not the whole story.

At newspapers, cartoonists are the first fired, the last hired. When media gatekeepers — including those on prize committees — reach out to a cartoonist, they gravitate toward old-fashioned cartoonists who use hoary tropes like donkeys, elephants, labels and lots and lots of random crosshatching. Fetishizing the past is counterproductive because it discourages innovators. Also, it doesn’t work. Readers don’t respond. But editors blame cartooning as a medium when their real problem is their lousy taste in cartoons.

The New York Times Book Review is rightly skeptical about Navasky’s optimism about the future of editorial cartooning online: “An increase in distribution channels is not the same thing as a creative renaissance, and so far major online news sites have resisted the chance to hire their own political cartoonists.”

As a writer and cartoonist, I’m constantly looking for jobs. Sites like The Daily Beast, Salon, Slate and Huffington Post always post listings for writers. Lots of them. But they never hire cartoonists. From U.S. newspaper websites to the new Al Jazeera America, there’s lots of work for writers (albeit, for the most part, poorly paid). No one wants to hire cartoonists.

Why not? I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. It’s probably just groupthink coupled with a general lack of understanding of the “enduring power” of the medium. Newspapers first hired cartoonists because they were popular with readers. They still are. Portable electronic devices and the Web are quintessentially visual — duh — and cartoons — especially political cartoons — are massive clickbait with awesome viral potential. Someone at some point is going to re-figure out that people like comics. Then there’ll be a scramble to find edgy graphic content — comix journalism, editorial cartoons, animated cartoon videos — followed by the unwelcome discovery that due to years of censorship and impoverishment, there aren’t many cartoonists left creating professional work.

In the meantime, the Internet will continue to be something few people would have predicted: a sea of text as bland as the op/ed page of The Wall Street Journal.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in March 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Who Polices Political Cartooning?

An Art Form in Crisis Ignores the Rot Within

“Ted Rall, mop-headed antiestablishment political cartoonist, has abundant talent, a 1,400-drawing portfolio, seven years’ experience, the acclaim of peers and the approval of newspaper editors who, every so often, print his work. What he lacks is someone who will hire him full-time.”

That’s from The New York Times.

In 1995.

Editorial cartooning, a unique art form whose modern version originated in 18th century France and has become more pointed, sophisticated and effective in the United States than any other country, was in big trouble back then. Newspapers, the main employers of political cartoonists, were closing and slashing budgets. Those that survived were timid; cowardly editors rarely hire, much less retain, the controversial artists who produce the best cartoons, those that stimulate discussion.

Things are worse now.

Much worse.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by but the number of full-time professional political cartoonists now hovers around 30. In 1980 there were about 300. A century ago, there were thousands.

Cartoonists blame tightfisted publishers and shortsighted editors for their woes. Many decry news syndicates for charging low rates for reprinted material. “If an editor can get Walt Handelsman and Steve Kelley for ten bucks a week, why would he pay $70,000 a year for a guy in his hometown?” asked Handelsman, then the cartoonist for The New Orleans Times-Pacayune, in the 1995 Times piece cited above.

There’s also the Internet. As happened across the world of print media, the Web created more disruption than opportunity. Dozens of cartoonists tried to sell animated editorial cartoons to websites. Two succeeded.

Digitalization decimated the music business, savaged movies and is washing away book publishing. If the titans of multinational media conglomerates can’t figure out how to stem the tide, individual cartoonists who make fun of the president don’t stand a chance.

We can only control one thing: the quality of our work. It pains me to admit it, but to say we’ve fallen down on the job would be to give us too much credit.

We suck.

Day after day, year after year, editorial cartoonists have been churning out a blizzard of hackwork. Generic pabulum relying on outdated metaphors—Democratic donkeys, Republican elephants, tortured labels, ships of state labeled “U.S.” sinking in oceans marked “debt,” cars driving off cliffs, one hurricane after another, each labeled after some crisis new or imagined. Cut-and-paste art styles slavishly lifted from older cartoonists down to the last crosshatch. Work so bland and devoid of insight or opinion that readers can’t tell if the artist is liberal or conservative. Cartoons that make no point whatsoever, such as those that mark anniversaries of news events, the deaths of corporate executives like Steve Jobs, and even holidays (for Veterans Day: “freedom isn’t free”).

To be sure, editors and publishers have hired and promoted the very worst of the worst. Prize committees snub brilliance and innovation in favor of safe and cheesy.

In the end, however, it’s up to the members of any profession to police themselves individually and collectively. I often say, no one can publish your crappy cartoon if you don’t draw it in the first place. Amazingly my colleagues have chosen to ignore the existential crisis that faces American political cartooning. Rather than rise to the challenge, their work is becoming even safer and blander.

Moreover, we cartoonists are failing to hold one another to basic journalistic standards. This year political cartooning has been hit by two plagiarism scandals. David Simpson, a long-time Tulsa political cartoonist with a history of this sort of thing, was fired by the weekly paper there after he got caught tracing old cartoons by the late Jeff MacNelly on a lightbox. Jeff Stahler, a cartoonist familiar to readers of USA Today, was recently forced to resign by The Columbus Dispatch after long-standing rumors of stealing ideas exploded into a series of too-close-for-comfort pairings of his work and classic material from The New Yorker.

They’re only the tip of the iceberg.

There are plagiarists who have Pulitzer Prizes sitting on their shelves. There are even more “self-plagiarists”—people who shamelessly recycle the same exact cartoon, changing labels on the same image in order to meet a deadline. They shortchange their readers and their clients—and collect the biggest salaries in the business.

Meanwhile, it is impossible for the “young” generation of talented cartoonists who came out of the alt weekly newspapers—those under 50—to find work at all.

Within the mainstream of the profession the general consensus is that we should keep quiet and wait for the storm to pass. They make excuses for serial plagiarists, self-plagiarists, and hacks. At this writing the professional association for political cartoonists, which in 2009 imposed its first penalty for plagiarism in its 50-year history under my presidency, has still failed to act to enforce that rule or issue a code of ethics.

“This is bad for the profession,” I heard from more than one colleague after the Stahler story broke. “Let’s be quiet.”

No.

What’s bad for the profession is bad work. How can we expect editors and publishers to respect us unless we respect ourselves?

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL