Dan Perkins, better known as Tom Tomorrow, has been creating the popular This Modern World comic strip for over two decades. For much of that time his publishing “homebase” was Salon.com, but as its comic section dwindled, he began “quietly looking around for alternatives” in 2010. “I had exploratory conversations with many of the big political sites,” says Perkins, “and couldn’t seem to interest anyone.”
That changed this past April when Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, hired Perkins to edit the site’s new political cartoon page. Perkins has used this opportunity to implement some standards he’s felt lacking elsewhere, like paying cartoonists (“that was an important precedent to establish”) and offering year-long contracts to the nine contributors they’ve signed so far (“I think artists deserve regular followings”). Moulitsas wrote in an e-mail that some of the “biggest social media shares at the site have been cartoons,” and an embeddable widget is in the works so other sites can highlight the Daily Kos cartoons. Perkins says they hope the widget will encourage people to “do the right thing,” i.e. “post with attribution and a link back to the source.”
Cartoons pass quickly around the web. Most cartoonists I spoke with said they’ve never had so many people viewing their work. But popularity doesn’t necessarily pay. Traditionally, cartoonists have had two main paths to solvency: staff jobs—which have been on the verge of extinction for years—and syndication. Syndication companies sell the rights to an artist’s work to publishers in a variety of ways. Individual artists are sometimes offered a la carte (which is most lucrative for the cartoonist), or as part of a package deal that includes the work of many artists. In recent years, individual artists are increasingly being bundled into packages at a discount rate. Using syndication packages and bundles, publishers can have a buffet of cartoons to choose from.
Syndication remains the way most newspapers, their accompanying websites, and other online news outlets obtain cartoon content. But the pay for the artists is decreasing, as found in a recent report from the Herb Block Foundation, entitled, “The Golden Age for Editorial Cartoonists at the Nation’s Newspapers is Over”:
To help maintain their revenue stream, some syndicates are adding new cartoonists to an existing package of editorial cartoonists without increasing the cost of the overall package. For example, a syndicate offering a package of 10 cartoonists may now offer a package of 11 cartoonists without increasing the cost to the subscriber. But to keep its own revenue base, the syndicate will reduce its payments to all the other cartoonists in the package.
Couple that with fewer newspaper clients, and it’s a significant pay cut. Cartoonist Ted Rall, who’s done freelance work for the Columbia Journalism Review, is syndicated through Universal Press Syndicate, and says each time one of his cartoons is run in a newspaper he earns, on average, about $3.50. But he’s down from about 140 newspapers at his peak, to 45. “Now, I earn 16 percent of what I earned from syndication 12 years ago, when I was less well known,” says Rall. And while some online sites have become new customers for syndicates, the new business doesn’t make up for that which was lost. Rall says his work has run in Slate, which he describes as a “great place to be,” but one month he calculated what he made from their purchase of his work for a roundup, and discovered “I made 8 cents from one of those cartoons.” He explains: “They get it through the syndicate, and it’s sold through part of the package, and the syndicate pays the artists a laughably low percentage of the laughably low rate.”
The Herb Block Report asked members of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists a survey question about syndication; more than half of the respondents reported earning income from syndication, and while 18 percent said they earn more than half their income through syndication, more than a third of the respondents said they earned less than 20 percent of their living from this type of work.