the news frontier

Drawing the News Ain’t Easy

Editorial cartoonists struggle for funds, but not eyeballs
February 7, 2012

When The New York Times sent an e-mail to editorial cartoonists on Monday announcing that “The Sunday Review section is bringing back editorial cartoons!,” several recipients didn’t share the paper’s enthusiasm. The e-mail requested that work be “original (not syndicated)” and be submitted on spec; one cartoon will be selected each week and published for a payment of $250.

Romenesko published a response from the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s cartoonist, R.J. Matson, who wrote:

If the Times expects to be choosing from a batch of unpublished, finished cartoons each Friday, I suggest the Times has just insulted every professional cartoonist who has opened this email.

Romenesko also published a response from cartoonist (and CJR contributor) Ted Rall, reporting that “according to my source, most of the 80 cartoonists on the original NYT email are signing it,” though Rall told me what he wrote was just a suggested reply: “After I sent it, my colleagues were saying, ‘I’ll sign that,’ though it’s by no means being sent or approved or anything.” In the letter, Rall writes:

the proposed payment is extremely low given the low chances of publication… and-most of all-the huge circulation of The New York Times, the largest newspaper in the United States. The market standard for a reprint for a newspaper of your size is $250-not for original content. An original cartoon for The Times should pay closer to $1500 to $2000.

John Cole, the president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), says the group has considered issuing an official response, though the board of AAEC is “split in opinion right now” about whether to come out with a statement or not. Cole says he applauds The New York Times for introducing original cartoon content, but describes their proposal as a “cattle call.”

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While audience demand for cartoons is high, the job prospects for these artists is at an all-time low, a topic explored in a recent report from the Herb Block Foundation, declaratively titled “The Golden Age for Editorial Cartoonists at the Nation’s Newspapers is Over.” Strikingly, the report says that at the turn of the twentieth century, employment numbers peaked, with some 2,000 staff cartoonists working at US newspapers; now, fewer than forty full-timers remain. The Herb Block report contains eleven short, reflective essays penned by members of the AAEC about how changes in the news industry have affected their careers. The essays show that even well-known cartoonists are struggling.

Many of these artists have reacted by taking on a wider range of responsibility and expanding their media repertoire. Scott Stantis, an editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, has a blog, a podcast, and a radio show. He also draws Prickly City, a nationally syndicated comic strip, and runs a cartoon caption contest. Stantis writes in his essay that in order to “generate a livable income, the answer is clear: Get on the phone and pound the sidewalk. Create your own market and brand the work as well as the person doing it.”

Kevin Kallaugher, the cartoonist for The Economist, suggests a new job description to reflect this new age: “visual satirist.” “A cartoonist is the product of the print media,” writes Kallaugher. “The visual satirist uses all media available as a tool of expression.”

Mark Fiore is one of the most successful artists to take a multimedia approach; his animated op-eds have been viewed millions of times. In his essay, he writes about how he was “fighting the free distribution of content for a few years,” but has since “embraced” the model, and receives some ad revenue from his YouTube channel. He writes that “at this point, it’s a bit of a dance down the middle,” since he still does paid work for different news outlets, so he “embargoes” the cartoons, giving purchasers exclusive access for the first week before he uploads it to his channel.

Fiore also has an iPhone app, which debuted in 2010 as an experiment, but turned into a “fairly profitable little venture thanks to a bump in publicity from Steve Jobs.” Apple banned the app at first, because “it contains content that ridicules public figures,” but Jobs later called the decision a mistake. Fiore writes that the app has since “lost quite a bit of momentum,” but there is still hope among cartoonists that this could emerge as a viable option. Shortly before news broke about Fiore’s denied iPhone application, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his animated political cartoons—the first time the prize went to an artist whose work did not appear in print.

Rall, who is one of the featured essayists in the report, does cartoons for a number of outlets, but says he is making a third of what he made in the 1990s. He’s turned to some unconventional means for making money, like auctioning off dinner with himself. (A recent winning bid: $350). He has also auctioned off the right to choose the subject of his cartoons, which he then syndicates. “I’ve started appealing directly to my readers,” says Rall. “I’m Internet famous. I’ve never been read by as many people. But there’s really no way to make a living doing this.”

Besides the small minority of cartoonists with staff jobs, most make their living from a combination of syndication and independent contracts. Aspiring cartoonists are often compensated with “exposure,” and some outlets have attempted to “pay” professionals similarly. Rall got an e-mail recently from The Huffington Post letting him know that they wanted to include one of his cartoons in a “top political cartoons” slideshow. “I replied, ‘Great, how much do you pay,’ and they didn’t answer,” says Rall. He said alternative weeklies have attempted similar “exposure” exchanges, which he’s refused, because “those are the paying venues. If they’re not paying, there is no future in this.”

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.