Disappearing Ink 

Is the age of the newspaper political cartoonist drawing to a close?

Picture cartoonist Bill Day with a bouquet of question marks hovering above his long face and deeply furrowed brow. At a time when creative content providers obsess over personal branding and social networks, Day, a struggling political cartoonist who was laid off by The Commercial Appeal in 2009, doesn't have any way to track which newspapers his now-syndicated work is appearing in on a given day.

"Darryl's the businessman," Day says, humbly acknowledging his technological blind spots, social naivete, and indebtedness to Daryl Cagle. "You'll have to ask him about the numbers."

Cagle, a California-based cartoonist and entrepreneur who distributes Day's work, doesn't know any of the particulars either. His business, Cagle Cartoons, Inc., is a subscription-based package service that makes all of its content available to 850 newspapers around the world. He describes it as an "all-you-can-eat buffet" for editors.

"The cartoonists in our package, including Bill, are among the most frequently reprinted American editorial cartoonists," Cagle says. But he doesn't get reports on which cartoons are picked up by individual subscribers.

Being one of the most frequently reprinted editorial cartoonists in the country may sound like a glamorous gig, but it hasn't been enough to pay the bills. Day, a 30-year newspaper veteran and two-time winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, has been working at a Memphis bike shop to make ends meet and drawing cartoons between shifts. Seeing little hope for the future, he had considered giving up cartooning altogether in order to seek better-paying employment. That's when Cagle surprised him with an audacious Indiegogo campaign designed to crowd-fund a year's salary. The goal: to raise $35,000 so that Day, an in-demand cartoonist, can keep making cartoons.

Obviously, there's something not quite right about this picture.

The problem, Cagle says, is simple: The print newspapers that once sustained editorial cartoonists are cutting back on full-time staff. "It's a bloodbath," he says. "It's a blight. And Bill Day is a perfect example."

If Day is a perfect example, is there one deftly rendered image that might explain his predicament and, in so doing, comment on the plight of the American cartoonist? Is he a canary in the daily newspaper's coal mine? Prince Hamlet reciting "to be or not to be"? An exotic beast eluding poachers in Editor & Publisher pith helmets? Missing persons? Disappearing ink? All the above and a big loopy signature?

Political cartoonists, a staple of American print journalism since Ben Franklin published his famous "Join or Die" woodcut in the Pennsylvania Gazette, are one of the nation's most endangered species. At the start of the 20th century, roughly 2,000 cartoonists were employed by newspapers. At the start of this century, there were fewer than 200.

"Cartoonists are disappearing at an accelerating pace," Cagle says, ticking off a list of recent layoffs, including Dana Summers of the Orlando Sentinel, John de Rosier of the Albany Times Union, and Clayton Jones of the Fredricksburg Freelance-Star.

"Out of 1,500 paid subscription newspapers, there are maybe 70 full-time cartoonists," Cagle laments. "Maybe there are only 60. They are being laid off in proportion to other journalists, but there were so few of us to begin with. Eventually, you reach a kind of critical mass."

Matt Bors, a pioneer of illustrated nonfiction and 2012 Pulitzer finalist, has frequently criticized Bill Day's work for being redundant and predictable. Day doesn't think Bors, a rising star of online comics, understands his job and the pressures of a daily deadline. But for all of their sniping and clear differences, Bors and Day have at least two things in common. Both are syndicated, and, for various reasons, neither one can make a living from syndication alone.

At this writing, Day's Indiegogo campaign has attracted 464 funders and raised $21,728. Bors is currently self-employed, following a successful $35,000 Kickstarter campaign that will allow him to develop and publish "Life Begins at Incorporation," a new collection of cartoons and essays.

"Everybody's scrambling right now, doing Kickstarters to make the house payments," Bors says. "But there's not any model. ... There will never be a time when there are more full-time editorial cartoonists than there are now. There will only be fewer."

"This Modern World" creator Dan Perkins, who draws under the pen name Tom Tomorrow (see p. 55), is only slightly less pessimistic in his reading of the cartoon tea leaves. "This is an aging profession," he quips, imagining a post-apocalyptic future when young Matt Bors is old Matt Bors, the last editorial cartoonist left on planet Earth.

"Symbolia" creator Erin Polgreen, a Chicago-based media consultant who sees much potential in the future of illustrated news, can't envision a happy ending for traditional editorial cartoonists, either. "I don't want to sound brutal," Polgreen says, before rendering a brutally honest assessment: "At some point, it could have all evolved. But that never really happened."

What makes a major comeback for editorial cartoonists seem unlikely? Bors explains: "As soon as a news event happens, people are talking about it on Twitter, and every predictable joke is used up in the first five minutes. People start publishing memes on Facebook. If a cartoon comes out in the newspaper two days later, with a car going over a cliff and the word 'ECONOMY,' nobody cares. That's irrelevant to the discussion."

Former Commercial Appeal cartoonist Graham Sale agrees with Bors — saying that it doesn't take that much originality to stand out in an increasingly homogenized and cliché-ridden field. "There are some people doing some good work, but I can't tell a lot of the cartoons apart," he complains. "It's all elephants and donkeys. I never liked any of that. I think I only ever drew maybe two elephants ever."

Perkins has a theory: "Cartoonists started cutting their own throats years before the economy turned bad and the internet came along.

"They planted the seeds of their own destruction in a very Shakespearean way when all these guys, these cartoonists with the good-paying jobs, started syndicating stuff for an incredibly cheap rate. They undercut their own economy. Now there's so much more out there competing for attention. We're competing with video clips of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert.

"Internet memes are the worst," he adds, referencing one of his own cartoons. "Sometimes I honestly think editorial cartooning will be replaced by LOL Cats."

Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck says he hasn't given up on publishing locally sourced cartoons. "The business model for supporting journalism has changed," he wrote in an email to the Flyer. "The position of staff cartoonist has been eliminated at most newspapers around the country."

Polgreen takes that ball and runs with it: "When large organizations are faced with budget cuts, they cut the things that can be most easily replicated," she says. "Cartooning is one of those departments. Like film critics, it's something that can be acquired over a wire."

Things are tough all over. The economic crash of 2008 had a profound impact on the cartooning business. Nobody was safe, not even the man who created Tom Tomorrow's Sparky the Wonder Penguin. "After [the crash], lots of alt-weeklies dropped me," Perkins says. "It hurt. ... There were times when I wondered if I was going to be able to ride things out.

"The biggest hit I took was from the New Times chain. They dropped me across the whole chain in one day. You know, I've always tried to be diverse. I've always tried to keep my eggs in different baskets. I guess I just hadn't counted on all the baskets merging."

Perkins says the worst seems to be over for him, and things have begun to stabilize. A new partnership with TopatoCo, an online retailer specializing in webcomic merchandise, has helped to offset client loss.

"But merchandising, by itself, it's not enough to live on, because you just don't sell that much stuff," he says. "Or, at least, I don't sell that much stuff, and I have a pretty good fan base. Ultimately, the thing that will always sustain timely political cartoons is publications that can run them and are willing to pay for them."

So where are these publications?

Bill Day says it's not the publications, it's the editors, and there are two kinds: those who support cartoonists and those who don't. Sale, Day's short-lived replacement at the CA, describes Peck as the former but says Peck is compromised by considerable top-down pressure to cut costs.

Sale, best known locally for his "Men in Hats" strip, signed an annual contract with the CA but never held a full-time staff position. He lost the monthly paycheck to another round of budget cuts but says he still has a good relationship with the newspaper.

"I can still sell them cartoons," Sale says. "But they're more likely to buy them if they're about local issues, and you've got to have passion. I'm not from here. I don't have a kid in the school system. And if I draw something and they don't buy it here, where can I use it?"

Sale says a syndication-driven market has made hyper-local cartooning difficult.

Strip cartoonist and illustrator Greg Cravens creates the art for the Flyer's "What They Said" column and does frequent covers (including the one for this issue). He thinks the dearth of regional caricature is good news for one group: Memphis politicians.

"Whoever gets in enough trouble in the future will be gloriously happy there are no cartoonists working locally," Cravens says. "Or at least none with the time or the training to really communicate an opinion graphically."

Cagle confirms that cartoonists with strong opinions and pet subjects aren't always attractive to editors and consumers. "If it's not what's being talked about on cable news, editors aren't interested," he says. "If you've got a topic of interest — wetlands, for example — it's not going to be reprinted. I see all of this happen on my website. When Syria is big in the news or if Hamas is causing trouble, my traffic goes down. On the other hand, if Janet Jackson has a wardrobe malfunction or Britney Spears wears no underwear, traffic spikes."

Cagle acknowledges that his core audience, like the cartoonists he works with, are a fairly homogeneous group: "It's political junkies," he says. "Primarily male and college-educated. It's not your typical web audience," Cagle says. "That's a frustration."

Graham Sale says he's not interested in Kickstarter campaigns or making cartoons on speculation. He's had a good run, and now he's getting out of the editorial cartoon business. "This is a profession that blows," he says, peppering the conversation with words like "impossible," "depressed," "resentful," "frustrated," and "embarrassed."

Matt Bors thinks he could make more money working at Red Lobster, but he's determined to be the last man standing on a sinking ship.

But how many times can an artist pass the digital hat?

Erin Polgreen thinks that larger campaigns on Kickstarter and Indiegogo are probably a one-and-done proposition. She's convinced that the cartoonists who survive and thrive will be the ones who figure out how to better connect and serve their audiences.

"Look at people like Matt Bors, who's a part of the whole web comics generation," Polgreen says. "He realized what you can do when you build a community online."

Polgreen recently launched "Symbolia," which she describes as a tablet-based magazine for illustrated news. The work "Symbolia" collects is less like editorial cartooning and more like traditional reporting, built around a mix of still images, text, and animation. "Everything is sourced, fact-checked," Polgreen says. "We're not trying to replicate an old model. Instead, we want to expand the possibilities of what cartoons and visual arts can do as part of the news.

"Graphic novels are a growth area for publishing," Polgreen says, offering depressed editorial cartoonists something to think about. "Publishing houses are now starting to invest in nonfiction comics, too."

Polgreen imagines a broader, frequently less opinionated approach to illustrated nonfiction and a business model that is resilient because it's social and responsive to audience needs.

Of course, it's hard to zero in on your audience's needs when you don't even know where your cartoons are running. That's something Day is discovering as he navigates his new normal. He hopes there's some hope yet for a proud tradition that's fallen on lean times.

"Bill's job is going to be very different in this next year," Cagle says. "He'll be working for people who've funded him. He'll be making drawings, sending email thank-you notes, and putting together ebooks to send out. It's a little bit different from working at a newspaper, and that's cool. Now he'll be working for his contributions."

Those who want to support Bill Day can become a funder by visiting http://www.indiegogo.com/billday.

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