Monday, April 6, 2009

Disappearing (Th)Ink

"If the newspaper is to be the watchdog of the government, no one can bark louder than the cartoonist." - Rob Rogers

There’s been a recent up tick in consternation about the dire straits the traditional newspaper editorial cartoonist is in. And it is pretty grim: from an estimated 200 full-time staff positions in the US during the 1980’s, down to less than 100 five years ago, and now subtract from that this list of around 30 positions lost so far within the last couple years alone:
Dick Adair, Honolulu Advertiser • Chip Bok, Akron Beacon-Journal • Thomas Boldt, Sun Media • Jim Borgman, Cincinnati Enquirer • John Branch, San Antonio Express-News • Gary Brookins, Times-Dispatch • Stuart Carlson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • David Catrow, Springfield News-Sun • Richard Crowson, Wichita Eagle • Eric Devericks, Seattle Times • Brian Duffy, Des Moines Register • Peter Dunlap-Shohl, Anchorage Daily News • Jake Fuller, Gainesville Sun • Bill Garner, The Washington Times • Dave Granlund, MetroWest Daily News • Steve Greenberg, Ventura County Star • Roger Harvell, Greenville News • Lee Judge, Kansas City Star • Jim Lange, Oklahoman • Drew Litton, Rocky Mountain News • Tim Menees, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette • Scott Nychay, Northwest Herald • Patrick O’Connor, The Los Angeles Daily News • Dwane Powell, The News Observer • Ben Sargent, The Austin American Statesman • Mike Shelton, The Orange County Register • Ed Stein, The Rocky Mountain News • Rob Tornoe, • Don Wright, Palm Beach Post
That’s an incomplete roster of buy-outs (forced or otherwise), resulting unemployment from newspaper closures, outright firings and some retirements. These salaried positions with newspapers were often sweet deals, with your own office, benefits and retirement plans etc. and nice paychecks. Trouble is, many, if not most of these same cartoonists also sold their work to syndicates, which in my eyes, was a Faustian bargain at best. In exchange for potentially wide distribution across the nation, these agencies pimp out an artist’s work for a 50% cut of the money – which might not be very much taken individually, but multiplied exponentially can amount to a sizable income, for at least the popular talent. Syndicates also handle a range of other features such as horoscopes, puzzles, feature columnists and op-ed writers. These industries are inextricably linked; journalism, editorial comics and syndication services. With the shifting paradigm of internet-based media, taken together with the current economic implosion, there is considerable anxiety and confusion as to what the future will hold for any of them.

Case in point: a quick perusal of two recent threads over on the Daily Cartoonist regarding the upcoming Association of American Editorial Cartoonists annual convention amidst the above-mentioned losses, and the firing of yet another cartoonist. The comments show the equal parts passion and arrogance that can dominate any discussion of “print versus web,” along with some hostility and divisive ignorance about what the problems and solutions are:

"AAEC convention plans shaping up"

"Gary Brookins laid off from Times-Dispatch"

Some of the frequent posters on that site, and in particular, two of the industry’s more prominent cartoonists, Ted Rall and Daryl Cagle, have repeatedly singled out editors for blame while conveniently ignoring the fact they both (respectively) work for or own syndicates, which I put squarely at the head of the table as far as who to blame for the sorry state of affairs in the profession. Whatever else they might be, they sure as hell aren’t a part of the solution: in fact I drafted an unposted comment earlier this winter addressing this point:
“I get frustrated at the constant finger-pointing while posturing over the decline of the editorial cartoon genre; from my perspective, it is disingenuous at best to fault complicit editors and publishers when syndicates are at least equally responsible for the slow death of the genre.
Independent creators of editorial cartoons that cover local issues have their work systematically undermined and devalued by the syndicates to where it is impossible to get published, let alone get a salaried position or earn a livable wage
Case in point: if I try to sell a weekly panel to my local newspaper for a crummy $50 ($200 per month) – how on earth can I possibly compete with the syndicates that offer a top-tier roster of editorial cartoons at a fraction of the cost?
For a specific example, sample syndicate subscription rates for our small-town circulation (approx. 25k) are: Cagle/$60 per month, Universal/$42 per month, and Tribune/$25 per month.
When combined with the profit-driven business ethics of publishers and, in turn, editors, honestly now; in light of such competition how can this profession ever hope to be more than just a hobby?

I’ll add what probably is the best pitch for aspiring talent when approaching an editor: tell them to dump the syndicated material (which can be read for free on-line anyways) and offer instead your works featuring local content for the same price. You won’t get compensated anywhere near what your work is really worth, at least to start, but that’s a foot in the door.”

So that there’s the whole deal, and regardless of the esteem I hold for the work of individual cartoonists who are also syndicated, unfortunately they are actively working to prevent my success as an editorial cartoonist. Artistically I probably wouldn’t stand much of a chance against many of them toe-to-toe, but the converse holds true; neither they nor their syndicates would ever have any reason to be remotely interested in our local or regional issues (eh, except for Sarah Palin). And actually, as of a few months back, using the very same argument I outlined above, our local paper cancelled their subscription to one of the several syndicates that provide editorial panels so they could afford to buy mine instead: a whopping two per month at, wait for it, $50 a pop. Wheee. Needless to say I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon. When it comes down to reprinting a Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist’s panel or my comparatively amateurish efforts, charging pennies for pieces cinches the deal. But it’s also worth pointing out that none of the other panels from syndicated sources have elicited any reaction whatsoever from this community compared to mine (a little more on this topicality as an inherent strength later). Now, on its own, running my stuff won’t make or break the paper, but it will enhance the local flavor and be a part of what makes it relevant, topical and useful to our community. In a visual oriented culture using visual media, the cartoons ought to be a valuable asset, a distinguishing point of sale that brands the product. Instead it is often one of the first things to get tossed overboard when consolidation and cuts occur.
Indeed, it seems to defy logic and common sense what direction newspapers are taking to get out of this dead-end; by regurgitating the Associated Press news wire stuff and slashing budgets and laying off reporters they shoot themselves in the foot by not focusing on the interests and needs of the communities they serve – not stockholders or bureaucratic entities from afar. For years I was running in a weekly insert for our paper, the Heartland, and it wound up being shit-canned. I, along with a sizable number of other folks, protested this mightily – even if on its own the magazine didn’t support itself with revenue generated by its own ads, it was still the core of local content, and the loss of such material which is the one thing that couldn’t be found on-line was a harbinger.

And as far as the whole “print is dead” mantra; I’m sure that’s the same thing said about books at the advent of radio and television, or for that matter what the debut of the camera spelled out for art. Funny thing is, turns out neither one was true. Though this observation is somewhat tempered by the observation within my lifetime of albums>tapes>8-tracks>Cds>mp3, VCR>DVD, film camera>digital camera etc. I’m not worried about it – last year the sales of graphic novels eclipsed the numbers for comic books for the first time ever, and that’s a hopeful indicator.

Back to the topic of the endangered editorial cartoonist; I wonder if there were any other medium in the visual arts that faced these numbers of attrition that there’d be some small measure of protest; I’ve already stated that I personally consider the editorial cartoon to be the single-most powerful and effective medium within the visual arts. Be a real shame should this genre wither, above and beyond the implications that has for democracy. That the comics are a canary in the coalmine, linked in turn with the newspaper industry, and that print journalism (are photographers worried?) may share the same fate as is an ominous thought. Again, the inexorable influence of corporate homogenization, the “mass” aspect of the media, has made itself along with all the contingent, secondary elements, vulnerable to the economic factors which are now strangling the industry. It remains to be seen exactly how newspapers and the subsequent cartoonist trades will undergo adaptation and evolve with the times.
Our contemporary culture of immediacy and entitlement present a host of issues that will not make the transition easy. Far too many people refuse to pay for anything at all on-line, and in most cases the individual cartoonists and their respective works are not enough of a draw on their own to merit notice amongst the flood of other internet destinations. Additionally, I have to question the level of engagement with issues (local politics) of most who scorn print media; my experience with the generational gap is a disconnect with whatever isn’t within your immediate circle of acquaintances (or friends on Facebook, or RSS feed, or blogroll, etc.) – that myopia is reflected in the declining popularity of editorial cartoons, as the social context that they reference becomes irrelevant and ignored.
So taken together with the syndication and industry woes, this artform is limping, but I’m not sure as to whether or not it, along with any career in the arts, is even an unrealistic expectation to think anyone should be or even can be sufficiently compensated for their creativity to earn a living, especially for what essentially amounts to a glorified hobby (see the last post. re: music). Maybe it’ll be relegated to the level of potters and watercolorists etc. as just another quaint craft that retired folks and grade-school children can indulge in. I’m being snarky here – since it bears repeating not many other mediums in the visual arts enjoy such a disproportionate amount of exposure, and maybe the time has come for editorial cartoons to assume their rightful place in relative obscurity along with everything else in Fine Art.

Aside from the largely contrived and artificial distinctions between web vs. print (in my mind, in my experience and even in my classroom; it’s all good): the viability of the internet business model as a delivery system is proven, it’s the network or context in which editorial panels traditionally appear as a value-added product within a content service i.e. newspapers that needs to be resolved. This also brings in the whole commodification of art, again including all the supplemental aspects of being a successful fine artist; diversification, exposure etc. Creating content-driven work that has popular appeal also runs counter to a lot of folk’s motivation or reason for being an artist, and many just don’t really care about such finer points as marketing skills, preferring to hand the reigns over to an appointed representative (gallery, manager, agent, syndicate). The possibilities of hyper-niching your work on the web are infinitely better than one’s immediate surroundings; the odds of attracting even a fraction of the traffic through the traditional venues available in for example, in this town, are zero to none. Especially given the ratio of gallery-goers and proportionate purchasers of said artwork that I’ve already ranted about, languishing in relative obscurity just seems to be an accepted part of the picture. Contrast that with the potential on-line audience - here’s a few notable, button-pushing comments from those previous Daily Cartoonist threads that point up this disparity:

“I have well over 150,000 subscribers to our daily e-mail newsletter and millions for our site”

“It’s been proven that being on the web is a profitable business model. A modest comic with 20k readers a day generates anywhere from $30,000 (on the low end) a year up to $42,000. Most of the strips that have 8 or more years under their belts are pulling in 80k on up in daily readers. PvP pulls in over 100k readers a day and revenue (with merchandise) at least $200,000 a year (on the conservative side. Business models like Penny Arcade that have a staff pulls in considerably more. LICD has a staff of 20 or so. Considering the starting salary on the low end at $15k for each employee they’d need to make 300,000 a year just to pay staffing cost (and have done so for years). It takes hard work and talent and a loyal audience but the model does work.”

“I’m so tired of this ridiculous argument that our work is given away for free, but your work is paid for by eager fans who can’t wait to spend money on your content.
What all of you are about to discover is that the interest most people have in your work extends very little beyond “it’s in the paper I already paid for anyway, why not read it?”
You better get used to the idea of giving (it) away for free because nobody is going to pay for it. Nobody was paying for it before.
Your strips generate no revenue. Advertising in the papers generate revenue and then the newspapers pass a cut of that on to your syndicate and then your syndicate passes a cut of that on to you.
So yeah, you DO agree with giving away strips for free. You just have constructed this ennobling lie around the truth of what you really do.”

“The webcomic model won’t work for editorial cartoons. A successful webcomic is what they call a destination location in the retail world. That is to say it is a place people go out of their way to visit. Someone needs to choose to visit your site and that just wouldn’t work for editorial cartoons. People read editorial comics because they are already getting the paper. If you want to maintain the retail analogy it’s like they are in the mall already so they may as well stop by they house of crap. Would that store ever survive outside the mall? No. It’s the same for editorial cartoons.“

Now even though the main topic of this posting is on the declining fortunes of editorial cartooning, and the struggles to adopt a new technological system, the very same perspective can be applied to visual arts in general (even if they are at a comparatively lower threshold of relevance to media). About the biggest group of artists who stand to benefit the most from this transition would be illustrators, as the overwhelming number of websites in existence could stand to use either a designer with aesthetic sensibilities, or at the least some better artwork on the walls.

Now currently I’m not actively trying to court readership to this blog, aside from a limited circle of folks, nor do I aggressively promote a web-presence (more so than the majority of peers though). There’s a parallel in having a foot in both worlds with my own work; skipping between mediums and formats, too many irons in the fire again! It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, will happen when I experiment with ramping up traffic, maybe even giving the Google AdSense and/or advertisement a try. Still won’t quit the day job though…

“On Career Day in high school, you don't walk around looking for the cartoon guy.” - Gary Larson

No comments:

Post a Comment