We have a great audience of editorial cartoon fans that follow our site, and the Web has brought a larger audience to our art form than political cartoonists have ever had before, but sales of editorial cartoons on the Web have been a continuing disappointment for cartoonists, who earn their livings from a dwindling print market. Why hasn’t the Web emerged as a viable market for us?
Some time ago I visited the editors at Yahoo News here in Santa Monica; my old producer from Slate.com had gone on to be the head of Yahoo News which was one of the top three news sites at that time, along with Google News and msnbc.com. The contrast with msnbc.com was dramatic; Yahoo bragged that they automated their news site and had only four people working to maintain the site, compared to dozens of editors at msnbc.com which operated more like a traditional newspaper newsroom. Yahoo has an editorial cartoons page with a list of the names of some syndicated cartoonists, linking to dated archives of their cartoons; the page performs poorly; readers just aren’t interested.
When I started Cagle.com, my site featured archives of cartoons by artist, and it still does, but I quickly learned that readers weren’t interested in artists, they wanted topics. When we reorganized the site into batches of topical cartoons, traffic took off. We got links and mentions on other Web sites that specialized in our topics. Readers who had demonstrated an interest in a topic flipped through many “sticky” pages of cartoons.
With the poor performance of their artist-name cartoons page, there was no way I could convince the Yahoo News people that editorial cartoons had value – even with the popularity of our topical cartoon content on Cagle.com. Unfortunately, this is a common story. Many news sites, and scores of newspaper sites, have inexpensive, automated, syndicated artist name/dated archives that perform poorly, that cost little or nothing, and that reinforce the notion that editorial cartoons have little value on the Web. More examples of terrible editorial cartoon sections on popular newspapers sites are The New York Times and The Washington Post. Readers get a poorly designed, automated, artist-name, dated archive presentation almost everywhere they can find editorial cartoons on the Web.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With just a little bit of editing, editorial cartoons make for great, sticky content on the Web. On our Cagle.com site we do that by arranging the cartoons into topical collections. Some topics are very popular; cartoons about celebrity scandals draw many tens or hundreds of thousands of readers, while cartoon sections about foreign affairs may only draw dozens of readers. The difference in popularity between topics is dramatic.
Our Cagle.com site is designed to old Web standards, encouraging stickiness, readers looking at multiple pages, and thereby multiple ads. Although it is still popular, our Cagle.com site is a Web dinosaur. The thinking about advertising on the Web has changed; throwing more, repetitious banner ads at readers who are flipping through pages of cartoons doesn’t have the little value it once had. The new metric of value is the time readers spend on a site, and in a particular article on a site, leading us to work with msnbc.com in a whole new way.
Msnbc.com has gone through a dramatic redesign that has won high praise. They provide for the readers’ interest in each topic by offering related content in colorful icons down the right side of each page, encouraging readers to visit news videos, slideshows and other related articles. Editorial cartoons have proven themselves in the new format in terms of the minutes that readers stay put.
We’re now working within msnbc.com’s publishing system, creating mini-slideshows of editorial cartoons that run within the news articles, keeping the reader in each article for extra, valuable minutes. The cartoon slideshows compete within articles with photo slideshows, videos and other content, performing extremely well. Msnbc.com has gotten more buzz for their success in integrating videos with articles, but the cartoon slideshows are integrated in exactly the same way as the videos, and perform very well compared to the videos. Here’s an example of one of our cartoon slideshows within an article at msnbc.com.
Msnbc.com is a leader in this, keeping the readers in each article an unusually long time. And msnbc.com is profitable, with well edited content put together by editors who are seasoned journalists, working in an environment that seems very much like a traditional newspaper. In some ways the new metrics for editorial cartoons throws back to traditional print journalism, since the cartoons are again adding value to an assortment of textual articles, carefully selected by editors.
The editors at Yahoo are wrong to conclude that editorial cartoons perform poorly. Web site editors should avoid making the mistakes that Yahoo News, The New York Times and The Washington Post make. Automating updating content is alluring to the bean-counters on the Web because dated archives require no costly editing – but ultimately, the value of good editing shows through to readers and advertisers, as msnbc.com demonstrates.
Those dated archives that are posted everywhere may have poisoned the well for editorial cartoonists on the Web, spreading misconceptions about the value and performance of our art form, and it may take us some time to dig out of this hole of negative perceptions, but we will. Forward thinking Web editors will surely notice that when editorial cartoons are edited well and presented well, they perform extremely well with readers.