The past few weeks have hit the editorial cartooning field hard... again.
Days after the November election, Matt Davies was laid off from the Journal News in Westchester County, NY, where he'd been since 1993, winning the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the inaugural Herblock Prize the same year.
At about the same moment, the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., cut Marshall Ramsey, a two-time Pulitzer finalist, down to part-time status "” with essentially full-time work, but with part-time pay and no benefits.
That's three full-time positions lost in a field that now numbers perhaps just 67 remaining positions.
Matt Davies had actually been scheduled to be laid off in 2009, and his cut had been announced. But his editor convinced Gannett to reverse its decision, and they did. "My paper looked down the cold and terrible barrel of not having an editorial cartoonist on staff and just couldn't do it," said Davies in August 2009. "The paper's readers owe a big thanks to my editor Henry Freeman who quietly worked to ensure that my position was revived and ultimately kept alive during a particularly bruising round of downsizing in our newsroom."
But that was 2009. This time, there was no reprieve. "I am crestfallen and angry, but also exhilarated," said Davies, assessing his future. "Matt Davies 2.0 is way overdue, in my opinion."
His termination happened quickly; knowing Gannett, it wouldn't surprise me if he was escorted out the door by security without time to say goodbyes. Once upon a time, a Pulitzer Prize made one "bulletproof" around a newsroom. Now, the framed prize is the final thing one would hope to grab before being shoved out the door.
Marshall Ramsey was one of 15 staffers either cut altogether or dropped to part-time after the election. He will do four or five cartoons a week for the Clarion-Ledger, down from seven, meaning Jackson readers will probably not notice much difference, although Ramsey's wallet certainly will.
But Ramsey seemed in good spirits about the change, telling Alan Gardner of The Daily Cartoonist,Â "New possibilities and innovations and allows me to grow in ways I could not before. It's not a total loss, but did come as a shock." And as he told Michael Cavna of Comic Riffs, "This sort of thing is happening to people everywhere. I'm determined to show that this isn't the end of the world. It's just a new one."
It seems newspapers like to wait until just after major elections to whack their editorial cartoonist jobs; that happened to me and others in November 2008. But such timing only underscores the relevance and importance of this profession.
The fact that newspapers tend to lay off editorial cartoonists right after big elections, to me, ironically proves the value of the cartoonists. Editors know the cartoons help shape the issues, give weight to election endorsements, make the case for or against candidates and issues more effectively than written editorials, and resonate with readers.
They know the cartoons are too valuable to cut when big things are on the line. But once those elections are past, the bean-counters immediately forget and go back into their cartoonists-are-a-luxury fog.
Cartooning positions are easy to categorize by corporate management at a "frill." After all, isn't cartooning sort of frivolous? But editorial cartoons are consistently among the most-read (and most-clipped) items in newspapers, and local editorial cartoonists are among the most popular creators in their entire regions and are often the only visibility a newspaper has beyond its immediate market (such asÂ Westchester County, NY).
As my friend and colleague Milt Priggee succinctly puts it, "WillÂ those idiots ever stop shooting holes in the bottom of the boat to let the water out?"
As for Drew Sheneman, it was his call to take out a buyout "” having previously survived one round of layoffs "” and leave his staff position. Said Sheneman in an interview with Rob Tornoe, "It just seemed like the right time. I'm 35 years old and over the past few years it became increasingly obvious that I wasn't going to make it to retirement as a staff cartoonist. I figured now would be as good a time as any to start reinventing myself and figuring out what's next."
Sheneman will continue to draw two local cartoons for the Star-Ledger,Â syndicate his national material and do a monthly comic strip for InJersey magazine.
So, like Ramsey, Sheneman will continue to appear in his former newspaper, albeit without a full-time staff position or benefits. It's the new economic model: the newspaper gets to claim it still has its cartoonist, but without having to pay nearly as much for him, while the cartoonist, in an era of vanishing print jobs, holds onto a piece of his old print outlet while trying to figure out what's next. And what's NOT next, as Sheneman pointed out, is the ability to have a lasting career as a staff editorial cartoonist.
The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists did a sort of head-count in May 2008, and came up with 102 full-time editorial cartoonists, listed by state. Just two and a half years later, the number is more like 67, give or take a few whose status is hazy. In the 1960s through the 1980s there may have been 150 to 200 practitioners of the art.
If these AAEC numbers are right, then that's a loss of 35 positions, or more than a 34 percent drop in 30 months. Polar ice caps aren't disappearing as quickly.
All of the full-time cartoonist positions in Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota have gone since May 2008, while there is only a single position left in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, North Carolina,Â South Carolina,Â Texas (!!), Wisconsin and Washington (and the last one is for a chain; there are no full-time cartoonist positions on that state's newspapers).
Please note than the nation is still crawling with editorial cartoonists, with some 300 or so AAEC members, with more diversity than ever. We're now mostly freelancers drawing for web sites and syndicates and alt-weeklies and niche publications, scraping by and doing a multitude of other jobs, from teaching to children's books to web design. But those with full-time staff editorial cartooning jobs "” the former normal situation "” have dwindled by probably half to two-thirds in a generation.
Soldiers from past wars would hold onto a bottle of cognac for decades, watching as their numbers died off, and the last survivor would eventually drink the cognac in a toast to his former comrades.
The field of editorial cartooning could use a bottle of cognac. And a drink.