Decline of Editorial Cartoons : Implications for Opinion Pages in Print Newspapers

The Decline of Editorial Cartoons

Decline of Editorial Cartoons : In a year marked by ongoing media layoffs, the recent dismissal of three Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonists on the same day sent shockwaves through the industry. The firings within the McClatchy newspaper chain serve as a stark reminder of the declining state of opinion pages and the struggles faced by editorial cartoonists in an increasingly challenging print landscape.

A Gut Punch to Editorial Cartoonists

Even amidst a backdrop of sobering economic news for media companies, the sudden layoffs of these accomplished cartoonists delivered a powerful blow. Jack Ohman from California’s Sacramento Bee, Joel Pett from the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, and Kevin Siers from the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina—all esteemed Pulitzer Prize winners—found themselves abruptly without employment. These layoffs are indicative of a larger trend away from opinion content, a significant aspect of the struggling print industry.

The Fading Art Form

The termination of these talented cartoonists is an unfortunate reflection of the diminishing importance of editorial cartooning. Once a powerful and influential art form, it is now battling against a general decline in the presence of opinion content. The layoffs serve as a poignant reminder of the challenges faced by the industry and the art form’s uncertain future.

A Grim Reality for McClatchy Cartoonists

The affected cartoonists were well-established figures within the McClatchy newspaper chain. Jack Ohman, in addition to being an editorial cartoonist, held the position of president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. Joel Pett worked as a freelance cartoonist, while Kevin Siers and Jack Ohman were full-time staffers. The news of their sudden dismissals was first reported by The Daily Cartoonist blog.

The news came as a shock to the cartoonists themselves, who were given no prior indication of the impending job cuts. Jack Ohman expressed his stupefaction at the sudden turn of events, leaving him and his colleagues in a state of disbelief.

The Changing Landscape and McClatchy’s Decision

The McClatchy newspaper chain, which owns 30 newspapers across the United States, made the striking announcement that it would no longer publish editorial cartoons. In a statement, McClatchy cited shifting reader habits and a renewed focus on providing local news and unique information to the communities they serve as the reasons behind this decision.

The move by McClatchy further highlights the declining relevance of opinion content within the industry and the challenges faced by newspapers in a rapidly changing media landscape.

The Decline of Editorial Cartoons

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A Disheartening Decline in Cartoonists

The rich history of editorial cartooning, characterized by the works of influential figures like Thomas Nast and Herbert Block, is now confronting a sharp decline. A report by the Herbert Block Foundation reveals that in the early 20th century, approximately 2,000 editorial cartoonists were employed by newspapers. Today, the estimated number has dropped to fewer than 20.

The decreasing employment opportunities for editorial cartoonists are underscored by the fact that Jim Morin of the Miami Herald, a full-time cartoonist, was the last to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. In response to the dwindling number of cartoonists, the Pulitzers have expanded the category in which they compete, renaming it “Illustrated Reporting and Commentary.”

The Impact of Editorial Cartoons

Editorial cartoons possess a unique power to instantly convey complex messages. While written editorials can be dense and intimidating, cartoons cut through the noise and resonate with readers on a relatable level. Joel Pett emphasizes that cartoons often stem from the frustrations of individuals who possess drawing skills—an intersection of talent and passion that strikes a chord with audiences.

The Decline of Editorial Cartoons

Timidity and Economic Factors at Play

The decline in the number of editorial cartoonists can be attributed to both economic factors and a sense of timidity within the industry. Newspapers, already grappling with declining readership, are cautious about further provoking controversy or anger among their audience.

Joel Pett found himself embroiled in a public battle with Daniel Cameron, Kentucky’s attorney general and a Republican candidate for governor. Accusing Pett of promoting racial discord through his cartoons, Cameron called for Pett’s dismissal at a news conference. Unbeknownst to Cameron, Pett had already been fired hours earlier. This incident highlights the hesitancy of newspapers to engage in contentious topics, even if they had not explicitly instructed cartoonists to avoid addressing them.

The Changing Priorities of Print Media

The devaluation of opinion content in print media is apparent across the industry. Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the United States with over 200 newspapers, announced last year that opinion pages would only be offered a couple of days a week. Executives reasoned that these pages were not extensively read and that readers did not wish to be lectured to.

Consequently, there is less room for editorial cartoons. The reasoning behind this shift is that readers can find opinion content online, particularly on national issues. Moreover, political endorsements by newspapers have become less frequent, with only 54 out of the top 100 newspapers endorsing a presidential candidate in 2020, compared to 92 in 2008, according to the American Presidency Project.

A Crisis of Connection

The challenges faced by editorial cartoonists reflect a broader crisis within the print industry—newspapers struggling to forge meaningful connections with their communities. While some newspaper owners and cartoonists argue that there is less appetite for political satire and a greater demand for inoffensive, light-hearted drawings, the fact remains that cartoons continue to resonate with readers. Achieving a balance that appeals to diverse audiences in an era of heightened sensitivities, however, poses a significant challenge.

An Uncertain Future Of  Decline of Editorial Cartoons

As the print industry grapples with declining readership and evolving consumer preferences, the fate of editorial cartoons remains uncertain. While the layoffs of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists highlight the challenges faced by the industry, there are still voices advocating for the preservation of this unique art form. The decline of opinion pages and the firing of talented cartoonists remind us of the shifting media landscape and the need to adapt to changing times.

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