For a while there has been a lot of discussion about the future of journalism and even the end of an era for newspapers. Cartoonists has been affected by a serious crisis of business models in print journalism. Daryl Cagle, one of the world’s most prolific editorial cartoonists, was optimistic when I talked with him about editorial cartooning syndication last year.
On the occasion of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists 2009 Convention held in Seattle, Cagle published a post on his blog offering an overview of the past and present of editorial cartoon syndication and specific advice for the future.
Cartooning and newspaper written journalism have of course a joint history, and parallels can be drawn between what is happening to practitioners of both disciplines. Cagle’s main advice for the editorial cartoonists of the 21st century is:
- Produce consistently and steadily, not about local events, but with a global audience in mind.
- Sign non-exclusive deals with as many syndicates, online stores and stock houses that you can find around the world.
- Have your own web site where your work is easily available.
- Publicize your site as best as you can.
- Manage your work as a database of all your work, present and past.
- Don’t accept long term contracts with syndicates, agents or online stores; always be free to move.
- Don’t relay on anyone to take care of your career, but you.
This agenda is Cagle’s response to the challenges that his profession is facing.
“The big change we are seeing now in editorial cartooning is a continuing loss of full time jobs. It may be that cartoonists are losing their jobs at the same rate that other journalists are. We’re becoming freelancers, as seems to be true for many journalists now,” Cagle told me from New York City.
The problem for editorial cartoonists is not that newspapers are cutting on them, though –on the contrary, editorial cartoons “are more popular and influential than ever. Now with the web we have a bigger audience than ever,” Cagle says. He adds:
“Middle and high schools in the USA have the “interpretation” of an editorial cartoon on their state mandated testing in every state, and teachers teach to the test, pushing political cartoons on a new generation of readers. The quality and range of styles in editorial cartoons is greater than ever before.”
Cagle’s own online syndicate, Cagle Cartoons, Inc., which he founded in 2001, sells cartoons to more than 800 newspapers in the world.
“The problem with syndication is that, for the past 30 years, it hasn’t paid enough to replace that full time job — so the cartoonist’s local job struggle is something the worldwide readers don’t see. With no cartoonist jobs at local newspapers, there is no reason for cartoonists to continue drawing local cartoons which have fewer opportunities for reprints.”
The problem, then, is not necessarily the disappearance of many newspapers or staff layoffs, but that syndication is not paying enough for individual cartoonists to make a living, as Cagle elaborates:
“Cartoon packages are inexpensive and not high on a newspaper’s list of things to cut; the pricier subscriptions to individual cartoonists are in decline as the packages offer better value and great quality. Cartoonists have always built national reputations from syndication rather than from their local work, and that remains the same. The problem for cartoonists (their local full time jobs) is the least visible part of what they do.”
So is there a way to increase the price of syndication packages?
“I’d love to find a way to raise prices, but the current trend is for content to get even less expensive — with The Huffington Post model of not paying for content and the expectation that content should be free on the web. The syndicates serve modules that automatically display cartoons for free on the web, often in exchange for running an ad. Uclick pioneered these modules with the goal of building subscribers for their gocomics.com site.
We may all be looking for alternative benefits, other than licensing fees, for the distribution of content in the future. The business model is a problem, not the art form or the fans or newspapers that might run the same cartoon. Since the art is great and the audience wants it, I’m confident a new business model will emerge.”
What happens when a cartoonist is laid off? Whereas some writers that have lost their journalism positions find employment within think-tanks and universities, editorial cartoonists who lose their jobs face a prejudice that values the written word over the visual image.
“Universities should know that cartoonists’ work is more widely read than the words of columnists, and the cartoonists should find similar institutional homes when their newspaper jobs finally disappear. Editorial cartoons are more popular than ever, the cartoonists’ work is having more impact than ever, and the institutional word-people, who say they value faculty with high profiles that publish frequently, need to readjust their thinking to see which voices truly have the most reach.”
Cagle’s reflections on the future of editorial cartoons syndication converge in two main points: one, there is not much value anymore on exclusivity, and two, the scope has to be global, rather than local. His views on syndication, reflected on his own work, express clearly the paradigm changes that newspaper journalism is facing. “The new paradigm for editorial cartoonists is to be resold in as many ways, in as many places as possible,” he wrote on his blog. Perhaps this contains one of the keys to the survival of journalism.
Anding, M. and Hess, T. (2002) [PDF] “Online Content Syndication-A critical Analysis from the Perspective of Transaction Cost Theory” (European Conference on Information Systems)
Danjoux, I. (2007) “Reconsidering the decline of the editorial cartoon” PS: Political Science and Politics Journal, April 2007 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) <http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/PSApr07Danjoux.pdf> [PDF]. Accessed 10 October 2011.
Sedge, M. (2000) Successful Syndication (New York: Allworth Press)
N.B. Ernesto Priego interviewed Caryl Cagle in the summer of 2010 whilst conducting research for his Nieman Journalism Lab micro-internship last year.
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