Mourning the death of a great American art form

When I was first hired in Albany in 1988, I told my friends the newspaper had its own editorial cartoonist.

I had just left the tiny Jamestown Post-Journal, and I saw that as proof I was now stepping up to a paper of a certain size and level of prestige.

This week, the Times Union has followed in the steps of other newspapers and made the terrible decision to eliminate the position. This year alone, newspapers in Syracuse, St. Louis and New Orleans all have made the same mistake. It’s a trend that has been building steadily over the past few years.

The people who run newspapers often talk about giving their readers something they cannot get anywhere else. A local editorial cartoonist gives readers exactly that.

New York’s infamous Boss Tweed once said of Thomas Nast’s editorial cartoons: “ I don’t care so much what the papers write about me — my constituents can’t read, but damn it, they can see pictures.”

That, in essence, is the key to a good editorial cartoon: Not only to speak truth to power, but to do it in as simple a form as possible. As the Times Union’s late cartoonist, Rex Babin, once told me, his best cartoons were the ones that contained no words.

Now newspapers across our country are killing this unique American art form.

Last week, employees at the Times Union were very proud to earn the Newspaper of Distinction Award from the Associated Press. A week later, we are eliminating one of the most distinctive elements of our newspaper. Sure, the space can be filled with syndicated cartoons from one of the few newspapers that still employ a cartoonist, but that means fewer and fewer voices skewering our nation’s politicians — and no one doing so on a local level.

We’ve been blessed over my almost 25 years at the newspaper with three excellent cartoonists: Hy Rosen, Rex Babin and John De Rosier. All had their own unique styles. We lost Hy last year, and Rex died this year of cancer. Now the newspaper is letting John go after 13 years.

I once traveled to an editorial cartoonists’ convention in Memphis with Rex. I often joked that the nation’s great wits were boring as a group because they spent a great deal of time discussing brush widths. That trip made me realize what a lonely profession editorial cartooning is. Sure, a cartoonist can show his or her work to other colleagues, but no one else at the newspaper does what they do. So I forgave them their brush-width fixation, and my admiration for their art grew.

Now many of the people at that convention are out of work. A distinctive art form is being steadily destroyed by people who look purely at revenue. It’s hard to say that an editorial cartoonist generates a certain amount of income for the newspaper, just as it is hard to say how much any single reporter or photographer does. But eliminating the cartoonist sends a message to readers: We are taking away something you value, something that makes your newspaper distinctive, something you cannot get anywhere else. We value your newspaper less, and you should too.

It’s a terrible message, and it comes at a price that may not be immediately apparent but will cost newspapers dearly in the long run.

 

 

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