The Current

Newspaper editorial cartoons face 'existential threat' from advertisers, online memes: artist

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Nick Anderson says that newspapers are growing increasingly "gun-shy" about running editorial cartoons about controversial topics, thanks in part to growing pressure from advertisers, shrinking newsroom budgets and online meme culture.

More newspapers feel cartoons 'aren't worth all the trouble,' says Nick Anderson

A recent cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nick Anderson. He said that his industry is under threat in the age of the internet. (Submitted by Nick Anderson)
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The editorial cartoon is facing an "existential threat" in the face of shrinking newsrooms and meme culture, according to a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist.

"Editorial cartoons … do cause a lot of trouble,' said Nick Anderson, who draws for The Washington Post Writers Group.

He told The Current's guest host Megan Williams that with less money and power than before "to defy advertisers" and some outspoken readers, newspapers have become "a little gun-shy" to run cartoons about controversial topics.

"I think they feel like maybe editorial cartoons aren't worth all the trouble."

Last week, Canadian editorial cartoonist Michael de Adder lost his freelance contract with Brunswick News Inc. (BNI).

The termination came a day after one of de Adder's cartoons went viral online. 

The cartoon depicts U.S. President Donald Trump, wearing golf gear, standing next to the bodies of Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter, Valeria, who drowned in the Rio Grande while trying to cross into Brownsville, Texas.

The image of Ramirez and his daughter, face-down in the river, was based on a devastating photo by Julia Le Duc.

Michael de Adder released this cartoon on June 26 of Donald Trump next to the bodies of a father and daughter who died trying to cross the border into Texas. (Michael de Adder)

BNI "vehemently denied" that the termination was related to this specific cartoon, and the decision had been made before it went viral. In a statement, the company said it was never offered the Trump cartoon for publication, which de Adder shared online from his own accounts.

The group of New Brunswick newspapers is owned by the province's Irving family, which owns companies with ties to U.S. trade, including Irving Oil and Irving Shipbuilding.

Speaking to As It Happens on Monday, de Adder said that while working for BNI, cartoons critical of Trump were routinely axed.

"One of the biggest bones of contention — the only subject, actually, that I know was taboo and I was told — was Donald Trump," he told Susan Bonner.

Michael de Adder said he was never explicitly told why his contract with BNI was ending. (Mairin Prentiss/CBC)

A year after he won the Pulitzer in 2005, Anderson worked for the Houston Chronicle until he was fired in 2017. He told Williams that like de Adder, he was never given a clear reason.

During his career, he's seen the number of editorial cartoonists in North America shrink from a couple hundred to less than two dozen.

"We are going to be gone in five or 10 years, if we don't come up with a different business model." 

In April, Anderson also co-founded Counterpoint, an email newsletter that delivers editorial cartoons from across the political spectrum.

Industry competing with meme culture, says cartoonist

Veteran Canadian cartoonist Terry Mosher remembers a time when political cartooning was "well respected, and feared in a way."

"Politicians were very nervous about appearing in political cartoons," said Mosher, who has drawn for the Montreal Gazette for more than five decades under the pen name Aislin.

"[They] then pretended to like it, and [would] hang these cartoons like trophies on their wall," he told Williams.

Nowadays, many artists see the industry as competing with meme culture online.

Anderson warned that while memes can be produced and disseminated much more quickly than a hand-drawn cartoon, the public don't know where they come from.

"They're unsigned; you don't know the origin of the person that's trying to influence you," he said.

"The advantage of an editorial cartoon is it's signed work. You can see their body of work, you can get to know a person's voice."

Jen Sorensen produces multi-panel comics with a political message. (Submitted by Jen Sorensen)

Political cartoonist Jen Sorensen agrees that there is a feeling of peril around the industry, but thinks the internet is also helping young cartoonists to self-publish and find audiences.

"I do think that the future of political cartoons is probably going to be a mix of formats, and you may even see more longer, graphic essay-type pieces," said Sorensen, who contributes to newspapers and online publications such as The Nib and The Nation. 

When Mosher talks to young cartoonists, he warns them that newspapers are "death ships."

"What you have to do is find a platform and develop an audience … then perhaps you can monetize it after that somehow," he advised.

Gallery: Some of Terry Mosher's favourite cartoons

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      He remains optimistic, however, because he's seen online platforms generate engagement and discussion, similar to the editorial page of a newspaper.

      "There's a great taste for this, because despite all of this talk, cartoons remain hugely popular," he said. 

      "I can't imagine visual humour, whether it's a static drawing or animation, disappearing."

      Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


      Written by Padraig Moran, with files from Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Idella Sturino, Danielle Carr and John Chipman.

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