The newspaper industry is in crisis. It seems like hardly a week goes by that a major city daily doesn't fire scores of reporters. Amid all the downsizing, there's one particular specialty that's becoming something of an endangered species.
Kansas City Star cartoonist Lee Judge recently drew a cartoon depicting the city's new modernist museum addition as a tool shed. In another one, the mayor's wife wonders if she can carry the mayor around in a baby pack. It's stuff you might not get unless you're in Kansas City, Mo., where Judge has been cartooning for 27 years.
A few days after his full-time position was eliminated, Judge was sitting at a bar across the street from the newspaper.
"You know, when your resume is pretty much 'professional smartass,' I'm not really sure what the next move is," Judge mused. "Like, you want me to be the funny night manager at the Taco Bell? I'll keep the crew in stitches."
Judge is negotiating with The Star to keep drawing his cartoon — but not as a full-time employee. Most of his colleagues are not so lucky. In the 1980s, there were about 300 staff cartoonists at newspapers around the country. Now there are fewer than a hundred. Newspapers are grappling with a steep decline in advertising revenue and trying to reinvent themselves online. In just the past few months, dailies have laid off or offered buyouts to about a dozen cartoonists.
"It's on everybody's mind — how long is this profession going to last?" Judge says. "How long are we going to be able to do this for a living?"
In Iowa, The Des Moines Register was the last American newspaper with a front-page cartoon. That was until two weeks ago, when veteran cartoonist Brian Duffy was escorted out of the building and not even given the chance to fill a box with his stuff.
"I feel a little like Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of the Soviet Union," says Ted Rall, who heads The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. "I feel a little like I'm presiding over the beginning of the end here."
Rall calls cartoonists "the canaries in the coal mine" for the newspaper industry. You know a paper's in trouble when the staff cartoonist gets the ax. Dailies were the bastion for political cartoons in the 20th century. The future is probably online.
Rall is just beginning to dabble in animation. He says there's a renaissance of sorts going on in the cartoon world. The association has 300 members and is growing. Some cartoonists freelance for several publications or get syndicated — but it's hard to piece together a living.
"The profession has really blossomed," Rall says. "Greater diversity in every way: ideologically; stylistically, certainly; politically, certainly, now there's more cartoonists of color. But the problem is, it's blossoming outside of the daily newspaper."
And where it is blossoming — alternative weeklies and on the Internet — it doesn't tend to pay well. The daily papers are replacing their cartoonists with syndicated material. So a few become home to superstars — like Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, or Tom Toles of the Washington Post. But The Kansas City Star's Judge says what's disappearing is that biting local commentary.
"When you begin to draw about the mayor, when you draw about the sports teams or the potholes in the streets, it's like — 'Oh, that guy lives here. And he's going through what I'm going through.' "
Mocking local businesses can have a big impact, but it stirs up more controversy for a newspaper than just another cartoon about Congress. Some cartoonists, though, are discovering that younger editors are more interested in visuals and understand the need for a little fun. So if local newspapers do survive, whether on paper or online, there may still be space for editorial cartoons.
Sylvia Maria Gross reports for member station KCUR in Kansas City.