Back to the Drawing Board: How Editorial Cartoonists Are Adapting to the Digital Age

how editorial cartoonists are changing in the digital age

Newspapers have been carrying cartoons for hundreds of years.

In fact, the first American newspaper to feature a cartoon was Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754. The image was a political statement — a snake in pieces with each signifying a colony and the words “Join, or Die.”

The “funny pages” have come a long way since, but what’s happening to them is less than amusing.

As newspapers struggle to hold onto eyeballs, editorial cartoonists face a different battle: maintaining numbers.

“At the start of the 20th century, there were approximately 2,000 editorial cartoonists employed by newspapers in the United States,” says a report by The Herb Block Foundation. “Today there are fewer than 40 staff cartoonists, and that number continues to shrink.”

And while the foundation’s 2011 report features an ominous title — The Golden Age for Editorial Cartoonists at the Nation’s Newspapers is Over it’s not all gloom and doom.

“The digital age presents more potential outlets for editorial cartoons than at any time in the history of the news media,” the report says.

Social Media and New Audiences

As journalists adapt to the new digital media landscape, editorial cartoonists are developing their own skills for survival.

With a generation raised on satirical cartoons like The Simpsons and South Park, this medium can be used as a tool to engage and interest young people.

Take your Facebook News Feed. It’s clear picture-heavy material is the most frequently viewed.

In Shan Wang’s Nieman Lab piece, But it’s … cartoons?’: Comics and cartoons are coming to life well beyond the printed page, Detroit Free Press cartoonist Mike Thompson points out many news organizations are rushing to release less than perfect video content and that animated cartoons can serve as an eye-catching alternative.

Delivering stories and facts in a visual medium directly on users’ Facebook and Twitter feeds can help curb clickbait articles, and can assist editors in developing content for other platforms — namely Snapchat and Instagram.

Cartoonist Liza Donnelly shares in the same piece how live-sketching also can be used to cover popular events and garner real-time reactions.

Long-Form Narrative Comics

Journalists today wear many different hats.

So why not add cartoons to the mix?

That’s what reporter Susie Cagle does for sites like Curbed and ProPublica, where she teamed up for a story on narco-terrorism.

Blending skilled research and reporting with visually inventive storytelling, Cagle told Wang these sorts of stories are “still perceived as a kind of experimental one-off to take a risk on periodically, but not something worth serious and continued investment.”

But as the format becomes more common, it’s possible editors will seek creative content like that of Cagle.

And while it may be seen as a novelty in the U.S., news-driven cartoons are more important than ever in other countries.

Cartoons in the Modern World

While speaking with Sujeet Rajan of The American Bazaar, cultural anthropologist and historian Ritu Gairola Khanduri emphasized the importance of cartooning while promoting her comic-influenced book Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World.

“This is a very interesting time for cartoons in India, and around the world too,” Khanduri says. “In India cartoons are important enough to demand the President’s attention.”

Khanduri continues: “The theme of the President of India’s address on National Press Day, November 16, 2015, was caricatures and cartoons as a medium of expression of public opinion. In India we’ve seen a flurry of activity around the censorship of cartoons. Cartoons have become a busier turf for asserting state power as well as for resisting it.”

Worldwide, editorial cartoons still are seen as a viable means of protest and exchanging ideas that threaten the status quo.

So if you’re an editorial cartoonist today, it’s not time to quit. It’s time to get back to the drawing board.

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Nick Harley is an Associate Customer Content Specialist at PR Newswire. He also works as an entertainment journalist and assistant print editor for Den of Geek.