By Michael Cavna
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's editorial cartoonist, David Horsey, is better situated than most of his newsroom colleagues — as well as many newspaper cartoonists. Largely because of the structure of Horsey's employment setup, the two-time Pulitzer winner knows this: His job, in some form, is safe.
In a recent interview, Horsey talked with Comic Riffs about the print P-I's last chapter, the future of an online-only P-I, and how he created a highly trafficked Web site (it reportedly gets more than a million page views monthly) that has positioned him well on a rapidly shifting media landscape.
Michael Cavna: Given your perch from the inside, David, what do you think will unfold for the P-I in the days ahead, and how will that affect your job?
David Horsey: I'm in an unusual situation, unlike [cartoonist] Ed Stein, whose job ended [when Denver's Rocky Mountain News closed]. ... I've been employed directly by Hearst Newspapers instead of the Seattle P-I.
MC: So might you in, in effect, be drawing for other Hearst papers, too?
DH: It looks like I will be providing my work to all of the Hearst newspapers, though I'll be based here at the [P-I] Web site. Hearst has 16 daily newspapers — well, for now, counting the P-I. My work will primarily go to Web sites and will be available for print versions.
MC: So how has being employed by Hearst affected your online presence?
DH: Well, one fortunate thing for me is that Hearst had this idea to create channels within the Web site, and that pulled me out of the editorial page and created Davidhorsey.com. And I've been doing a lot more writing as well as cartoons. That created me as a separate entity that can be plugged into any Web site. I'm not sure logistically how that will happen now — I think I'll be linked to [the Hearst newspapers in] Houston, to Albany, to Laredo, to San Francisco. I think Hearst finally decided that it's time to [push] online newspapers.
MC: Beyond your obvious talent, then, it seems you've either had great vision or benefitted from Hearst's decisions — or both.
DH: I've been quite fortunate and the timing has been right. Part of it goes back to my first job as a reporter — now it's the other way around. [Writing columns] has helped me expand online. They're looking at me as a “multimedia commentator” rather than as “just” a cartoonist.
MC: [A]ny other secrets to your longevity?
DH: I always figured that I was one new editor away from unemployment. Clay Bennett is a great example [of a talented cartoonist who was ousted]. “KAL” in Baltimore is another prime example of that. I had that sense that things can go askew at any time. I've been attuned to the politics of the paper, and Hearst in general. I decided I needed to get to know the president of Hearst Newspapers. It helps.
Two Pulitzers also helps. I recommend that to anyone.
MC: What's the mood like in the newsroom — including among your colleagues who have guaranteed jobs in the new online newsroom?
DH: It's a painful time for everybody, even for somebody like me. It's just awful. The fact that in a different format, the Seattle P-I will continue [has made it more difficult in some ways]. There will be a few jobs in the reconstituted Web site — but who are the chosen ones, and what are they being offered? It's going to be a new entity. They'll be paying online salaries instead of newspaper salaries. ...
I've only spent a week in Seattle since Jan. 14 [because of business trips], and I haven't had to witness the agony. ... I expect a similar scenario to occur all over the country. If this had happened 10 years [ago] at the P-I, people would have mourned but gone on to other newspapers — it's just, “Gosh, I have to leave for another paper.” Now, it's: “But gosh, this may be the end of my journalism career.”
.... It's such a shaky thing — to own newspapers. It's just not too attractive. ... And if I wanted to start a news Web site, I'd start it fresh and unencumbered by hiring [talented] journalists who've been thrown out of work.
MC: So what's the future look like for newspaper political cartoonists at large?
DH: That's a good question. If political cartoonists continue to rely on newspapers, we may be in serious trouble. It's a very transferable form of journalism, though — it works great on Web sites. Like my situation — my work will still appear in some newspapers [when the print P-I closes], but my platform will be the Web site.
If cartoonists can leap ahead, then — well, the trick is getting paid enough. As far as newspapers: If we're really lucky and dodge the Depression bullet, some newspapers will weather this.
MC: Some political cartoonists preach the “go local” approach as a strategy to save one's job. Do you subscribe to that?
DH: Look at Lee Judge [who was laid off in 2008 by the Kansas City Star]. He was the ultimate local cartoonist and he's out of a job. I'm skeptical of the “go local” approach to cartooning to preserve your job. The biggest response I got [last year] was to Obama and McCain cartoons. ... [Local cartoons] are worth doing, but not because it'll save a job. Ultimately, if they want to fire you, they will. It's the economic reality.