Working as an editorial cartoonist this year—working, that is, if anyone is interested in employing you—is like living inside Casey Kasem's brain: The hits keep on coming. Whether it's Robert Ariail or Jim Borgman or John Branch or Gary Brookins or Stuart Carlson or Richard Crowson or Bill Day or Eric Devericks or Brian Duffy or Peter Dunlap-Shohl or Bill Garner or Steve Greenberg or Lee Judge or Jim Lange or Drew Litton or Patrick O'Connor or Dwane Powell or Ed Stein, watching one of these great cartoonists, artists who developed close ties to their readers and communities, get laid off—and their positions eliminated—would have been terrible. We've lost 21 full-time staffers (including Chip Bok, Ben Sargent and Tom Meyer, who took buyouts) since I took the reins in September. Twenty-one! As you know, we didn't have many staff jobs to begin with.
The damage to our profession and newspaper readers is incalculable. Staff jobs are the primary source of income for editorial cartooning, not least because they provide a base for the local cartoons that inspire the greatest reader loyalty. Syndication doesn't provide health or retirement benefits. And no one has figured out how to eke a living from the Internet.
At times like this it's tempting to echo the oft-heard cry that we are, in the words of Ed Stein, the finest whalebone corset makers in America—quaint and doomed. But there's more to the state of editorial cartooning in 2009 than newspapers going out of business and/or getting rid of the only graphic political satire on their pages (who needs readers under 60 anyway?).
As I like to tell reporters who call for a quote for the latest “death of political cartooning” story, there are more AAEC members now than there were last year. And there were more last year than the year before. That's right—there are more professional editorial cartoonists. Some are alties. Others are web-only. Freelancers abound. Meanwhile, laid-off staffers are staying the course, whether in syndication or online. The future may not look like the past. (Although I suspect that most of the staffers who have hung on this long will stick around for years to come—and that there will be actual staff cartoonist hires before you know it.) But there is a future, both for American editorial cartooning and the AAEC.
This year in Seattle we'll be discussing both futures. The emphasis will be what you as an individual cartoonist can and must do to navigate the recession-ravaged landscape of the American newspaper business in this year and years ahead. Dave Horsey and I have developed an agenda that we hope you'll find both useful and entertaining. We'll also be talking about the future of the AAEC—and not just the usual BSing that gets forgotten as soon as we return to our hometowns and the hangovers clear.
On Saturday, July 4, in the morning just before the usual Business Meeting, we will hold a working forum to discuss whether the AAEC should change the way it does business in some important ways. The main topics will be questions that have been floating around our organization for years, rendered more urgent by the deteriorating financial situation of our membership and the obvious difficulties in securing a major newspaper to sponsor conventions:
Should we transform the AAEC into a guild like the Writers Union? Personally, I wonder if the time for this proposal hasn't long passed. Ultimately, a guild is ineffective unless it can deny essential services to employers in a strike or other action. It's a buyers' market for cartoons. On the other hand, a guild would be able to take collective action. It could, for example, organize syndicated cartoonists to deny their work to papers that have laid off a staffer. It could make sure that every member posts his or her cartoons to the AAEC website. In any event, it's time to hash this out.
Should we merge with NCS? Proponents say we could take advantage of NCS' ability to negotiate discounted rates at convention hotels, not to mention save on the doubling of membership dues for editorial cartoonists who belong to both organizations. Others, like me, worry that AAEC and NCS have different goals and cultures and would therefore make an uneasy fit. Either way, we have to consider it.
In order to reduce expenses, should we hold a joint convention with NCEW or another journalists' group to cut costs? This seems like a relatively low-impact proposal with relatively low negative repercussions. We would, for example, continue to hold our own panel discussions. Still, they're there. NCEW, for example, holds their conventions in September, after the beginning of school—reducing the ability of many AAEC members to attend along with their families. It also remains to be seen to what extent NCEW's membership would raise our clout in dealing with convention costs.
Should we give up newspaper sponsorships altogether? I vote an emphatic “no.” There are still lots of newspapers around, many with budgets that can easily absorb $20,000 or more to sponsor an AAEC convention. Because we're familiar with this model and because we don't want to establish a precedent that discourages papers from supporting cartooning if and when the economy improves, our first choice should always be to get a newspaper sponsorship. But it may be that future presidents will find it impossible—as I nearly did after our would-be sponsor, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, folded—to find a sponsor. In that case, we should strongly consider the NCS model, which holds conventions at vacation resorts in order to encourage higher attendance both by artists and their families. High attendance equals lower room rates. We might also have to copy NCS by raising the registration fee so that we become self-funding. One hundred attendees paying an additional $100 each yields $10,000.
After “The Future of the AAEC” workshop on Saturday morning from 9 to 10:30, we will hold our Business Meeting from 10:30 to 12 noon. Any serious consensus that results from the workshop that requires a vote of the membership may be discussed and formally initiated at that time.
Whew. So much serious stuff.
Which is making me thirsty. I can't wait for the bar to open on July 1st at the Washington Athletic Club—and to hang out with you there!