Newsgames have often been described as the
videogame counterparts to editorial cartoons. Both forms aim to present
thought-provoking opinions on current events in way that is diverting, brief
and easily understood. While newsgames have enjoyed increasing popularity
throughout the past decade however, the political cartooning industry has experienced
a steady and serious state of decline. In 2004, the number of professional
political cartoonists in the United States had dropped from nearly 200 to just
over 90. Today, political cartoonist Jack Ohman of The Oregonian estimates that number
has dropped to 58.
seem to be an unsurprising symptom of the ailing newspaper industry or even a
simple matter of downsizing in a tough economy. Any professional cartoonist
will tell you the problem is more complicated than that, and that more than
their livelihood is at stake. In his article, "The Fixable Decline of Editorial
Cartooning," Chris Lamb describes how political cartooning changed after 9/11.
political cartoonists felt it was unpatriotic to criticize government leaders immediately
following the terrorist attacks, and they modified their cartoons accordingly.
Lamb states that several cartoonists continued to act as government
propagandists following the crisis however, and those cartoonists who did
return to satirizing and scrutinizing the government were accused of being
unpatriotic. This rocky political climate helped lead editors to adopt a more
conservative stance, which was later exacerbated by the present economic
As newspapers struggle to retain readership, they grow increasingly apprehensive to publish caustic material that could potentially offend readers. As a result, many papers cut the position of staff editorial cartoonist, and other papers declined to re-hire when their staff editorial cartoonists retire. Others still rely upon syndicated cartoons rather than providing cartoonists with the security and benefits of a staff position.
It has also become increasingly common for news editors to ask cartoonists to modify their imagery or wording to make their cartoons more moderate. Lamb feels this practice degrades the very purpose of the editorial cartoon. He writes, "When editorial cartoons are at their best, they're like switchblades--simple and to the point. They cut deep and leave a scar." Without their ability to wound audiences, political cartoons lose much of their value as social criticism regardless of whether their blade is dulled by the prevailing political climate or the paper's editorial policy.
It is important to note that some editorial cartoonists have refused to soften their work despite the dismal state of their niche job market. In 2004, John Sheriffus resigned from his position with The St. Louis Post-Dispatch after repeated editorial disputes. That said, Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Doug Marlette believes that cartoonists themselves share no small part of the blame for their declining art form. Marlette laments: "The insidious unconsciousness of self-censorship can be discerned in the quality of editorial cartoons today. Increasingly in my profession, career-ism seems to have replaced risk-taking."
He continues to argue that cartooning has lost the outrage, passion and fearlessness that characterized the 60's, which is widely regarded as the golden era of the political cartoon. But Marlette also claims that cartoonists are canaries to the newspaper industry's coal mine, asking: "how long has the air been toxic?"
The trifecta of post-9/11 politics, global recession and a growing interest in online media aligned to produce a perfect editorial storm in 2008 from which the newspaper industry has yet to recover. Indeed, for many artists, the storm still has yet to clear. Political cartoonists have always been in the business of controversy however, and they have weathered the associated consequences stoically.
In 1994 cartoonist Clay Bennett was fired from the St. Petersburg Times after 13 years of work; a termination that many in the industry perceived to be politically motivated. He went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning in 2002 and continues to produce political cartoons in print and online. The cartoon industry, like Bennett, stands to adapt and thrive despite its losses.