A secret weapon for editors, cartoonists: schools: mandated student testing around the country includes interpreting cartoons.
These are tough times for cartoonists who have been losing jobs as newspapers cut their general budgets. I lost a daily gig at The Honolulu Advertiser to cost-cutting; other cartoonists who recently lost their jobs include Gary Markstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mike Lane of The Sun in Baltimore, Bill Schorr of the Daily News in New York, and Kirk Anderson of Pioneer Press in St. Paul. When a cartoonist dies or quits, his drawing table often remains empty as newspapers choose to run cheaper, softer, syndicated cartoons; glaring examples are the Chicago Tribune, the Mercury News in San Jose, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
On the Internet, it is a different story. I now draw editorial cartoons for Slate.com, Microsoft's online opinion magazine. I also manage Slate's "Professional Cartoonists Index" (cagle.com) a huge site where fans can see daily-updating political cartoons by over a hundred fifty top cartoonists from around the world.
My cartoon site with Slate is wildly popular, with literally millions of visitors each month. The site dominates Slat& traffic with an audience that rivals the websites of the most popular newspapers, like the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and USA Today. And I run the site by myself, from my home. It is a strange phenomenon that a humble political cartoon site eclipses the online audiences of popular characters like Snoopy, Dilbert, and the cartoons sites of United Media (Comics.com) and Universal Press Syndicate (ucomics.com). The editorial cartoonists on my site receive much more mail from readers of my site than they receive from readers of their own newspapers--sometimes hundreds, even thousands of e-mails from fans and detractors on the Internet.
How can political cartoons be so popular on the Web while the profession suffers a slow death in print? The answer is: schools.
"The interpretation of an editorial cartoon" is included in the state-mandated testing of every state, and teachers are required to "teach to the test." Social studies teachers must find cartoons for their lessons somewhere. Our online audience expands as more schools add classroom sets of computers and teachers become aware of our site as a teaching tool. One class with twenty kids looking at dozens of cartoons can log hundreds or thousands of page views in one day. It is no mystery why the traffic to our site is so high.
The most common e-mail we receive reads, "Explain this cartoon to me." Our number two e-mail is, "Explain this cartoon to me, and I need an answer by 4 p.m. so that I can finish my paper which is due tomorrow morning."
Students see the cartoons as puzzles to be solved. To understand a political cartoon a reader must have knowledge of current events; alas, most students seem to have little awareness of what goes on in the world. We might expect that cartoons are used to teach an understanding of visual metaphors, but cartoons are more often used as a tool to encourage students to be aware of the news. In the same way that a new generation gets its news from The Daily Show on Comedy Central, kids are getting their news from political cartoons.
The use of cartoons in the schools is a treasure that is unappreciated by our profession. Imagine what carrot farmers would pay for every school child in the nation to be forced to eat and appreciate carrots. Students are force-fed political cartoons and taught to love them. Cartoonists and editors don't seem to notice that this is an opportunity to develop a new generation of cartoon fans and newspaper readers.
Newspaper in Education programs deliver a stack of newspapers at a teacher's door once a week--a stack of newspapers each with only one editorial cartoon. Teachers, to teach to the test, need lots of political cartoons from their newspapers; and the teachers are not getting what they need.
The solution is simple, easy, and inexpensive. Editors, if they don't already, should run a collection of syndicated editorial cartoons, a roundup that that would run once a week on the day that NIE newspapers are delivered to schools. Beyond schools, a roundup gives potential editorial cartoon fans a place to go and makes it possible to develop a cartoon fan base of loyal readers on "roundup day." These fans exist; they are rabid and they are young--an important point to remember as the average readership of the editorial page grows older.
An editorial cartoon roundup is not a silly diversion. It is compelling content and a serious marketing tool; it serves the needs of the schools and it builds newspaper readership for the future.
Daryl Cagle is editorial cartoonist for Slate.com and runs a syndicate, Cagle Cartoons, with more than seven hundred fifty newspaper clients. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org