The internet is a perfect medium for cartoons. Images can look much more striking on a backlit screen than they ever did in muddy print.
I am a member of an endangered species … the cartoonists. In fact, my small colony is a sub-sub-species – the few who actually (well, as I write) make a living from the practice. The fact is that habitat change is threatening us.”
– Andy Davey in an article for E!Sharp magazine
(In a fitting footnote, E!Sharp magazine moved from print to digital with the loss of Davey’s regular cover illustration).
Newspapers have been shedding journalists, photographers and cartoonists by the hundredweight over the past few years, as their print revenues have shrivelled. Few papers have managed the transition to digital presence while finding an alternative online revenue stream.
Obfuscation about their digital revenue clouds the facts but the basic problem of converting casual digital readers into paying subscribers remains.
Publishing companies have tried two basic strategies. News UK papers The Times and The Sun are now both largely behind subscriber paywalls, amid huge tidal waves of PR and free giveaways. This was a a principled decision (nobody should work for nothing) but a rather brave one in a world where news and information is now free, instant and ubiquitous. The results are presently understood to be mixed.
The other model is the new-media idea that you give away your content and hope that spin-off merchandising and advertising revenue will flood in on the back of your increased global readership. Online services can be developed for a motivated and loyal crowd of customers.
The Guardian has attempted to make itself into the best upmarket liberal global news brand in this fashion. The Daily Mail has morphed silently into a sort of daily global Hello! magazine, titillating the masses with its “Sidebar of Shame”, in the process becoming the most widely read digital newspaper worldwide.
Significantly, neither of these organisations have been over keen to reveal how much revenue this accrues and how it stacks up against their legacy costs of business.
But publishing companies and newspapers as product form only a small patch of land in the shrinking traditional habitat of the cartoonist. Magazines used to be a source of welcome revenue for scribblers. However, the rates of pay have been slashed over the years to levels of vanity publication. Regular readers and subscribers to this blog will also know about the direct-to-audience efforts that many cartoonists have made in recent years.
The traditional confidence in the utility of our skills leads the Guardian cartoonist and PCO member Martin Rowson to characterise our trade as parasites. Once the carrier dies, “like any hideous sensible parasite, we’ll just jump off on to the next host”.
And there is some truth in this.
In Georgian times, cartoonists plied their trade by selling prints of their work in coffee shops. The radical coffee shop died a death as the prim Victorians arrived. Consequently, cartoonists jumped on to new hosts ushered in by advances in print – Punch and similar magazines.
Newspaper circulation wars in the 1900s then saw a race to hire cartoonists, providing a very welcome long-lived carrier for us parasites. The chronic morbidity of printed newspapers means we have to find a new habitat.
Ed adds: And, of course, many of us are adapting successfully. If you have comments about any of themes in this piece please do add them in comments.