Opinion: The cartoonist and the editor

November 12, 2013 in Comment, General, News


© Andy Davey @ Procartoonists.org

Following the news that one of the UK’s mass market national newspapers had removed its weekday editorial cartoonist we asked Andy Davey to write about the strange relationship that lies at the heart of such jobs.

For the UK cartoonist, working outside of the beneficence of a major newspaper brings benefits and troubles; editorial freedom and financial uncertainty. Creative freedom and money are rarely thrown together at the same artist.

In general, print editors and proprietors control content with an iron hand, especially when they are paying for it. Tabloid editors for example, are a clever bunch. They know how to run tight, focused media organisations. There is little or no room for a dissenting voice. The paper has to speak with one voice on a narrow range of issues.

Cartoonists are not hired to express their idiosyncratic views of the world, they are there to draw an on-message gag about something that is being highlighted in the day’s paper (preferably on the same page). Topics that are fair game are often defined and limited by who the paper “likes” (politicians or celebs they seek to cultivate) at any one time.

This can become wearing for the cartoonist who likes to come up with his/her own ideas – and that is pretty well all cartoonists (It is one of the key identifiers between cartoonists and illustrators – Ed).

The constraint of the ‘‘family paper’’, hard as it has sometimes been to believe in the era of phone hacking, also prevents anything too graphic from being published. Consequently, editorial cartoons in the tabloids can often look like sad toothless pastiches of the deferential 1950s.

Tabloid readers are conditioned to expect short, snappy articles and plenty of photos. The editorial pages, unlike the rather type-heavy pages in the broadsheets, are awash with images and banner headlines. Cartoons must fight to make themselves seen amid all this; even more so amid the flashing ads and animated pop-ups on the web versions.

A looser hand on the editorial tiller would allow stronger satirical graphic cartoons to attract the eye in traditional print and also in the relatively new digital environments.

Editor adds: Thanks to Andy to writing this. What do you think about editorial cartoons in the newspapers? Please free to dive into the comments below.

26 responses to Opinion: The cartoonist and the editor

  1. I have to say that during my 14 year stint as a Daily Star editorial cartoonist (I was the freelance appointee alongside Bill Caldwell, the staff man) I was never instructed what to draw and usually had one idea chosen from the first run of roughs – even in the latter days when I was working with pretty hostile editors). That was in the period from late seventies-ish to early nineties-ish (yes it was so memorable!) and things have no doubt changed  since then.

    I still do regular editorial work (for weeklies rather than for national dailies), but only one editor has a set idea of what he wants (though he is still very open to ideas),  and one of them accepts the finished cartoon of my choice, without my submitting roughs, so I guess I’m lucky (and not typical) to be working for the editors I do.

    These days I would never take on an editorial job such as I did for the Star – in fact I recently turned one down. Enough is enough!

  2. I’ve worked for five national dailies and every one is different (three qualities and two red tops), from the amount of time they allow to complete (I once got a call at 1920 from one frantic sub-ed who had just realised they didn’t have a cartoon for the next edition and they were going to print in 45 minutes) to how much direct control they impose. And also the type of control they impose some demand political bias and some are overly PC. However, I will say I very much welcome the control from one of the dailies I work for, because almost all of that control is imposed in order to create the best possible cartoon. But on the other hand the political bias at one newspaper made me finally give up and say never again with them.

    I occasionally still draw for The Star and I was chatting to Scott Clissold the other day about their cartoons and his only slightly negative point was that he seldom gets to draw political based cartoons for them, as they are almost always sleb-centred (their cartoons go directly with a column and the only directive is that the cartoon should relate to one of the stories). I have to say though the people at The Star are among the nicest people I have worked for and very appreciative, but they too, sadly, appear to be cutting back on the daily cartoon.

  3. Thanks Andy this was a good insight into the way things are. I find that some papers and magazines tend to enjoy the work I send but it is the readership that won’t get it. That’s what it says on my rejection emails anyway…

  4. “Be funny about something WE want you to be funny about” is the watchword/phrase here.With riders like, “and be funny without taking the piss”, or “thanks for your ideas, here’s one of OURS “

    Andy and others have achieved the unachievable in this regard. Ditching them is quite probably down to saving money,. rather than being a reflection of their abilities. And as we all know, when money has to be saved, the first thing to get the bullet is the cartoon.

    There are quirky exceptions here, depending on the paper. Steve Bell and Martin Rowson are expected to be irreverent to the nth degree, but that’s because of the type of paper they work for. Neither would last long on a red top, because red tops are safe, non-boat rocking publications. .

  5. I don’t think Martin and Steve would mind me saying I think their degree of  irreverence is accepted because of the support they rightfully get from the readership, rather than always what their newspaper would ideally want. In other words they are irreverent despite their sub-eds rather than because of them.

  6. Nicely weighted piece, Matt, and I agree with Gary in the sense that Steve and Martin’s publishers have, over time, done a Sorcerer’s Apprentice job with them.

  7. Thanks Bill, there will be a further piece about cartooning in newsprint to come, albeit a few days away yet.

  8. As a new kid on the block (assuming 50 is the new 21) and, indeed, a member of the PCO only if my cheque has cleared by now, I can nevertheless empathise with you, Andy. I was a staff and freelance newspaper journalist for 20 years and know only too well the constraints of the editorial line.Moreover, my own political cartoons have found an audience so far only on the web – on blogs and online magazines that share my views of the Scottish independence referendum. With one or two redoubtable exceptions, there is a dearth of editorial cartoonists working in newsprint north of the Border – yet the uncompromising hostility of almost the entire media to the ‘Yes’ campaign means we ‘rebels’ are unlikely to get a regular gig any time soon.In other words, it isn’t just ‘tight focused’ tabloids fixated on a few juicy topics and their stable of usual suspect celebs that are responsible for the narrow staleness of much of the UK media. It is also the lack of social and political plurality available even in the broadsheets. The ‘old media’ is shrinking and, like a retreating army, it is growing increasingly paranoid and intolerant of dissension in the ranks as it goes. No wonder we professional troublemakers and iconoclasts are being discarded and left to fend for ourselves.

  9. Comment from Mr Blower lifted from your 2009 piece, Matt. Crystal ball gazing at it’s most perceptive, I suspect.

    • patrick blower January 29, 2009, 10:35 am

      I told my kids to avoid the media as a career at all costs. Coal-mining is a better option. But by the time THEIR kids are in the market place, the media could be the place to be again. By then, we’ll all be sick of the bottom-up, democratized, blogospherical Babel we’re living through now and we’ll demand the comfort and predictability of hierarchical, top-down journalism. Greed will then come along and find a way of making real money out of online news and it’ll back to normal- lots of us toiling for the rich man again.

  10. Interesting to hear these varied opinions. Good to know there is still some editorial freedom. Patrick’s quote is perceptive – a long view from the grandstands. 

  11. And Chris Cairns “retreating army” similie’s good too.

    I say, if you can, just clamber around that lifeboat and ask the band if they can play something uplifting, would you ?

  12. Matt’s article is an excellent summary too. 

  13. Makes you wonder about the possible efficacy of publishing an on-line thing containing all the editorial cartoons the red tops wouldn’t touch. Ha. Only joking.

  14. Really pleased to see this ongoing conversation on the PCO site.

    What’s apparent is that editorial cartooning needs to decouple from newspapers – fast – or go down with the ship.  It’s ironic that this is happening at the same time as the public’s appetite for broadly “cartoony” material is in rude health.  The number of cartoon, comic book and animation based events, festivals, conventions and exhibitions around the UK is growing.  In order to survive, UK cartoonists probably need to get more visible, fogey editors and engage directly with the public.  In this regard bodies like the PCO are vital.
    It’s probably true that editorial or political cartooning doesn’t have the quite the same caché as many other cartoon forms but that’s to do with content more than medium.  As people disengage from the party political system so their awareness of the issues and personalities involved dwindles and their ability to “get” editorial cartoons goes with it.  It’s no coincidence that so many European cartoon festivals select broader themes enabling cartoonists to submit pieces with universal appeal; what some colleagues in America, unaccustomed to such events, term “daisies in gun barrels” cartoons.
    It’s interesting to contrast Andy’s comments about a cartoon’s inability to compete with other material on the same page with this piece from the President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, stating that the editorial cartoon is the jewel in the crown, discarded at the peril of the entire paper.  (I do however take issue with the notion that someone who isn’t good at drawing could be a good cartoonist; if we are indeed a kind of journalist that’s like saying we could write a cogent report without any grasp of grammar.)
  15. Here’s a rough even the SSS ran a mile from..

  16. Hi Gary, Editor notes that we like to try and keep comment threads on the subject of discussion if possible, especially when we are talking on a public reading space at Procartoonists.org. Thank you.

  17. Ah editorial control on a thread about editorial control, Matt, interesting.

    Just answering Bill’s comment re: rejected ideas and giving an example of why editorial control might sometime be a good thing though.

    Guerilla poster out.

  18. Yes, the irony is not lost on me Gary. However, back to Terry’s contribution…

  19. Terry’s link to the pjnet conversation was an illuminating read. Underlining the long held belief that wordsmiths have always gazed enviously at the immediate impact and popularity that (editorial/political) cartoonists attract for their work in a paper.

  20. My limited experience for news publications has all involved a fairly high level of editorial control, even dictat.

    One cartoon of mine very early in David Cameron’s career, before we had all reached a consensus on the visual shorthand that defines him – ruddy cheeked, sharp nosed, wide eyed – led to an argument with an editor about his likeness and in the end instance on his part that I make the eyes smaller, to the obvious detriment of the cartoon.
    But ultimately I think it’s about having a relationship.  After working with another editorial team for a decade, providing illustrations for various features, supplements and commercial articles, I was left almost entirely to my own devices, wasn’t asked to submit roughs and didn’t fear rejection.
  21. There is one other rather prosaic but I think crucial issue to be considered in all this – space. No, not the final frontier, the actual square inches an editorial, as opposed to gag, cartoon takes up. With shrinking advertising revenue goes pagination and I know for a fact that at least one gig I didn’t get was because the editor simply didn’t want to devote about half of one of his tabloid op/ed pages to a ‘toon. (Of course, the fewer numbers of broadsheets is another factor).

  22. Never mind the quality, feel the advertising.

  23. And – on Terry’s point about “having a relationship “………………the most dangerous time for freelancers is the arrival of a new editor.

  24. …or a ‘redesign’.

  25. Yes – I forgot that one. A redesign ordered by the finance department.

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