The future in slow cartooning?

UK logoOur Chairleg – Andy Davey writes:

An article in “Prospect” magazine recently by Susan Greenberg (here) highlighted a phenomenon among marketers and brand consultants which is called, with the apocalyptic grandiloquence you would expect from that band of cappuccino cowboys “the end of the middle”. This refers to the abundance of cheap, reasonably functional goods and services at the bottom end of the market, courtesy of global capitalism, causing the loss of mid-range market for slightly better products sold at a premium. Everyone simply buys cheap and discards. This applies to furniture just as it does to mobile phone contracts. Punters are only prepared to pay more for a product or service if it provides real luxury or has some special personalised value.

Greenberg goes on to ask whether this new “model” could also apply to print journalism and uses the term “slow journalism” to describe the luxury end of the journalism market. This is an analogy of the “slow food” movement, which is all about the local, sustainable production of food in a healthy environment, in contrast to the unhealthy, unsustainable fast-food world which ultimately puts farmers out of business. Slow journalism, similarly, would represent a more reflective relationship with information; in other words; “comment and analysis” rather than a constant scrabble for up-to-the-minute “news”.

To use American printed news and comment media as an example, this would be a world of sublime, slow journalism [“The New Yorker”, “Vanity Fair”] and ridiculous fast-food bilge [“The National Enquirer”] but nothing in between, the middle ground having been lost to the internet and TV.

But that’s enough crying over the wordsmiths. What about the picture people? This end-of-the-middle phenomenon is already a reality in the world of photography. Could it also form the future of the cartoon markets?

In a recent Guardian article (here), Wendy Grossman wrote; “Predictions are that within the next five years all of what used to be routine photographic work will go, and all that will be left is the relatively tiny fine art market and high-end niche assignments such as corporate awards and other events where only a professional can guarantee to capture the specific images that are needed.” The rest of the image market will be dominated by free or low cost off-the-peg images bought from the major agencies. The market is now flooded with stock images, readily available from internet agencies at reasonably low prices. That wily old bird Bill Gates saw the potential of internet image rights ownership a decade ago and set up Corbis Images, buying up photo archives and libraries wherever he could find them. The inevitable squeeze has followed. Corbis and the other major agencies now control the market and are driving down the percentage of the fee photographers get for the use of their images. More worryingly, they are commissioning new work for one-off payments, with no future re-use fees or royalties and, in some cases, the agencies are actually charging photographers to host their work.

As Grossman says, even mainstream publishers see the web as a vast, low-cost library provided by people who are flattered if asked for the use of their work. The old middle market of the hired photographer to illustrate a particular article will have withered, save perhaps for news photography.

Substitute “cartoon” for “photograph” in the above, and the scenario would be recognisable to most of us cartoonists. It is becoming frighteningly clear where the bottom of the market is going. Historically, this was the redoubt of the tabloid gag and the funny little drawing for the local builder’s stationery header. Cartoons are now all but lost in the tabloids and cheap magazines. This was not entirely a cost-cutting exercise, although the tabloids did drive prices down and down before they cut them out altogether. More likely the mass cull of the tabloid cartoon was an editorial decision based on a design consultant’s analysis of cartoons as old-fashioned. The cartoon traditionally provided light relief from the sometimes unremitting, turgid text of a newspaper. The text in tabloid newspapers could hardly now be described as “unremitting”; a more suitable description might be “scant” or “infantile”. A paper filled with paparazzi photo’s of celebrities’ unencumbered nether regions emerging from cars (or vice-versa, given what you can do with Photoshop) has no need for light relief in the form of cartoons. And even if they do, it will most likely now come from a stock cartoon library. Cartoon image agencies providing low cost general gags and caricatures are beginning to dominate the internet cartoon market in the same way as the photographic image agencies by operating the same business model; providing an easily searchable database of stock images and driving prices and royalty fees down to levels where a cartoonist could not make a living from such sales. So the bottom end of the market will be a land of plenty for the cartoon buyer, but cartoonists will see precious little of the booty.

It may be no coincidence that the comment magazines – including “Private Eye”, “The Spectator” and “Prospect” itself (slow journalism) – are the last redoubts of the high-quality gag cartoon in British publishing, but even here, cartoonists’ fees are very low. Editorial cartoons and pocket news gags by top cartoonists also survive in the broadsheets, and provide a good living for a few, although their number is reduced. Top-end trade magazines still provide a good income for the lucky cartoonists who have managed to keep their weekly slot, tailored to wringing some humour out of vintage motor sport or traditional pebble-dashing. Similarly, while the advertising world has money to spend, some of it will end up in the pockets of the business-savvy cartoonist.

But once again, the middle is where the squeeze is felt. This has traditionally been the home of the freelancer who punts cartoon gags off to the weekly magazines, does a bit of work for mid-sized advertising agencies and caps his income off with a few commissions from companies wanting humorous illustrations. But in the broadband world, why would you hire an expensive cartoonist to produce a tailored image for your publication when you can search the internet at your leisure and find a pre-drawn image that says pretty much what you want to say…for a tenner?

So, is the outlook bleak, comrades? Well, maybe, maybe not. We cartoonists might have to accept that our relationship with the tabloids is beset by irreconcilable differences. Reflective and commentary by nature and with no other home, cartoons have traditionally sat uncomfortably as house guests in the raucous flophouse of the newspaper, quietly hoping nobody would ask them to leave. To that extent, bespoke cartoons, even those drawn to a sharp deadline, are “slow”, luxury items. There will always be a market for such “luxury” items, whether it be on paper or on a screen, but just how much of one is unclear. So the task ahead is clear; what we have to do is convince potential clients that our “bespoke” work is worth paying for. Nobody else is going to do this for us. It’s down to us. So let slip these chains of tabloid bondage. Let slow cartooning be our salvation. Phew! I’ll just have a cup of tea before I get started.

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