TCJ 300 Conversations: Ted Rall & Matt Bors

Posted by on December 23rd, 2009 at 3:55 AM

 

Bors:
I wasn’t following you or the Pulitzers in the ’90s, but if I was, your being a finalist would have appeared to be a great sign for those not working in traditional formats. I’m sure it was easy to imagine big changes at the time. Well, here we are over a decade later without much improvement. Jules Feiffer clearly deserved one, but the mainstream press still ignored his work. They’ve really doubled down in the last five years too, with the type of people that are winning — the list of finalists are increasingly predictable. They should probably be abolished. In a few years there will be so few editorial cartoonists it won’t seem worthwhile.

Rall:
The irony is that there’s never been better work out there. Stephanie McMillan, Jen Sorensen, Mikhaela Reid, Shannon Wheeler, etc. Your stuff absolutely blows me away. I can’t believe you’re only 25 years old! It’s ridiculous how well you draw and write. But because the daily papers who still provide the vast majority of the income potential in this field are committing editorial suicide by sucking up to advertisers and aging subscribers, it’s much harder for you.

What do you think about daily papers? Do you think they’ll ever pull their heads out of their asses and save themselves, partly by embracing the kind of work you do? Or is everything going to be Web-only from now on, as e-vangelists like Scott Kurtz (PVP) would have us believe? If so, is there any future there?


Sequence from a March 10, 2008 cartoon, courtesy of and ©2008 Ted Rall.


Bors:
In recent years, I was holding out hope that some opportunities would develop for a sort of online staff cartoonist/blogger (since that is obligatory these days) position for a news site. I think we are far enough along in the digital revolution to say that isn’t going to happen on any worthwhile level. There are zero online staffers. David Horesy is with seattlepi.com but in reality he is the print cartoonist for the entire Hearst chain now. The Atlantic pays a slew of full-time bloggers but no cartoonists. Don’t ask me why.

What I find disturbing is that online sites aren’t running cartoons at all. Period. Check out the left-leaning sites: Alternet, Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, The Nation, et al. On any given day you can find the exact same clip from last night’s episode of The Daily Show posted but nary a link to a cartoon. Doesn’t seem like we are a part of their future. Dailies will continue in a diminished form, which means less staff positions, less syndicated material, less of everything.

Cartoons seem as popular as ever yet it’s harder to make a living. It’s not just the recession — we’re looking at print being permanently diminished and the old revenue streams aren’t popping up online.

Rall:
Maybe we should be happy the blogs don’t want us. Like that miserable, traitorous, fake-liberal witch Arianna Huffington, whose business model cheerfully relies on not paying any of her contributors.

Bors:
I have nothing but scorn for her. She’s the Wal-Mart of news — except Wal-Mart pays, so that’s a little unfair to them. Now she’s launching her tentacles into local Huffington Post sites which are threatening cash-strapped alt-weeklies. Her staff in Chicago was caught plagiarizing articles wholesale from local news sources. Not surprising, considering the plagiarism lawsuits she has settled out of court for lifting entire passages in her books during the ’90s. People like her and Bill Kristol fail upwards in our media.

Rall:
I’ve been wanting to ask you how you got into editorial cartooning in the first place. Do you ever see yourself landing a staff cartooning job? You must have known how hard it would be to break into. Why did you decide to do it anyway?

Bors:
Well, like I said, I found them addictive. I fell in love with political cartooning very quickly. I had always wanted to make a living drawing comics since I was but a small lad, when I sat around aping Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane’s art. When I realized I could wrap my opinions and social criticisms in humor and funny pictures, it clicked immediately. Seeing your work in print is a thrill, and after I was printed in a major paper for the first time, I realized that there was a certain power to it. There’s simply no way for someone of my age and income to have a voice in the pages of a newspaper outside writing a letter to the editor. It’s one of the professions where no one asks to see a resumé.


Courtesy of and ©2008 Matt Bors.


Why I tried to make a go at it is because I set my sights relatively low. I never thought a staff job was in the cards and still don’t. I’d love one, but it isn’t happening. Making $100 a strip was my goal for a while and eventually I reached it. Syndication was never a serious thought until you called me up asking if I wanted to do it. I jumped at the opportunity and love drawing more than one cartoon a week now. The verdict is still out on whether or not it will work for me in the long run, but I have to wait until the current economic hell is over to see if daily editors are ultimately going to be more receptive to my work.

I’m planning on doing this for the rest of my life, so I have a bit of a “last man standing” strategy: I can afford to live like a pauper at this stage in my life and, eventually, I’ll be part of a smaller pool of available cartoonists — editors will have no choice but to run me! Staffers are being laid off in droves — guys with kids and mortgages — and I feel bad for them. But there is no way they can survive with rates going the way they are going. I don’t like that the staff job is gone, but it’s gone. The lucky ones will make it to retirement age.

Do you think being a daily editorial cartoonist will be economically viable for anyone in a decade? We used to be seen as integral to the daily news cycle and I’m struggling to see any model that makes sense. We are rapidly headed into the webcomics age, which I don’t think bodes well for political cartoons. I have no idea where the future is headed, but I don’t think the Internet is the savior it is sometimes portrayed to be. You seem pretty optimistic about newspapers. Why?

Rall:
I agree with you. It’s really hard to see where we’re headed. Certainly, there will always be lame cartoons drawn by amateurs — for a while, until they drift away. But where will the money to sustain the professional cartoonists, who live and breathe politics and think only of how to use graphic satire to comment on current events and politics, come from? I don’t know. As if it’s not bad enough to be suffering a crisis of faith and economics, we have to put up with a Greek chorus of assholes like Scott Kurtz, who recently sold T-shirts that read “I’m killing newspapers.” What did political cartoonists ever do to him, other than show him up by producing work that’s actually marginally competent?

The Internet is obviously awesome. For us, however, it’s mainly a tool for promotion and delivery. I can’t see how ad rates can possibly improve given one simple fact — the nature of the reading experience online requires people to decide to read an ad. In print, ads are always there but unobtrusive. And print readers are superior to Web readers from an advertiser’s point of view for one simple reason: They’ve already demonstrated a willingness to pay for things. Low ad rates mean low income. But of course, it’s impossible to predict what will happen.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I remain optimistic about print newspapers for a variety of reasons. The biggest one is that old technologies don’t vanish unless new ones that are better in every way supplant them. Typewriters were replaced by word processors because word processors are better in every way. But print newspapers will always do something that digital can’t do. They’re portable. They provide serendipity for advertisers (you don’t have to click on them) and readers (you read stuff you don’t necessarily choose to). You can write notes on them. You can tear out an article and it’s pre-printed out.


Illustration ©2009 Matt Bors.


Also, we’ve seen growth in certain areas of print. There are more hyper-local papers, especially in rural areas, than before. There are the free commuter tabloids like AM New York and the Washington Examiner and Metro. Altweeklies in smaller cities are thriving. There are two each in Richmond, Va., and Charlottesville, Va. People will always want print because print does some things better than digital. And that’s important to editorial cartoonists. Although I think there’s a digital future for us, especially with PDAs. Who can’t imagine wanting to see a cartoon about the president’s news conference a few hours afterward?

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3 Responses to “TCJ 300 Conversations: Ted Rall & Matt Bors”

  1. scott says:

    I am struggling to see why this had to take up 8 pages? There is a lot of un-required waffling in this, which should have been edited out before posting.

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by pvponline: Anyway, here’s a link to an article where Ted Rall and Matt Bors boo-hoo about editorial cartooning and me apparently. http://bit.ly/8MIbwZ