WORLD NEWS A picture is worth a thousand words? Meet the...

A picture is worth a thousand words? Meet the nonprofit newsrooms hiring editorial cartoonists

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The San Diego-based nonprofit newsroom inewsource has published in-depth accountability reporting since 2009. The vision? “Betrayals of the public trust are revealed and rectified, wrongdoing is deterred, and inequities are illuminated thanks to inewsource’s deep, dogged, fact-based reporting,” according to the site. Recent series have looked at the toll of Border Patrol chases, prisoner deaths during the height of Covid-19, and wage theft throughout San Diego County. Over the years, reporting from inewsource has prompted statewide legislation, new policies to reign in governmental graft, and other change.

But there’s an issue, says inewsource founder, editor, and CEO Lorie Hearn, “Not enough people see our work and we need to change that.”

“Because our mission for 14 years has been investigative and accountability work, we don’t publish every day. And our stories tend to be long and in-depth,” Hearn said. “We also haven’t had the bandwidth to develop and implement specific strategies around building and engaging audiences, until now.”

The newsroom announced it’d hired the prize-winning cartoonist Steve Breen earlier this month.

“People want to ‘see’ more in the news, as is evidenced by the growing audiences on social media sites like Instagram,” Hearn wrote when announcing Breen’s new role. “The allure — and mandate — of visuals inspired us to hire Steve, a super-talented cartoonist whose observations and interpretations of what matters has been recognized by two Pulitzer Prizes.”

Hearn said the inewsource audience team had been pushing the outlet to evolve and become “more intentional in our interactive storytelling.” Hiring Breen is part of a larger audience push that’s included following the advice of its first-ever director of growth and partnerships, investigating topics that’ve come up during community listening, and launching a citizen-powered Documenters program.

“Our emphasis is meeting people where they are, in the way they want to be reached, on their terms,” Hearn said. “We are trying to flip the narrative and listen to communities and interact with them, rather than just reporting news reporters and editors feel they should know.”

Breen, in his new role at inewsource, will work with the news team “to tell their often complex stories through graphic novel-style illustration, animation, and sometimes video that reaches younger audiences on the platforms they engage with most.”

For inewsource, Breen will publish local editorial cartoons and contribute to investigative stories selected in collaboration with his editors. “By our own admission, the site has been ‘text heavy’ (these are investigative pieces, after all),” Breen wrote in an email. He said he’ll be drawing with an eye toward making inewsource’s work more appealing and the local issues raised more accessible, in particular, to younger readers.

Both Breen and Hearn pointed to the ability of illustrations and cartoons to transcend some language, cultural, and political barriers. (Darth Vader does, too, apparently.)

Breen will also serve as a bridge to the community — holding caption contests, visiting local schools, and hosting “draw and talk” sessions to give illustration pointers and (hopefully!) help cultivate an appreciation for local journalism.

Breen — described as “one of the region’s great storytellers” and “a community treasure” — had recently left the San Diego Union-Tribune after 22 years and more than 5,500 cartoons following its sale to Alden Global Capital.

Hearn knows the feeling. The 1995 Nieman Fellow wrote, in 2014, about making a similar decision: “inewsource grew out of the desperation that was sweeping newsrooms across the country in 2009. I was a senior editor for metro and investigations at the San Diego Union-Tribune, and I’d spent way too much time discussing potential layoffs. When I looked one way, there was a sprawl of deck chairs on what could be the Titanic. The other way? The deep black sea. I jumped.”

Once numbering in the thousands, full-time editorial cartoonists have become an endangered species in newsrooms. The Association for American Editorial Cartoonists estimated fewer than 30 cartoonists held newspaper positions in 2021 and only two weren’t white men. The pace of the cuts hasn’t exactly slowed down in the years since. In July, three Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonists were laid off on a single day after newspaper chain McClatchy announced it would no longer publish editorial cartoons. In September, Gannett newspapers announced the chain was standardizing cartoon offerings across its hundreds of local titles. (Some cartoonists hold contract positions in newsrooms and earn a living through self-syndication and other freelance work, including for local digital outlets like NC Newsline.)

Why the gutting? Editorial cartoons draw reader interest, yes, but controversy, too. The Washington Post took down a political cartoon criticized as anti-Palestinian earlier this month. The New York Times eliminated political cartoons altogether in 2019, a decision some blamed on blowback from a cartoon criticized as anti-Semitic. The Trump presidency saw a number of cartoonists lose their jobs.

“An editorial cartoon that doesn’t have an opinion is like running a Hallmark greeting card on the editorial page,” political cartoonist Michael de Adder wrote after losing a newspaper job in 2019. “And these days, more and more newspapers want this.”

Newspapers have cut the number of opinion pages they print and increasingly skip political endorsements, too, but editorial cartoons have been treated like especially soft targets.

“It is their clarity and pointedness, the sharpness of their satire, that make [cartoons] such powerful vehicles for expressing opinion,” Kevin Siers, former president of Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, has said. “There is no ‘on the other hand’ in an editorial cartoon. This power, understandably, makes editors nervous, but to completely discontinue their use is letting anxiety slide into cowardice.”

Mississippi Today, the small nonprofit newsroom that “stunned the journalism world” by taking home a Pulitzer for uncovering a sprawling welfare scandal, also has a full-time editorial cartoonist on its staff. Marshall Ramsey has traveled the state as Mississippi Today’s editor-at-large since 2018. (He previously spent 22 years as an editorial cartoonist for The Clarion Ledger.)

The cartoons appear on the news site and on the newsroom’s Instagram, but Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White said Ramsey’s role is much broader than cartoons. He’s collaborated with their audience and often hosts live events — from drawing sessions on Facebook Live to school visits with custom coloring pages. His Sunday newsletter has an open rate over 50%, according to Mississippi Today.

“First of all, Marshall is an incredible editorial genius — he works so quickly and he’s so clever,” White said. (Ramsey often publishes five or more cartoons per week.) “But he also has created this tremendous brand, and one that people on all sides of the spectrum recognize and respect. We brought him on as an editor-at-large with the intent that we would get awesome editorial cartoons but, really, that he’d serve as an ambassador for Mississippi Today in the community and across the state.”

Ramsey’s roaming in-the-community role had to be re-envisioned during Covid (hence Facebook Live). A syndication service offered to local outlets – though there are a couple of newspaper partners who subscribe — ended up not being a major revenue driver, White acknowledged. Still, the nonprofit newsroom has come to think of the cartoonist-ambassador role as essential.

“Mississippians — and probably Americans generally — think it’s healthy to laugh at yourself,” White said. “We write about so many serious and hard topics at Mississippi Today. The levity Marshall brings to the website is invaluable and really helps cut through a lot of the tensions of the big issues that we cover.”

“Mississippi is a land of storytellers,” White added. “And Marshall, so much of what he does is telling a big and complicated but hilarious Mississippi story. That’s something that we all get really excited about.”

Illustration of inewsource logo by Steve Breen.

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