Editorial Cartoons Slipping Further Into Oblivion
When my friend and colleague, Matt Wuerker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning this year, I was not only thrilled for him, but also for the field of editorial cartooning. Such a prestigious award honoring this specialized form of journalism is a boon to our profession in a time when the ranks of staff editorial cartoonists have been dwindling.
Shortly after the Pulitzer awards, an article in the online magazine Slate berated Matt and criticized the Pulitzer board for keeping editorial cartoons among their esteemed prize categories. The author felt Infographics, blog-generated Listicles, and other memes were more deserving than the "archaic and timeworn" editorial renderings of political cartoons. Although the attack by Slate's Technology Columnist, who often ventures into civilized society to hammer out mean-spirited rantings, was unwarranted — I offer a bit of reality from a recent experience suggesting that the sentiment expressed in that article may not necessarily be an anomaly.
I recently attended the Virginia Press Association (VPA) awards ceremony where the highlight (for me) was hanging with colleagues and seeing friends. Now that the dust has settled, I am able to take a scrutinizing look at the awarding process.
I was pleased to have netted 1st Place (non-daily category) for one of my editorial cartoons. Drawn early last year for the Alexandria Times, the cartoon was also distributed by my syndicate throughout the U.S. and Canada and appeared in other publications, magazines, online cartoon anthologies, and newspapers, including the New York Times. Make no mistake. I am grateful for the recognition and humbly honored by this award.
But, this particular VPA award was not issued in the “Editorial Cartooning” category. There is no longer a category for Editorial Cartooning. There’s one for Editorial Writing, one for Headline Writing; even one for On-Line Slide Show, but not one for Editorial Cartooning. That category was removed a few years back and tossed into the broader category of Illustrations under the division "Analyzing and explaining the news through ART." The other category in this division is Information Graphics. It's described as, "original artwork (other than photographs or editorial cartoons) which is used to tell, explain or clarify a story through the use of maps, charts, diagrams, or other graphic devices."
The Illustrations category that now houses editorial cartoons is grouped along with "section covers, thematic works, and mood-setting art." Award criteria for this category is defined as:
…original artwork (other than photographs) used to enhance the
appearance of a page and/or the readability of news or feature content.
So, the editorial cartoon is now simply an “enhancement to a page,” according to the VPA.
Information Graphics, merits an award category all to itself. Even photography is broken down into nine separate VPA award categories. Editorial Cartooning no longer has one.
Editorial cartooning is a form of journalism that takes complex political or social issues and — through a combination of drawing and writing — renders them down into succinct statements, often using hyperbole and metaphor. They frequently add a twist of humor with a satirical twist to carry the message. Multiple panel, or single; black and white, or animated in full color — Editorial cartoons are stand-alone sociopolitical commentaries, not simply "page enhancers." The Pulitzer Prize has had editorial cartooning in its own award category since 1922.
But, back to the VPA awards.
Once attendees hear their names mentioned for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places while their mugshots and entries momentarily flash on the big screen — the awardees remain glued to their seats for the "Best in Show" awards. These awards honor the best from each division. As each award is announced, the winner walks to the stage to be photographed receiving a beautiful plaque, while the crowd (those not asleep or carried out on stretchers) cheers.
This year, Best in Show (non-daily) went to an Information graphic. Devoid of illustration, maps, charts, diagrams, or other cleverly constructed graphics, this piece of work was simply a photograph with sans serif type and text-generated arrows superimposed over it. So, from among all the original illustrations, from among all the beautifully rendered paintings, impressive charts, outstanding graphics, and "page enhancing" editorial cartoons, this piece was chosen to represent the "best" in show for the category of "art."
I don't begrudge the winner his prize. It is a striking visual to be sure, and would "enhance the appearance of a page and/or readability of..." yadda-yadda-yadda. But, an information graphic comprised of a photograph with typesetting can hardly be compared to say a pen and ink drawing, a watercolor painting, or any one of other gorgeous hand-rendered creations in this broad, catch-all category labeled "art."
Perhaps the Slate article portends a pervasive trend. The editorial cartoon has gone the way of the buggy whip. Evidently, the Virginia Press Association agrees.