Pity the editorial cartoonists. First they lost Tony Abbott and his budgie smugglers when the first-term PM was rolled by Malcolm Turnbull. And then last week came news that Fairfax's regional papers had axed two of the nation's senior cartoonists. It's another blow in an industry cartoonists say has been contracting for a long time.
Peter Lewis has been an editorial cartoonist at the Newcastle Herald since 1986. His last day was February 19. He says he left on good terms with the paper, though he is sorry he won't be replaced. Peter Broelman did cartoons and editorial illustrations for a range of Fairfax regional papers. Though he'd been working with Fairfax since 2003, he was never on staff and was informed (with two days' notice) that he'd be let go at the same time. He says it wasn't a surprise. "I figured, given the last few years, sooner or later the bean-counters would come for me," he told Crikey. "It was explained to me as a cost-cutting measure."
The papers that used to carry Lewis and Broelman will now carry syndicated cartoons from TheCanberra Times, which employs two of the nation's most celebrated cartoonists, David Pope and Pat Campbell. No one doubts the quality of what will replace Lewis and Broelman, but many Crikey spoke to said local content would be sorely missed.
"Cartoons show readers that papers are directed to their readership," said veteran cartoonist Lindsay Foyle. He's worked for The Bulletin and The Australian, and these days he draws most frequently for New Matilda. "Readers now get excellent, national-view cartoons. But no local takes."
It's a pity, Broelman says, because regional Australia has some characters. "Bendigo's a wonderful example. The council there is just crazy. I think it rivals Queensland as the crazy political centre of Australia. And of course there's the anti-mosque brigade. Regional Australia has strong stories to be told and reflected on in cartoons."
In a contracting print industry, these stories are less likely to be drawn. "There are probably a hundred fewer cartoonists now making a living in Australia than there used to be 30 years ago," Foyle said, and he says the decline of the industry began before the advent of the internet. There were more newspaper pages devoted to cartoons in papers in the 1970s than there were even 10 years ago, he says.
Back then, most large papers would employ a political cartoonist, a sports cartoonist and a general cartoonist. There would also be a few people in the art departments who could draw. These days, even major papers often have only one or two cartoonists. Smaller papers are lucky if they have any at all.
"It's a weird job. You’ve got to be able to do it straight away," Lewis told Crikey. "Newspapers in smaller towns were the kickoff point. But there'll be nobody to follow me. Over the years, a lot of good young artists have come along and shown me their work. And I would think, maybe you'll take over my job one day. But that's not going to happen.
"David Pope is now super-syndicated across 200 regional publications. There won't be anybody starting off at any of those."
Lewis adds that most of Australia's working political cartoonists are towards the end of their careers. "There's very few new cartoonists coming up to replace the old farts like me," he said.
Cartoonists are something of a luxury for print publications, and relatively few online publications employ them. New Matilda carries cartoons, as does TheGuardian. Crikey used to, but after The Guardian poached First Dog on the Moon, we replaced him, eventually, with a rotating roster of political memes (from Department of Australia) and satirical graphic design (from Kaspar Wowser).
"I’ve yet to find someone who’s made a serious quid out of web presence," Broelman said. "It's hard to get the money to pay a cartoonist. It's very insecure."
Many of those Crikey spoke to viewed other forms of visual satire, such as memes or gifs, as a poor substitute for the skills of a professional cartoonists. "They're generated quickly and cheaply," said cartoonist Jules Faber, president of the Australian Cartoonists Association. "But they don't have the depth of something that's been crafted over a day."
"It bothers me, and bothers my association, that this genius artform has a chance to disappear into history."
Traditional publishers trying to adapt their cartoons for a digital age have struggled as to how to bring the medium online. Cartoons, like photographs, are easily lifted by social media and unscrupulous rivals. And newspaper websites are often not built to showcase cartoons in the way papers were. Foyle notes The Australian as an exception to this -- and he says the broadsheet treats its multiple cartoonists very well. The paper's website has a section that links to and displays its cartoons on the homepage.
Outside of journalism, web comics are booming online. Cartoons like XKCD, The Oatmeal and Dinosaur Comics are free, but they sell merchandise. There is money in this for the very best. XKCD creator Randall Munroe worked for NASA but found he made more money selling T-shirts.
Web comics are not editorial cartoons, and most steer clear of current events. And like editorial cartoons, while there may be money at the top, there's little at the bottom. But could some the young crop of illustrators making web comics conceivably one day turn their hands to editorial cartooning?
It's possible, says Lewis. "I always say, young people will surf this out," he said, referring to the contraction of the news business. "The young ones will hopefully see the end of this bizarro world."