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Editorial Cartoonists Bite the Hand Which Downsizes Them



In recent years, the nation's editorial cartoonists have realized they are on a business end of a serious crisis.

As newspapers search for ways to cut costs amid pressures to increase profits, the guys (and gals) who draw funny pictures have found themselves increasingly defined as a luxury item. So when layoffs and downsizing comes, guess who gets the axe first? And if someone new is hired -- which can be a big if; the St. Petersburg Times hasn't had a staff cartoonist since Don Addis retired in August 2004 -- guess who is rarely made a full-time staffer with benefits?

To take arms against this injustice, the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists have staged their own protest, penning 100 cartoons decrying the downsizing of the American newspaper and the disappearance of the local political cartoonist.

AAEC President-elect Rob Rogers, an old buddy of mine from my days working at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is helping spearhead the protest, which features a ton of cartoons criticizing Tribune Co.'s announced plans to layoff 800 workers. (former SP Times cartoonist Clay Bennett is curent AAEC prez.)

Some might say penning cartoons depicting top media executives as King Kong-style marauders or Boss Tweed-style rapacious capitalistas is not the best career move.

But when your back -- and the backs of newspaper employees across the nation -- is against the wall, sometimes desperate measures are required.


Years ago, Washington Post (and former St. Petersburg Times) writer Vanessa Williams told me a wry joke about attending a meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Vanessa, who was once president of the group, was sitting in a restaurant meeting when the waiter asked why there wasn't a National Association of White Journalists.

"There is," she said. "It's called the Society of Professional Journalists, The American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Invesigative Reporters and Editors, Inc..."

All jokes aside, NABJ has through the years proven the value in a professional organization which focuses on the unique needs of African American journalists struggling to succeed in a white-dominated media industry. Today, the group celebrates its 30th anniversary amid renewed challenges to stay relevant at a time of increasing "diversity fatigue."

Contrary to popular belief, membership in NABJ is open to any professional communicator. And the Tampa Bay area chapter, which I lead, has several non-black members.

(from left: Poynter Institute's Kenny Irby, CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts and me at the local NABJ chapter's Griot Drum Awards, where we handed out 17 awards and $1,300 in scholarships Nov. 3. Photo by TBABJ member Carrie Pratt)

But the group has maintained an unwavering focus on teaching mainstream media the value of ethnic diversity in reporting and staffing. When the group was founded by 44 black journalists in 1975, news outlets across the country were struggling to assimilate black people hired from marketing departments and other, non-journalism areas in a mad dash to cultivate reporters who could understand the non-white side of the Civil Rights movement.

Now, the challenge remains to retain talented journalists of color who have a multitude of career options at a time of belt-tightening at mainstream media outlets. To hear how that fight is going, check out NPR media writer David Folkenflik's story on NABJ from today's Morning Edition, featuring Richmond Times-Dispatch editor Glenn Proctor (shown above).

Certainly I -- a black journalist who went to college in part because of a scholarship from an NABJ chapter in Gary, Ind. -- remain indebted to the accomplishments of a group whose work, unfortunately, has only just begun.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:35pm]


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