AS THE NEW ORLEANS TIMES-PICAYUNE announces scores of layoffs today, among those pink-slipped is veteran political cartoonist Steve Kelley.
“I’m fine,” Kelley tells Comic Riffs by phone from his newsroom, not long after receiving the news as Advance Publications laid off about 600 employees at four newspapers. “Obviously I would rather not be losing my job at the end of September.”
Kelley, whose last day will be Sept. 30, says the news wasn’t expected — yet wasn’t a shock — after the Times-Picayune announced plans to go from a daily print newspaper to three print editions a week come this October.
“It’s something I had not been given any indication of,” he tells ‘Riffs of being laid off, “but I’m not surprised by the news, either. They’re running a business, and cartoonists tend to be highly compensated and fairly easily replaced with syndicated material.” (Kelley’s political cartoons are distributed by Creators Syndicate. His award-winning comic strip “Dustin,” co-created by Florida Today’s Jeff Parker, is syndicated by King Features.)
Unlike some papers that have jettisoned their staff editorial cartoonists, the Times-Picayune has a rich history in this arena: Kelley’s immediate predecessors at the paper are two Pulitzer Prize winners: Mike Luckovich and Walt Handelsman .
Some reports have about one-third of the Times-Picayune staff being laid off, or about 200 employees. Kelley could not confirm those numbers, but he could convey the mood of the room: “A lot of people are crying.” He says that not only is the Times-Picayune staff tight-knit, but also that the paper — through many decades and disasters — is especially close to the community.
“I think in many respects, a newspaper is a parent of the city,” Kelley tells Comic Riffs, “and you know, in times of crisis and tribulation, people turn to this newspaper, [even] more than they do in other places, for guidance.” Now, the cartoonist says, he expects the newspaper’s brand “to be diminished” -- even as he wishes the newspaper’s leaders luck with the new product.
“You spend 175 years building a brand — and we had this long, 175-day celebration [to mark] our175 years in business — and a few months later, we do this,” he says.
Kelley believes retaining newspaper readers is all about serving their long-formed daily habit -- which is why the Times-Picayune’s move to a publishing schedule of three print editions a week puzzles him.
“I just wish there was a gentler transition,” Kelley tells ‘Riffs. “You’ve done the work and you have these people who were loyal to the brand. And even though we had declining ad revenue and declining circulation numbers, I just think this is an abrupt way to move to this model -- and you’ll end up with collateral damage. You’re, in a sense, training people out of the habit of newspaper reading -- which more than TV consumption or [non-newspaper] Internet consumption, relies on habit. ...
“Let’s try to keep what we have and educate people toward a new model and gradually withdraw from print over two or three years,” Kelley continues. “Then you have a much better chance of maintaining your market.”
“Once we teach people that they didn’t need their Monday [print] paper and their Tuesday paper,” he says, “they’ll start to ask themselves whether they need their Wednesday paper, too.”
Kelley, though, acknowledges that in some ways, the die was cast.
“They’d already talked to the consultants — and as they say, once you’ve talked to the consultants, then it’s done. But New Orleans is an anomaly, and talking to consultants outside of about a 40-mile radius is worthless.”
As for his future beyond September, Kelley says he has his syndication contract with Creators, and “Dustin” — nominated for a National Cartoonists Society award last month — is carried by nearly 320 newspapers, he says. “I probably plan to continue this and will try to find another perch at another publication,” he says. “I’ll do this for a while and I’ll see what bears fruit.”
Before the Times-Picayune, Kelley worked at the then-San Diego Union-Tribune (now U-T San Diego).
Kelley is also a veteran standup comic who has appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and he plans to continue his speaking engagements that are “infused heavily with humor.”
“I’m about to fly to San Diego to speak to credit union employees from Massachusetts,” the Dartmouth graduate says. “I’m all for it.”
[WHY ED STEIN IS RETIRING: ‘The passion has gone’ for political cartooning]