Another Pulitzer-winning cartoonist has been shown the door.
Steve Benson was laid off Wednesday by his longtime employer, the Arizona Republic, as part of larger cuts by the Gannett company. He had been at the paper nearly four decades, winning the Pulitzer in 1993 and being named a finalist for the prize four times.
The layoff represents the latest spasm of shrinking among staff editorial cartoonists — who numbered in the hundreds several decades ago, but now have dwindled to dozens. As the economic scaffolding that upheld such perches continues to topple, we’re witnessing the decline of singular voices in local communities.
And in this era, glittery awards are no shields.
Two years ago, the Pulitzer-winning Nick Anderson was pink-slipped by the Houston Chronicle, which eliminated his position — leaving the entire state of Texas without a single full-time staff cartoonist. (Anderson is syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group.)
Last year, Rob Rogers, a past Pulitzer finalist, was fired by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after many of his anti-Trump cartoons were spiked. The left-leaning cartoonist had been at the paper for a quarter-century, but shortly after Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, the Post-Gazette’s editorial page pivoted hard to the right, leaving Rogers at odds with top brass.
Now comes not only the dismissal of Benson but also Gannett’s layoff of Charlie Daniel, who last summer celebrated his 60th year of cartooning, from the Knoxville News Sentinel. Also this month, another Gannett cartoonist, Gary Varvel, took an early-retirement offer after 24 years at the Indianapolis Star.
“This is a worrisome trend,” Benson said. “Cartoonists are canaries in the coal mine — and we draw darned good canaries. This is a foreshadowing of more to come.”
Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Patrick Bagley, Benson’s former Brigham Young University classmate, issued a strong response to the layoff.
“Steve’s dismissal is not only a crime to journalism and Arizona, but to the future viability of the Republic,” Bagley wrote in a statement, speaking as president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, adding: “The Gannett newspaper chain just shot itself in the foot.”
(Gannett did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment.)
On Thursday, the Arizona Republic published an op-ed — written by the paper’s editorial page director, executive editor and a news director — celebrating Benson’s long and illustrious career there and suggesting some of the paper’s leaders didn’t necessarily agree with Gannett’s decision. “Editorial cartoonists are increasingly rare in American newsrooms; those with the punch and talent of a Benson are still rarer,” they wrote.
Their send-off notes that Benson sparked controversies through his cartoons, first making a name for himself in the 1980s by lampooning former Arizona governor Evan Mecham, a prominent Mormon. (Benson is a grandson of former Mormon Church president Ezra Taft Benson.)
Benson, who began his post-college career drawing for a Republican Party publication, had especially pilloried Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in more recent months, the piece noted.
Checking Benson’s daily cartoon, they wrote, was “a ritual, for the powerful fearful of being skewered, and for readers looking for his take on the most important news of the day.”
And that is what we lose most as the job of newspaper staff cartoonist disappears. We miss, and should mourn, these prominent visual voices who hold the feet of the mighty to the fire. They are conversational lightning rods — and their art attracts loyal eyes, especially when they become go-to institutions within a community.
Cartoonists love to practice irony, but upon his firing, Anderson emphasized the most dire irony not only for staff editorial artists, but most journalists: “While the Internet and social media helped spread my work widely, they also have made it harder for anyone in the news business to make a living.”
Indeed, editorial cartoons are often popular online, yet the economic model to support staff positions has radically changed in a digital era.
The pattern is so common that every political cartoonist could draw it like a flow chart: A newspaper needs to make cuts; a veteran staff cartoonist is let go; the paper runs syndicated or freelance cartoons at a fraction of a cost; and because staff openings are rare, the cartoonist often must freelance in an ecosystem where such smart comics-journalism sites as the Nib have risen.
Some artists, like Anderson, seek compensation directly from their followers through Patreon, a subscription-model membership platform for creators. On his Patreon page, Anderson wrote: “If newspapers are the future of editorial cartooning, we are doomed.”
In this new era, the positive side for readers is that vibrant and relevant political cartooning can be more easily accessed than ever before, and by more creators. But in this trade-off, what readers have lost is the bold watchdog cartoonist who’s on the ground in their community, helping to shine a light on government and leaders.
So enjoy your staff cartoonist while you have one — if you’re still fortunate enough to have one. Because the industry’s hourglass is not on their side.
This story has been updated.