The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas now has zero staff political cartoonists, as Houston Chronicle fires Pulitzer winner

by Nick Anderson / July 2017
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IT’S COME to this: Texas, the second largest state in the union — and the home of so many historically colorful political voices — lacks a single staff editorial cartoonist.

Nick Anderson, the veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Hearst-owned Houston Chronicle, got word last week that his position had been eliminated.

Which raises the question: Why part ways with one of your most prominent political voices?

“The odds caught up with me,” Anderson wrote last week on Facebook, speaking to the decades-long thinning out of America’s staff-cartooning ranks. “Ironically, thanks to social media, my cartoons are seen more widely than ever.”

“While the Internet and social media help spread my work widely, they also have made it harder for anyone in the news business to make a living,” Anderson said in his post. “I was able to drive significant traffic to my employer’s website at times, but not on the same scale as the Facebook traffic. And traffic alone isn’t enough anymore. Newspapers are moving to a subscriber/paywall model.

“Unfortunately, the powers that be decided a full-time cartoonist was not going to be a part of that model.”

Texas once boasted such longtime staff talents as the Pulitzer-winning Ben Sargent at the Austin American-Statesman, Etta Hulme at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Bill DeOre at the Dallas Morning News. Now, the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists said Wednesday in a pointed statement, there are no staff cartoonists in Texas to “provide local visual commentary and hold the state government accountable to its citizens.”

The specifics of Anderson’s case are still to be learned. The Houston Chronicle has not replied to requests for comment, and Anderson declined to speak on the record with The Washington Post about his firing.

The AAEC, meanwhile, called Anderson’s termination “a misguided, short-term cost-cutting maneuver by the Houston Chronicle and Hearst Communications.” (According to a Nieman Lab article this month, the Hearst chain has grown profits for the past five years, but “newspapers now rank as only the fifth largest of Hearst’s six divisions.”)

In denouncing Anderson’s termination, the AAEC,  led by The Washington Post’s Ann Telnaes, wrote: “While we acknowledge the financial challenges publishers face with the online market, eliminating original content is not the answer.”

Such a move, the AAEC said, comes “at the expense of the health of the editorial cartoonist profession and journalism in general.”

Anderson, who is based in the Houston area, won the Pulitzer in 2005, while at the Courier-Journal in Louisville,  and was a Pulitzer finalist for the Houston Chronicle in 2007. The Ohio native has also received the SPJ Sigma Delta Chi Award and the Fischetti Award.

Yet the Pulitzer is certainly no shield of job security for journalists, notably staff cartoonists, in the 21st century. Michael Ramirez saw his position at the Los Angeles Times disappear in 2005, and Matt Davies was hired by Newsday in 2014, after he was laid off by the Journal News in New York.

This year, in fact, one of the Pulitzer finalists, Jen Sorensen, has frequently drawn for the Austin Chronicle, yet her recognized work was created on a freelance basis — an increasing trend in cartooning, as the number of staff jobs has dwindled from hundreds to dozens over the past several decades.

Anderson wrote that he will continue to draw several cartoons a week for his syndicate, the Washington Post Writers Group.

“I’ve had a good run, and I’m grateful to [have] been a political cartoonist for so long,” Anderson said on Facebook. “I’ve been extremely fortunate in my professional career. I really want to thank my readers for their encouragement, comments, and feedback. Even the insults and disagreements have been appreciated.”