Are editorial cartoonists, like movie critics and science reporters before them, going the way of velociraptors?
Layoffs have claimed dozens of talented journalists at The Arizona Republic in recent years, but January’s loss of longtime political cartoonist Steve Benson cut to the bone for many readers.
The Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley, Benson’s Brigham Young University classmate and president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists at the time, issued a statement after Benson’s layoff calling it “not only a crime to journalism and Arizona, but to the future viability of the Republic.” He added: “The Gannett newspaper chain just shot itself in the foot.”
“Cartoonists are canaries in the coal mine – and we draw darned good canaries,” Benson told The Washington Post in a January 2019 interview. “This is a foreshadowing of more to come.”
It seemed, at the time, that the Republic agreed with Bagley and Benson: The paper’s editorial page director, executive editor and news director published an op-ed celebrating his nearly four decades of work, in which he brought accolades to the paper by winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and being named a Pulitzer finalist an additional four times. “Editorial cartoonists are increasingly rare in American newsrooms; those with the punch and talent of a Benson are still rarer,” they wrote at the time, suggesting the paper’s leaders may not have agreed with the decision to release Benson, which was ultimately at the hands of parent company Gannett.
Benson’s layoff is just one of the latest examples of newspapers getting rid of staff editorial cartoonists. According to The Herb Block Foundation, an endowment started in the name of the seminal cartoonist, there were roughly 2,000 of them in the country at the beginning of the 20th century – today, there are four or five dozen.
Benson declined to comment for this article.