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Commentary: Community cartoonists are in decline

The work of a local cartoonist holds the feet of leaders to the fire

Wyatt Tremblay

A perfectly timed editorial cartoon can wield more power than a lengthy commentary, skewering political buffoonery and challenging social issues with a surgical skill a wordsmith can only dream of.

An essential cog of the free-press machinery since the early 19th century, political cartoonists have both angered and delighted newspaper readers.

Despite this, they appear to be heading for extinction.

Don’t get me wrong, those purveyors of satirical humour on the editorial pages of Canada’s major newspapers are doing very well, especially in the age of Donald J. Trump and Douglas R. Ford.

It’s the little guys, in rural communities, who pen a weekly cartoon of original commentary that are getting tossed onto the ash heap of history.

Let me explain.

As a freelance cartoonist for the Yukon News, I have entered my editorial cartoons in the B.C. Yukon Newspaper Association (BCYNA) awards since 1992.

I have been fortunate to win multiple times.

The awards are an annual, peer-judged competition celebrating excellence in community newspapers, from which the Yukon News regularly brings home an impressive armload.

However, when I attempted to enter the 2017 competition, I was informed that the editorial cartooning category had been dropped.

Why, I asked those in the know?

The reply was this: “For the last several years (the category has) only been receiving a very small handful of entries.”

I was surprised, as the BCYNA boasts a membership of 97 newspapers with a readership of over 2 million.

With so many newspapers, why so few cartoonists?

As I’ve learned, the reasons for this are as complicated as they are simple.

If you follow the media at all, you’ll know that newspapers are in retreat, and paid circulation, advertising revenue, and newsrooms are shrinking.

Large chain newspapers began dispensing with the staff position of editorial cartoonist in the early 2000s, opting instead to use less expensive freelancers or syndicates.

The reason?

As the digital media universe has grown, ad revenue and paid circulation for print media has declined, in some regions by more than 50 per cent.

Worse yet – yes, there is something worse – in this new universe of fragmented streams of information, readers tailor their news sources to their own views and opinions.

And advertising dollars have eagerly followed information consumers into this new marketplace.

In order to survive, independently owned newspapers have been absorbed into larger corporate entities, many of which view the acquisition of these products strictly in terms of how it adds to the bottom line.

According to News Media Canada, an advocacy group, of the 1,083 community newspapers in Canada, 599 are owned by one of 10 major corporate owners.

For instance, TorStar, Postmedia Network, and Woodbridge Company all have within their stable well-known dailies such as the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the Calgary Herald, and the Vancouver Sun.

These companies, including the owner of this paper, Black Press Media, have also acquired hundreds of small and mid-sized rural newspapers, rebranding them under their respective banners.

This is not entirely a bad thing, and has in fact saved many small towns from the loss of what are surely beloved heralders of local news.

However, there is a trade-off with this corporate handshake.

Consolidation of newspaper ownership hasn’t lessened the stiff competition from online news sources for advertising dollars, and so expenses must be curbed.

This has meant less staff, and the cutting back of local columnists and, you guessed it, cartoonists.

What this means is that you may be sitting in small-town Canada with a copy of your local corporate-owned newspaper, reading an editorial written by the National Post’s Andrew Coyne alongside a cartoon by the Montreal Gazette’s Terry Mosher (Aislin).

What’s more, both editorial and cartoon may have appeared in any number of newspapers across the country from remote northern towns to small prairie cities.

Now, while Coyne and Mosher are talented in their own rights, this corporate cost-saving measure effectively kills the power of that page to meaningfully address real issues far, far away from larger centres.

The fact is newspapers have to adapt if they wish to survive, and as harsh as the new reality may be, filling editorial pages with freelanced and syndicated material is just smart business practice.

As a freelancer for the Yukon News, I am aware of how fortunate I am that my contribution to this paper’s editorial page is still seen as worth the expense.

While the loss of one category in an industry awards competition may seem inconsequential, we should all be concerned that the citizens of one small town after another are losing an important critical voice.

It’s the loss of a voice that has historically held the feet of leaders to the fire of scrutiny and brought light to the social responsibility we have for one another.

And that’s never a good thing.

Wyatt Tremblay is the Yukon News’s longtime cartoonist