Editorial pages look to adapt as their communities converse online

A generation ago, the local newspaper editorial page provided the highest-profile forum for discussions about community issues. Editorial writers would research opinion pieces, staff and guest columnists offered their thoughts and local residents would add their voices in the letters to the editor section.

Then the Internet arrived, and the civic discourse shifted, as readers turned to local discussion boards, political blogs and community e-mail lists to talk about the issues affecting them. The newspaper-sanctioned forum grew up, moved out, and became a true community conversation. Now, some newspaper editorial board leaders are responding, seeking Web-friendly ways to restore their opinion sections’ relevance.

Editorial writers from papers big and small, from Wausau, Wisc. to Washington, D.C., locked minds in downtown L.A. last weekend to kick off the Knight Digital Media Center‘s “Best Practices: Editorial and Commentary in Cyberspace” conference.

The overarching questions Sunday: What does it mean to be a catalyst for an engaged society? And just what is the ideal balance between editorial autonomy and community conversation?

“Am I making too large a leap of faith here in drawing this conclusion that community involvement is indeed part and parcel of what we should be about?” asked moderator Michael Williams, Associate Professor of Interactive Media at Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial writer Kevin Horrigan wasn’t quite sure:

“The definition of the role of a newspaper is to print the news and raise hell. The assumption here, within this group, seems to be that you’re leading a community conversation. That in itself is a change from the traditional role of the newspaper. I think it’s a good idea, but I’m not sure the newspaper industry as a whole is totally grasping that.”

Begetting this retort from The Portland Oregonian‘s George Rede:

“I guess I would say, without giving up the traditional role of ‘reporting the news and raising hell,’ this is another layer. If you aren’t doing it already, you have to do it. Given the changes in technology, there’s no excuse for not going down some of these paths. We might be stumbling along the way. We may not see exactly where we’re going to wind up. But the means to engage our readership have changed, and I think changed for the better.”

From monitored blogs to cartoon caption contests to reader/columnist programs, folks in the room did offer promise. That said, when Williams polled the room to gauge whose sites have employed some form of video, only half the hands went up. And of those, none could own up to running anything that was actually shot and edited by an editorial writer, a process one writer described as a “very labor-intensive” endeavor. Not surprising, per se, but perhaps a telling anecdote about the generational status of most editorial board members.

Show And Tell

The most compelling, and telling, answers in the opening session sprang from a best-practices share session, where the 20-odd newsies unveiled their range of active editorial-page endeavors.

A sample:

  • In November, The Portland Oregonian asked readers to nominate themselves for the paper’s op-ed board. Rede said they selected 12 of 250 respondents, based on résumés and writing samples, and asked them to write one opinion piece a week, on the topic of their choice, for 12 weeks.

    “We have our own soap box seven days a week,” he said. “We would like them to be able to bring issues to conversation that matter to them.”

    Those who have shown their ability to write professionally and meet deadlines have earned the right to blog directly to the Oregonian, unsupervised and unedited. Want to get to know these “citizen journalists” a little better? No problem: They’ve posted video interviews with each of the “community writers.”

  • In Wausau, Wis., Peter Wasson at the Daily Herald is writing the Sunday editorial five days in advance, on Tuesday, and opening it up for pre-publication feedback.

    “At the end of the day Tuesday, I send it to a panel of 15 or 20 readers who have volunteered on our Readers React board,” explained Wausau Wasson. “And by the end of Thursday, they send responses to our editorial.”

    Wouldn’t that compromise timeliness, you ask? “I’ve got six other days a week to be timely,” he said.

  • Miriam Pepper said her Kansas City Star‘s Unfettered Letters section dishes out its print-published letters as individual blog posts, allowing readers a forum beneath each of them for replies; unedited, unmonitored and sans-length limit.
  • At The Charlotte Observer, “You Write The Caption” invites readers to whip up their own wit for cartoonist Kevin Siers’ Monday cartoons.

    Challenges remain

    A selection of notable quotes from participants:

    Editorial Page Editor Gina Acosta of the Washington Post: “Unless you’re a columnist, no one knows who is on the editorial board, what their expertise is, where they came from, what their experience is. There’s no interactivity between the editorial board and the community. And we get letters and calls from people all the time asking, ‘who’s on the editorial board? How can I set up an editorial board meeting?’ And it’s a very closed, hidden process.”

    Deron Snyder, Editorial Writer, Fort Myers News-Press: “There’s always been community conversation. The fact is that we’ve never been involved in it. Once we printed our paper, we would let the community talk about it and we were done; we were working on the next day. What I like about the way things are going now is that we remain a part of the conversation that we start. We start the conversation by our stories and editorials… We can help foster that conversation. It doesn’t mean we have to change our views, necessarily.”

    Tonya Jameson, Online Columnist, The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer: “I think we’ve always… had that opportunity for the readers to respond, because everybody has a Letters to the Editor page. So people still have that discourse within the newspaper, but now we are moving forward with blogs and having these ways for people to actually go back and open up a conversation. I do agree, though, that it’s an arrogant attitude that we put the news out there, we put our opinion out there, and readers are supposed to accept it and we go from there. I think that’s what turns off younger readers from newspapers.”

    Laurence Reisman, Editor, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers: “It’s one thing to bring people to an editorial board meeting and have them talk about it with us. But I think it’s much more powerful to bring readers on sides of all issues together in a forum—whether it’s an online forum or a meeting room like this—where they can discuss the issues. And if it changes our opinions after listening to some of these things and doing more research, that’s great. But I think helping to bring the community together is an important thing.”

    Michael Landauer, Assistant Editorial Page Editor, The Dallas Morning News (on cross-pub linking): “News isn’t going to do it. Our front news site is not going to link to an investigative report at the [Fort Worth] Star Telegram, ever,” said Michael Landauer of The Dallas Morning News. “But we’ve done it several times where I’ve linked to an editorial out of the Star Telegram. And nobody blinks at that.”

    Kevin Horrigan, Editorial Writer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “That’s not the role of the newspaper. We’re supposed to say which one is right.”

  • Can the Internet rejuvenate editorial cartooning?

    Dale Neseman

    Daryl Cagle

    Don Asmussen

    Dale Neseman is the local editorial cartoonist for the Hamburg (NY) Sun. He’s also the local editorial cartoonist for the Voice News in New Baltimore, Michigan. And at the Jupiter (Fla.) Courier, as well as about 20 other small newspapers around the country. How does he stay local without being local?

    Neseman had a brainstorm in 1997 to start drawing cartoons based on local issues just by reading newspaper stories online and e-mailing submissions. To his surprise, small newspapers jumped at the chance to get local-issue cartoons from a freelancer living elsewhere rather than to pay a full-time staffer.

    The Internet has changed the way editorial cartoonists distribute their work and compete with others, while also allowing them to broaden their ideas into brief animations. Though the initial dot-com boom for animations (remember Mondo Media and Shockwave?) waned long ago, the current rebound in online advertising and political satire (think “The Daily Show” and JibJab) might bring another wave of interest to the old art form of political cartoons.

    Neseman, for his part, has succeeded even as a low-tech guy, with a dial-up connection and without a Web site to showcase his work. He has won awards in states outside of his hometown of Hamburg, New York, and gets paid about $25 to $40 per cartoon.

    “Fortunately, in a lot of cases, different small towns — and even larger towns — have a lot of the same issues, maybe school taxes or plowing roads, or general taxes,” Neseman told me. “So a lot of these places have a lot of the same problems. So I can tweak a cartoon that I’ve done in the past, and I don’t have to reinvent the wheel with each cartoon.”

    Neseman’s editor at the Voice News, Donna Remer, doesn’t mind a whit that he doesn’t live in southeast Michigan. She said that one cartoon that dealt with water problems in New Haven, Michigan, led to a citizens’ group using it on T-shirts they wore to village council meetings.

    “I’m sure they didn’t realize he lives out of state,” Remer said via e-mail. “The Internet and e-mail are changing the way all journalists work, and cartoonists are no exception. The trick is to use the efficiencies these technologies offer without compromising our very basic commitment to local content, relevant to our readers.”

    Economies of scale

    Despite Neseman’s modest success, he still works part-time as a graphic designer. These are the worst of times and the best of times for editorial cartoonists. Newspapers have been cutting full-time editorial cartoonist jobs down to the bone, and prices paid in syndication seem to drop by the minute. But the Web has brought new business opportunities for popular cartoonists, with global distribution and the chance for self-syndication.

    Veteran cartoonist Daryl Cagle has been in the eye of the storm for online cartoons. His Cagle.com Pro Cartoonists Index was once lavishly funded by Slate and MSN, even allowing him to pay cartoonists for featuring their work online. That hub has allowed cartoonists to see each other’s work, exposing repeated or clichéd ideas to fellow colleagues.

    After drastic cuts at Slate a few years ago, Cagle was on the verge of shuttering the site before Slate and the participating cartoonists agreed to a more austere budget. Slate continues to prize its collection of editorial cartoons, with Cagle’s index and Doonesbury.com. The site, now owned by the Washington Post Co., would even consider adding more cartoons or political animations in the future, according to its new publisher, Cliff Sloan.

    And Cagle has built a thriving syndication service of his own called Cagle Cartoons, where he hawks custom cartoons and sells subscription packages to some 800 newspapers from his stable of cartoonists. He has four employees for the syndication business, but he doesn’t think major syndicates take political cartoonists that seriously as a business.

    “In the eyes of the major syndicates, editorial cartoons are like the retarded stepchilds of the comic strips,” Cagle said. “The big syndicates are interested in selling comic strips because you can get the plush Garfield and Opus and Snoopy, which you don’t get with political cartoons. There isn’t a lot of money in political cartoons, and it isn’t something that big syndicates are interested in, but they still like to offer a broad range of services.”

    And while the Net offers a way for cartoonists to sell merchandise such as books through online stores directly to readers, it’s tough to break into the business and establish new talent with so much competition for attention online and a low barrier to entry.

    “It’s a tough market for political cartoonists to try to make a living,” Cagle said. “I get unsolicited submissions from a gazillion cartoonists and it’s sad. ‘Where can I get a job as a political cartoonist?’ I don’t know. It’s a big lake, and the lake is receding, and the fish are flopping on the shore. … What I tell college kids and aspiring cartoonists is that there are 85 cartoonists with full-time jobs, and it’s a much better plan for your career to count on getting into the NBA or NFL.”

    Chris Pizey is CEO of UClick, the online arm of Andrews McMeel Universal, the largest independent newspaper syndicator. Pizey has seen the boom and bust cycle for comics online, including the more political Doonesbury.com and the fuzzy Garfield.com. When ad money dried up, Slate picked up Doonesbury online, and Pizey helped launch a subscription service called MyComics.com and even a wireless service, GoComics.com.

    Pizey told me that business has improved on newspaper sites after the bust.

    “We saw a lot of attrition on the non-newspaper sites [during the bust], but on the newspaper sites, it’s stayed pretty consistent, and it’s starting to grow nicely again over the past year as the ad market has picked up,” he said. “They’re looking at how to engage new users, and comics and puzzles are a great way to do that. They’ve been working in newspapers for 100 years, and they work just as well on news sites.”

    UClick has even tried an online incubator site for newbies called ComicsSherpa, where they charge aspiring cartoonists for space on the site. Pizey says UClick is now offering four or five of the best ones in syndication online, while United Media picked up one in print. But he’s not overzealous about an online cartooning career.

    “Revenue on the Web is still difficult,” he said. “It’s still hard to generate enough revenues for an artist to produce a daily comic strip. We’re just getting to the point in the next 18 months, where that will start to be realistic. And we’ll be able to identify new talent and generate enough revenue and can provide a daily comic experience across the Web. And eventually we’ll have a new comic experience, whether that’s animated or whatever comes next.”

    Getting re-animated

    UClick dabbled in animated editorial cartoons before the dot-com bubble burst, and Pizey is keen to find an animated series. But right now, there’s only one prominent editorial cartoonist doing animation online as a full-time freelancer: Mark Fiore. Fiore started out doing static cartoons for the San Francisco Examiner, and even drew them from Boulder, Colorado, back in 1992 — without the benefit of the Web to follow San Francisco local news.

    “I got a print subscription to the Examiner, which cost an arm and a leg,” Fiore told me. “It was like $100 per month or more. I got the papers in paper bags about a week later, 5 to 7 days after they were published. I’d do a packet of cartoons on local San Francisco issues and FedEx them back to the Examiner. It was a very expensive, money-losing situation, but that’s how we had to do it in the old days.”

    Fiore eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he learned animation and tried to make the Hollywood scene. After giving up on that and moving north to San Francisco, Fiore freelanced for various California newspapers and got his dream job as staff cartoonist for the San Jose Mercury News. Unfortunately, that was right as the dot-com downturn started, and Fiore had grown accustomed to the freelance lifestyle. He left the Mercury News and started doing animations regularly for various news sites and e-zines.

    Now he’s been able to support himself doing one animation per week, and doing a small self-syndicated run to Working For Change, AOL, Village Voice, as well as SFGate and MotherJones.com. He charges about $300 per outlet per animation, and would like to add more outlets, without overexposing himself and having to lower his price.

    “If you’re drawing for a cartoon locally in Dubuque then there’s no problem if it also runs in Des Moines,” Fiore said. “But on the Web people can flip around so fast. I’m trying to keep up a level of scarcity, but I don’t want to be quite so scarce.”

    Fiore also started selling DVDs of his work, just as the duo at JibJab had done before the election. He sold 200 copies before he even had finished making the DVD. But despite his success at skewering every aspect of the Bush administration’s foibles, Fiore remains alone as a successful editorial animator online. “I’d rather be a pioneer than an anomaly,” he said. “I hope there’s other people that come along and do this.”

    Don Asmussen, the staff editorial cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle, has experience doing political animations for dot-com startup Mondo Media. In fact, he held two full-time jobs in ’98-’99 as cartoonist for the Chronicle and animator for Mondo — doing one animation per week during that time. Asmussen’s animations are much longer, fuller productions — and he had the help of other animators and producers at Mondo. But the economics never worked out.

    Asmussen told me that banner ads weren’t working then and that no one would sit through an ad before or during a three-minute animation. Plus, the online audience at the time didn’t have an interest in political spoofs.

    “My biggest concern is that the people who are really into political satire tend to be a little older, and kids tend to be into social satire like ‘The Simpsons,'” Asmussen said. “With political satire, we got into this weird area where the audience isn’t really into computers, and the younger people who would access your stuff easily would be into a different type of humor. But that might have changed in the last couple of years, with ‘The Daily Show’ changing what people expect with political humor. The audience will be there, but I’m not sure if the money will be.”

    Asmussen’s popular “Bad Reporter” editorial strip in the Chronicle was just picked up by Universal Press Syndicate, and he’s hoping to start doing animations for SFGate. He sees animation as the wave of the future for editorial cartoonists, forever stuck in a one-frame, one-liner joke.

    Meanwhile, UClick’s new wireless service, GoComics.com, has carriage by Sprint, Verizon, and Orange so far. Though still in its infancy, the service had 2.5 million downloads of comics, cell wallpapers and ringtones in the past year, and UClick’s Pizey says it’s the fastest growing part of his business.

    But Cagle isn’t ready to jump on the cellular bandwagon yet, saying he was offered a wireless deal that wouldn’t pay him money for two years.

    Whether the Net can bring a renaissance to political cartooning or not, the time seems ripe for political spoofs, and the instant nature of e-mail and viral marketing remain a breeding ground for visual and animated satire. And as Neseman has proven, you don’t have to be a local to draw locally.

    “I’m thinking about doing six months in Florida,” Neseman told me. “That’s simple. I just have to put a computer under my arm and go south.”