New York Crimes

February 9th, 2012

On Monday of this week the art director of the New York Times Sunday Review section sent out an email to a number of the top names in editorial cartooning with an announcement that they would once again be featuring a weekly editorial cartoon beginning on February 26h. That was great news! However, the method they are going to employ to obtain this cartoon was not so great.

Their proposal was to solicit submissions of completely finished cartoons with a weekly deadline of Fridays at 11 a.m.. The submissions would be reviewed by the editors, one chosen, and then that cartoon would run in the Sunday Review. The cartoonist who’s work was chosen would sign an agreement granting rights to the Times (not to be reprinted anywhere) and would be compensated $250. The ones not chosen would get nothing.

This is paramount to a “contest”, but not among the public—the people who received this letter and were invited to participate are professional editorial cartoonists who are among the best in the business. They are being asked to work on spec, something that no creative professional should be asked to do, and the rate being offered is roughly 1/3 what exclusive printing rights should be going for. Outrage has ensued, and rightfully so, among editorial cartoonists. Cartoonist Daryl Cagle responded on his MSNBC blog. Michael Cavna of the Washington Post writes of cartoonists reactions on Comic Riffs. Media journalist Jim Romenesko reprints the actual Times email, and the reaction of cartoonists R.J Matson and Ted Rall.

I penned this letter to the Sunday Review art director on behalf of the National Cartoonists Society:

Ms. Aviva Michaelov
Art Director, New York Times
Opinion Pages | Sunday Review

Dear Ms. Michaelov,

I read with mixed emotions your letter of February 6th to a selection of professional editorial cartoonists calling for submissions for a new editorial cartoon feature in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times.

On one hand, I was pleased to see that the Times was bringing back an editorial cartoon to the Sunday Review. In this day of dwindling editorial cartoon voices in the press, such an addition, particularly in a publication as respected and read as the New York Times, is very welcome.

I was dismayed, however, in the way in which the cartoons were to be submitted, chosen and paid for. The editorial cartoonists are expected to submit finished cartoons completely on spec, and your editorial staff will chose one for publication each week. The submitting cartoonists are to agree that, if chosen, their cartoon becomes an exclusive to the Times, not to be reprinted anywhere. The cartoonist who’s work is chosen gets paid $250, and those who do not get chosen get nothing.

The work of creative professionals today is under siege, being constantly devalued through a multitude of fronts, not the least the internet. Writers, artists, cartoonists, designers and other creatives who are attempting to make a living with with their talents and hard work face increasing assaults by “clients” who seem to expect them to do work for either very little pay, or only the hope of being paid. Being asked to do spec work is nothing new in the cartooning world, but when it comes from a publication like the New York Times and it is specifically aimed at some of the industry’s top professionals, it is alarming.

The Times is arguably the most well-known and prestigious newspaper in the United States. It should be championing and supporting the work of the industry’s top professionals in all facets of journalism—reporters, columnists, feature writers, editorialists, and—yes . . . cartoonists. An initiative like this does the opposite. It contributes to the devaluation of the work of editorial cartoonists not just in the offer of extremely low pay and the submission of finished work without the expectation of ANY pay, but in the very nature of editorial cartoons as an individual voice of real opinion. Editorial cartoonists are visual columnists who have specific voices, and “competitions” like this discourage that individuality while encouraging the pursuit and of whatever joke might give the jury the biggest chuckle of the week. To stage such a competition among an amateur public would be one thing, to ask a specific group of well-established and professional editorial cartoonists to do it is quite another. That is a slap in the face to their work and profession.

While I applaud your desire to once again feature individual editorial cartoons in the Times, I sincerely hope you will rethink this approach. It would behoove the Times to conduct a search among the countries best editorial cartoonists for one that has a voice that is in keeping with the editorial position of your newspaper, and then commission them to produce a weekly cartoon for which they are paid a living wage for exclusive rights. Such a change would support the professional of cartooning and journalism, and be in keeping with the reputation of the New York Times as one of the world’s leading newspapers.

Thank you for your time and attention,

Sincerely,

Tom Richmond, President
National Cartoonists Society
tom@tomrichmond.com

It is very dismaying to see such a move by a publication like the Times. You might expect such a thing from less prestigious clients and small-potato clients—I get asked for spec work almost daily by people who don’t understand the profession, but when it comes from the NEW YORK TIMES . . . that is jarring.

It’s funny how many people seem to consider creative work as of no practical value. They don’t seem to consider it the result of hard work and time, like any commodity. Here’s a simple but clear example:

I spend 20 years drawing live caricatures at theme parks. Virtually every day I would have a person come up to me and demand a discount or ask to be drawn for free if I happened to have a little slow time. I would ask them if they would consider walking up to the nearby corn-dog stand and ask them if they’d sell them a corn-dog for half price since they didn’t have anyone waiting in line. I would get a blank stare, and they still wouldn’t get it. To them, the creation of a piece of art is effortless, and the years of hard work and effort to develop the skills and talent to do good work has no value. Nor does the physical time it takes to produce the work. A corn-dog is a product that has a value. Creative work somehow does not. Ideas and talent, essentially, is cheap.

I encourage all members of the NCS to write letters to the NYT encouraging them to change this concept. There are already rumors they are going to revisit the idea. Our voices can make a difference. You can write to the managing editor at nytnews@nytimes.com.

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