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FROM THIS EPISODE

Drawing to a Close

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

For more than 200 years, editorial cartoonists have skewered the pompous and humbled the mighty. They offered an immediate and often scathing appraisal of the state of the world. Readers of newspapers and magazines always knew where to go for an immediate dose of art, satire and criticism, all rolled into one.

But it's getting harder to find these editorial punches in newspapers these days, as editors, under pressure to reduce costs and boost the bottom line, have been getting rid of their cartoonists.

In the last 20 years or so, dozens of editorial cartoonists have been fired, retired or urged to take a buyout of their contracts. More than 100 cartoonists' positions have been left unfilled.

In their place, some newspapers publish syndicated cartoons, or they run nothing at all.

It's sad that most of the biggest newspapers in the country, including USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, have no staff cartoonists.

This past Friday, The Baltimore Sun lost Kevin Kallaugher, known as KAL, and one of the most accomplished of the breed. He'll continue to draw his hilarious covers for The Economist magazine, but, after 17 years at The Sun, KAL accepted a buyout when he was told that his future at the paper was uncertain.

Which is not to say that the craft of political cartooning is dead. On Internet Web sites, in magazines, on television and in visual podcasts, new forms of sharp-edged political art are springing up.

And in Washington, a lawyer named Andrew Rougier-Chapman has come up with a concept for a weekly television show called Party Toons. It would include digitally animated political cartoons and a guest cartoonist every week.

"Hopefully," he said, "there will still be some left by the time we do the show."

Here in Baltimore, Kal himself plans to go into the world of digital animation. Cartoonists, he said "need to go where the action is."

Kal and some of his colleages blame their decline in newspapers on shortsighted business decisions by publishers.

"In the long run, they're going to regret this," said Chip Bok, who draws for The Akron Beacon Journal. "In stark terms," he said, "a staff cartoonist is not essential to putting a newspaper on your front porch every morning."

In a time of tight budgets, paying for a cartoonist makes little sense to publishers, especially when they have to worry political correctness. But Pat Crowley, who was the editorial cartoonist at The Palm Beach Post in Florida for 11 years, said that some cartoonists share the responsibility for their demise.

"You can't blame everything on the corporations," he said. "A lot of cartoonists are lazy. They don't mess around with ink and brushes. We're paid to draw our opinions and dazzle them with our prowess, but I've watched illustrators in art departments trying to find ways of letting a computer do the work for them.

"The art of caricature," Crowley said, "is dead."

For some fans of editorial cartoons, the cuts in the ranks of staff artists strike at the heart of newspapers' identities.

"The best cartoonists reach out from the page, grab you by the shirt collar and try to shake you out of your apathy and your indifference," said Chris Lamb, a media professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Lamb said that getting rid of staff cartoonists diminishes a newspaper's power to provoke thought and discussion.

"An editorial cartoonist is a sort of Rush Limbaugh with brains, or a Bill O'Reilly with a sense of humor," Lamb said. "Or, to extend the metaphor further, a Sean Hannity with brains and a sense of humor."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

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