IT’S BEEN the best of times, and the worst of times, for the field of editorial cartooning.

Cartoonists are able to draw with the added impact of color, to animate their work and to self-publish online without any need for a newspaper, the traditional forum for the art form. The demographics and styles of the cartoonists have never been more diverse.

Yet the grand field of editorial (or “political”) cartooning, has been disappearing faster than a polar ice cap, with newspapers eliminating positions at a rate of more than one a month across the country in the last year. There were well over 200 staff cartoonists in the 1980s, and perhaps just 80 now; exact counts are tricky, but the numbers are clearly plunging. In 2008 alone, at least 16 newspaper positions disappeared (and for good measure, one online position).

Feat2Among those lost are two Pulitzer Prize-winners (Don Wright and Jim Borgman), the forced retirement of an Oklahoma fixture for more than 50 years, Jim Lange, and cartoonists with huge regional followings such as Dwayne Powell in Raleigh, N.C. Brian Duffy, notable for front-page cartoons in Des Moines, Iowa, was cut without warning and escorted from the building like a criminal. Inexplicably, just as Alaska gained the national spotlight through Sarah Palin, the Anchorage Daily News said goodbye to the only staff editorial cartoonist in the state, Peter Dunlap-Shohl.

Shortly after Election Day 2008 came a spurt that some have called the “Worst Week Ever,” with the Seattle Times axing its six-year cartoonist … and two days earlier, the Kansas City Star axing its cartoonist of 27 years’ tenure … and two days earlier, the Ventura County Star axing, well … me.

Many of the others could see their cuts coming. Newspapers have been stressed as never before in their history, with younger people failing to get into the habit of picking up a daily paper, loyal older readers dying off, and a huge siphoning of classified ads away to free listing sites like — it’s pretty hard to compete with free, including free news online. Mix in the recession, credit freeze and mortgage meltdown along with layoffs everywhere, and the revenue numbers for newspapers are worse than ever.

Newspapers are in desperate survival mode — or maybe full panic mode — taking wild guesses at what it takes to survive and keep publishing. Entire art departments have been lost at the Star, in Marin County and in Santa Rosa. The two big Detroit papers plan to eliminate home delivery for all but three days a week, and the Christian Science Monitor has given up newsprint altogether, becoming an online-only entity. The mighty Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times, filed bankruptcy. Nearly every major and mid-sized newspaper nationwide has had staff reductions, some several rounds of it.

But why are editorial cartoonists getting cut at such a high rate? For one thing, there is a perception among some newspaper owners that the position is a luxury. Maybe, but so are the comics, crossword puzzles, sports columnists, editorial writers, local columnists and reviewers. All these “luxuries” add to the richness and value of a newspaper — and editorial cartoons are believed to be among the best-read features in any paper.

Another factor is the continued homogenization of the industry, as chains and mergers make for a more corporate, less independent press, with a concurrent move toward blandness. With a steady decline in circulation, many newspapers are afraid of having any additional readers cancel their subscriptions over anything too controversial … such as a strong editorial cartoon they might disagree with.

Inexpensive syndicated cartoons also undercut staff cartoonists. For a small fraction of a cartoonist’s salary, editors can get piles of cartoons each week. True, they might not be local, but that’s seen as a plus: Light topical gags fill the space, anything the least bit inflammatory goes in the trash bin, and there are no worries about offending a local councilman or advertiser who might be the publisher’s golfing buddy.

It wasn’t always like this.

Feat3Editorial cartoonists have usually been among the stars of newspaper staffs, and their work has been known to fire up the readers and can fill the Letters pages. They can help define a newspaper’s personality. Great cartoonists can bring glory to their papers through national awards or reprints. Politicians might think more carefully about their actions, wondering how they’d appear in cartoons; a strong local cartoon might embarrass a mayor enough to abandon some self-aggrandizing scheme, or call attention to a neglected neighborhood or a colossally stupid civic-improvement notion.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the most remarkable men of his era, dabbled in editorial cartooning; his cartoon rallying the colonies to unite against the British — a snake fragmented into pieces with the caption, “Join or Die” — is one of the best-known cartoons ever.

Thomas Nast, America’s premier editorial cartoonist of the 19th century, had a powerful sway over a population with a lower literacy rate, bringing down New York’s political crony ring led by William “Boss” Tweed, who moaned, “My constituents can’t read, but, damn it, they can see pictures!” Nast also gave the nation (and grateful future cartoonists) the symbols of Uncle Sam, the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant.

Herbert Block, known as Herblock, was an early nemesis of Richard Nixon, depicting him as a shifty figure with beard stubble who crawled out of manholes. Nixon even conceded that he’d have to “erase the Herblock image” if he was ever to win the presidency. After he did win that office, Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times skewered him mercilessly, winning a spot on Nixon’s paranoid “Enemies List” and drawing one of the earliest cartoons connecting Nixon with the Watergate break-in.

But Conrad, despite three Pulitzers, felt compelled to take a buyout in 1993, and his successor, Michael Ramirez, saw his position axed in 2005 despite a Pulitzer of his own, leaving the Times without a cartoonist.

The Orange County Register cut its position in 2006, the San Jose Mercury News axed its spot in 2001, and the Long Beach Press-Telegram left its buyout-vacated position unfilled. And just on Jan. 8, the Daily News of Los Angeles cut its guy, Patrick O’Connor. Now, in all of California, only three daily newspapers (in Sacramento, San Francisco and San Diego, plus the weekday Investor’s Business Daily) still have staff editorial cartoonist positions.

At the Star, we’d gone from a three-person news art department to two, and then in February to just me. With my main job being informational graphics (maps, charts, explainers) and illustrations, my secondary role as their editorial cartoonist seemed safe. After all, newspapers need staff artists, right? I’d had a strong year, not only handling a large load of graphics but self-publishing a book of cartoons and coming in second in a national cartooning contest behind Ramirez, who won his second Pulitzer two weeks later. My wife and I felt secure enough to buy our first house in May, in the east county midway between our respective jobs.

FeatThe Star’s move to cut 20 percent of the newsroom staff was no doubt a corporate decision — they’d fought to resist any newsroom layoffs until then — and managers were pushed to make choices quickly. Cutting the person who was its main source of news graphics and maps, custom illustrations for articles and all its local editorial cartoons wouldn’t have been my call … and it wasn’t.

Conservative readers may not have immediately realized their windfall, but the Star lost its two most visible liberal Opinion Page voices at the same time: myself and, to the left of me, Rick Larsen, whose final column on Nov. 25 bore no sign of a farewell other than a final “30” — old-time newspaper shorthand for the end of a piece.

So, hello to the world of freelancing. There’s a lot of company out there, from those other cartoonists also laid off to highly visible artists like Ann Telnaes and Ted Rall, who’ve never had newspaper staff cartooning jobs. I’ve done some freelancing for years, for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and sporadically in other places: now-defunct political publications in Sacramento, environmental drawings for High County News in Colorado, and writing for the cartooning journal Hogan’s Alley, laid out by my colleague David Folkman in Thousand Oaks.

The apparent New World Order for many who’ve been laid off is small streams of income from a variety of directions. Paul Fell, formerly with the Lincoln, Neb., Journal, has pushed his cartoons via radio, e-mail and fax. Kate Salley Palmer in Greenville, S.C., has become a skilled children’s book author and artist. Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher, one of two cartoonists cut from the Baltimore Sun, has become a puppeteer, university lecturer and experimenter in 3-D cartoon animations.

Mike Lane, the other cartoonist cut from the Sun, pulls in some income from a large cartoon link and download site run by Daryl Cagle in Montecito.

The decline of daily newspapers is heartbreaking. This is the historic medium for editorial cartooning, and still the best. Snappy online animated cartoons can be fun, but nothing matches the majesty of the great, inky print cartoons, the ones by Bill Mauldin or Britain’s David Low that dot 20th century history textbooks, or the acid ones by contemporary masters such as Oliphant, MacNelley or Don Wright, whose position was one of 2008’s casualties.

It was the impact of such work, and the excitement of doing it on staff at a daily newspaper, that captivated me in college and started me on this career path. It’s been an admittedly bumpy path, with a roller-coaster ride on six newspapers over 30 years in SoCal, Seattle and the Bay Area.

Now the ride has stopped, and even the whole amusement park seems to be in trouble, with every other daily in bad shape and cutting staff. What to do?

Another area of newspapering has been the alternative weekly. Its free-distribution business model and hip, edgy content attracts readers who prefer more diversity in reporting than what the dailies offer. Start-ups have taken hold all over the country (how often do you see start-up daily newspapers?), and in many places there are even competing alt-weeklies. Axed Des Moines cartoonist Brian Duffy was given space to publish his farewell cartoon in the alt-weekly Cityview, which then gave him a regular weekly slot.

The VCReporter is giving me a chance to restart and recharge. Sometimes, when the roller-coaster stops working, you’ve gotta give the Ferris wheel a spin.   

Steve Greenberg cartoons will be featured in the VCReporter every week, alternating between local and regional to global issues.