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The New York Crimes

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 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 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 profession 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 spent 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, are cheap.

Disheartening.

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18 Responses to “The New York Crimes”

  1. Robin Crowley says:

    Tom,
    Sincerely I wouldn’t even bother writing them a letter (spending on my time and printer ink for them?, no way!)
    They are treating you and the community as if you were homeless street corner “wannabe” untalented artists.
    That sucks.

    • Tom says:

      I don’t think that’s quite the case, but they are certainly undervaluing the quality of work they are pursuing.

  2. That’s . . .pretty disgusting. How unprofessional of Times to do.

    Spec work is something no-one should be asked to do whether they are professionals or not. It doesn’t matter if a person has been creating art for a living for the last 30 years or just starting out doing cartoons for a jr. high school newspaper.

    I think part of the problem is that art is generally not a ‘publicly-viewed’ skill. Generally, I’m not like an athlete who can be seen training every day, a carpenter who’s work can be observed from across the road, or a chef who’s creations can be sampled every day in a restaurant. Most of my ‘heavy-lifting’ or ‘weight-training’ related to my art skills is done in relative privacy of my own home or among peers of similar talent. Not many people see and understand (let alone appreciate) the hours and years I spend working on developing my abilities.

    Just a couple of months ago, I was contacted by a prominent TV station asking me to let them use one of my artworks for a Christmas card they could send out to their clients. They wouldn’t pay me for it, of course, but promised me I would get ‘a lot’ of exposure. In short, they wanted to ride on the back of my hard work to improve relations with another client. Talk about hypocrites.

    I think you did an awesome job with your letter and really hope it knocks some sense into people.

    • Tom says:

      Well, when you are just starting out in the business sometimes spec work isn’t the worst thing you can agree to. If your portfolio needs building up and you are going to be working on pieces for it on your own anyway, the experience of producing something for a client and having the result in your portfolio might not be a bad way to go. Depends on the situation. I’d never let someone use the art without compensation or take advantage of me, like you describe for the Christmas card… obviously a TV station can afford a few bucks to pay for some art. But, if the circumstances were right it might make sense. Very few circumstances are right, however.

  3. Thank you for fighting back. Too often corporations are raping the creative talents of artists like its the law. No artist should just give it away and if all the NY Times was willing pay for was spec work then they should have sent the invitation to art schools not Professionals.

  4. Kelly McNutt says:

    Well worded, Tom. Will you be able to share a response, should you get one?

  5. Brent Brown says:

    The irony is that I am working on an editorial cartoon about this very subject as I read this!

  6. Gabriel Yeo says:

    Hi Tom,
    You should petition all the other professional cartoonists like youself, to boycott this ‘contest’. It’s the only way to stand united on this issue.

  7. Joey Hetzel says:

    I loved your corn dog analogy. It’s amazing how ballsy people get. Try going to a restaurant and saying “I’m only gonna pay for the food if I like it.”. I shared your letter, because I’ve had friends who’ve wanted me to do stuff for free all the time. I’m not at a completely self sufficient level with my work, but I feel I’m past doing charity work. Great letter.

  8. Thank you Tom for making our voice heard. Your letter remained professional, like the artist and industry you represent. Your points and examples were well written, and hopefully the Times replies with the respect you deserve. I would expect that the other professionals that received this offer will stand by you so others know that we will not participate in this type of exposure.

  9. [...] Read the whole thing over at Tom’s blog. [...]

  10. Karyl Miller says:

    Tom, yours was a great diplomatic letter. I would have written ” %&#!*, New York Times!”

  11. Koba! says:

    As an artist with over 50 years of hard work with little $$ to show for it, I am acutely aware of the low priority the creative arts has in this society and in the present economic environment. My own family barely kicks in for materials when they want me to produce a project for them, so the bad attitude starts at home. Making a living as an artist/cartoonist is simply beyond the reach of reality today…doing so with the print media is a dicey proposition at best. The NYT’s new policy is just a symptom of the decline in print media vs the internet and the digital divide we are going through. Tom, I can honestly appreciate your anger and it’s fully justified; however, I don’t see the picture improving any time soon or the monied classes changing their perspective of talented people who aren’t scientists, athletes or entertainers.

  12. Milt Priggee says:

    Tom,
    THANK YOU for sharing your thoughts on this subject. Your insightful letter is greatly appreciated.

  13. Gabriel Yeo says:

    The best way is use the internet as a main medium instead of the tradition print media. Take the example of the music industry where most people are all downloading music instead of buying CDs. The music artists who use the internet to market their music and sell them online are still relevant today. The ones who still depend on selling their CDs are suffering and blaming the internet for stealing their livelihood. Even Richard Marx (in his late 40s) uses the internet to twitter, blog, podcast and sell his music online. He promotes his upcoming concerts online and they are always a sellout.
    So Tom Richmond, who has already embraced the internet, should not worry too much. The ones who cling to old school traditional print media and ‘brick n mortar’ style business, should.

  14. Dan McNutt says:

    Tom thanks for sharing this.

 

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