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Two Virginia Editorial Cartoonists' Thoughts On The Industry

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Maybe it's the first page you turn to when you open a newspaper, or the first link you click on as you check the paper online. Editorial cartoons get people talking, but fewer and fewer newspapers are employing cartoonists full time, as dwindling circulations lead to layoffs.

Jim McCloskey: The advertiser and the cartoonist

Whether you read the Staunton News Leader or not, you've likely seen his work. Jim McCloskey is frequently featured in numerous Virginia newspapers; he's also had cartoons in USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. But what Staunton readers might not realize is that some of the ads in their newspaper are also the work of McCloskey... sort of.

That's because he wears two hats at the News Leader: one in the advertising department, and one as the editorial cartoonist. He was originally hired to work in the paper's advertising department 22 years ago and expressed an interest in drawing editorial cartoons. He's been doing both ever since. And at a time when fewer than a hundred of his cartooning colleagues enjoy full time employment at a newspaper, McCloskey is grateful.

"There used to be more and more editorial cartoonists than there are now, and unfortunately as newspapers have folded, and as they cut staff, they’ve seemed to make cartoonists expendable, and I regret that because we're one of the few people that do have an opinion, and can actually come out, which is what newspapers cartoonists are supposed to do; they’re supposed to make you think." he says.

What the paper's executive editor, David Fritz, thought when he first came to the paper 13 years ago and learned of McCloskey's dual role, he was perplexed. But he discovered the combination works. He sees no reason to make changes, even as editors at other papers continually look at ways to cut cost.

"I've also had people who are surprised about the unusual blend of gym, and I don't know anyone else who has exactly this particular arrangement, but on the other hand, no one else has Jim," says Fritz. "He has been able to handle that tension between the roles, and very well separate them."

Chris OBrion: Longs for the 'golden age' of editorial cartooning

If Jim McCloskey is the exception, then Chris OBrion is more like the rule for today's editorial cartoonist. OBrion, who works part-time for a local library system, does cartoons on a freelance basis for the Roanoke Times, and the Richmond-focused website RVANews. He also does graphics and other illustrations, all from his Richmond home. He longs for what he calls the "golden age" of editorial cartooning, when newspapers had full-time cartoonists on staff, drawing on local issues like city councils, growth and development.

"Stuff that people could relate to that people couldn't get nationally," says OBrion. "Right now it's mostly nationally syndicated stuff, which is fine, but it doesn’t have much impact, I think or relevance that a local cartoonist does."

But neither McCloskey nor O'Brion say they’re ready to write off the future of political cartooning in the face of declining newspaper readership and circulation. To the contrary, they point out the many opportunities cartoonists have to ply their craft… online, in the form of stills or, increasingly, animated cartoons.

As McCloskey puts it, the editorial page, whether it’s hot off the printing press, or on a computer screen, is a community soapbox, and there will always be a place for it.

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