National Newspaper Week starts Oct. 4 this year, and I happened to be among a small group of cartoonists who were asked to create some shared content that newspapers can use for their own publications. Each year, a different state newspaper association hosts and coordinates National Newspaper Week. This year is the celebration's 80th, and the Iowa Newspaper Association was up to host – and I was asked by INA Executive Director Susan Patterson Plank to put together a cartoon for this year's theme: "America Needs Journalists." So, after a few weeks of working more purposeful cartooning into my schedule, the above work is now featured on the NNW website along with cartoons from Jeff Koterba of the Omaha World-Herald and Mike Thompson with USA Today. Later, the site posted word from Kentucky cartoonist Terry Wise and Randy Bish of Bishtoons. Frankly, that's pretty daunting. I feel like my work is a little out of place beside those guys but, on the other hand, the phrase "Editorial cartoon by Seth Boyes, Dickinson County News" makes me really proud. The fact that I'm the only one among the three who is directly associated with this year's host state makes me even more proud (just to be fair: USA Today is owned by the same company as the Des Moines Register, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Ames Tribune and eight other Iowa papers).
As far as I know – I'm the only, in-house newspaper cartoonist in Iowa (If I'm wrong, please let me know – I'd love to build some cartoon connections within the state). I've still got byline duties each week, which of course cuts into my cartooning (though technically it should be the other way around based on my job description), but it also gives me some good perspective for my work – especially this one. Even on the local level, I've squashed various forms of misinformation – the DNR will end up poisoning the birds in Little Swan Lake, the school board granted an easement to deflate the sale of the building, the Spirit Lake VFW is going to have to close – and I've brought stories to light that many in the public likely didn't know.
Journalists – not to be confused with talking heads on entertainment news channels – do their work diligently by sourcing facts and data to keep the public informed. True journalists aren't sitting in front of a camera spouting opinion and hoping the public buys it on account of a nice set of clothes and a shiny desk. True journalists ask questions of people who ought to have answers and then publish what was said.
In short, they're out there every day poking at an issue in hopes that they can trip any potential trap before it snaps closed on the public's toes – even if most people are too busy reposting the latest sound bite from the talking heads.
I chose not to record a progress animation while I did this one. Mostly, I didn't want to pysche myself out while working, since this would be the cartoon with the most exposure to date, and I wanted it to be as good as I could make it. Along with that, I worked at double the size I typically do in order to get more detail (probably something I should stick with), and the recording files would have been annoyingly large to condense into my usual time lapse.
It was also the most lengthy process for a single cartoon I've had up to this point. When the idea of having me create some work for National Newspaper Week was first tossed out back in...I don't even remember how long ago. I got a half-page sketch out just to get the ball rolling. I envisioned it as a very classic cartoon from the golden age of newspapers, but with the center circle I've been putting in more and more of my work. It would have had a wearied editor (likely to be modeled after my own editor Russ Mitchell) at a news desk trying to keep his notes and papers in order – typewriter smashed on the floor – while a teenager of some kind was standing on the desk, reaching to the top of the panel with a cell phone in a selfie-like pose while trying to catch a fistful of flittering Facebook and Twitter logos.
Soon after that, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and I got to thinking about how easily a lot of community newspapers could go under – and some were. Staffing is hard enough these days in the news industry. People want glamor and good pay, and neither typically comes with this job. That makes it harder and harder to fill positions, and sometimes they simply go unfilled. Without people willing to do the job because they believe in the work rather than because they want job perks, the quality can suffer. That can weigh down a lot of other aspects at any newspaper to the point they may have to fold (pun unintended, but judged appropriate). Not knowing how the year would go, I sketched a mash up of a typewriter – the idea taken from the floor of the previous sketch – and a cinematic cowboy walking off into the sunset. Even personally, I wasn't sure I could afford to keep my job with another baby on the way at the time, and with a newsroom of only three people, it was entirely possible a departure from the newsroom while the pandemic was on would light the other end of the candle for the DCN. In short, this was a sketch of the DCN's last days – the disappearance of an icon from a bygone era that the world no longer believed in – while hoping it didn't come to that. Thankfully it hasn't...not yet anyway.
Other byline stories took up more of my attention in the months to follow, but eventually folks at the INA reached out again with a solid due date – I had two weeks, but I wasn't going to miss the opportunity. On top of it, I was also busy making the INA another cartoon to be paired with the DCN's comments on why we continue to enter the Iowa Better Newspaper Competition each year (a number of the state's continued General Excellence award winners were asked to contribute, and the DCN has a decade-long streak of taking home the award in our class). So, it was thumbnail time. I boiled down my feelings to basic concepts: light, shadows, consequences, exposure, on and on. A few sketches worked with lanterns or flashlights. At one time, I was pretty settled on the idea of a figure shining a lantern on a panther or cougar which would be labeled "corruption." Thankfully, that wasn't what I chose, since that's essentially the same message Thompson chose for his contribution to National Newspaper Week.
Then came the first real step toward my final piece. I focused on hidden dangers – a combination of shadow and consequences. I envisioned a person taking no notice as broken glass, soggy trash and hypodermic needles were swept off the pavement just ahead of them. I liked it. The trash could be any number of issues: corruption, tax hikes, unjust laws. I even thought to ad journalists from past decades behind the oblivious figure, and they'd have their own push brooms to show this is the kind of job that continues to be important – maybe the bright white of their press badges would shine through a misty background.
But, then I thought about interpretation. The brooms unfortunately also had the potential to be seen as "sweeping things under the rug" or aiding in the corruption, rather than exposing it and keeping the public informed. So, I got more cartoony. If there was a single item one would hope to avoid stepping on, it had to be a mousetrap – any kid who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons knows that. So, the composition was reduced to two elements. The ignorance trap and the journalism pencil. The tip of the pencil's lead was shattering to acknowledge the various costs – emotional, physical and financial – of tripping the trap on behalf of the public (a more refined way of saying, "We journalists bust our butts for you"). But it was important that the pencil itself remained otherwise whole. It can be sharpened again and again, and hopefully it can retire in peace before it's worn down to the eraser.
I liked this sketch a lot too. It was simple, clean and as distilled as an editorial cartoon should be.
But, interpretation got me again. I could hear the voices of my usual local critics saying it was a picture of the press hurting themselves by taking the bait of ignorance. While it was clean, it left out the important element of the public, so the two sketches were combined. The figure was added in, and more traps replaced the journalists of the past. Pleasently, it gave the ground plain a sort of visual rhythm – snap, snap, snap...snap, snap. I sought some input from other journalists, since this would be representing a large group of people, and I began to tweek the wording on the traps. "Ignorance" was perhaps too strong. "Misinformation" didn't fit in such a tight space. It had to be snappier (pun approved). The word "lies" seemed to be a stout umbrella term.
The critics were still chattering away in my head with the same interpretation, which made me realize I still needed to make clear the journalist is doing this not out of their own ignorance or misinformation, but to spare the public from the cost of such things. The solution was three, unsprung traps – one clearly in the figure's path. Journalists aren't perfect, and there's only so many of us. Were there more, we could do better than springing only five out of eight traps. Were there none, each trap would be a hazard – America needs journalists, so be sure to support your local paper.
By the time I was done, each trap had been labeled something different, just like the trash in the original sketch. The forefront trap remained "lies," since it was short and bold enough to catch the necessary attention. Others were labeled "abuse," "ignorance," "rumor," "spin" and "corruption." I gave myself a day to let the cartoon marinate before it was due. By the next morning, all I found to fix were technical issues like color balance and gaps in the ink work.
Since this is free content, feel free to share it freely. And if you happen to see this cartoon run in some far flung corner of the country – or even a little closer to Spirit Lake – let me know. I'd love to see how my work was used by others out there.
Thanks for reading.