24th May 2016
Is this the end of the political cartoonist?
The artists and illustrators of Australian media have weathered the disruption of digital technology … until now. As dozens of journalists depart Fairfax, veteran cartoonist Rocco Fazzari reflects on what’s at stake.
My passion for newspaper art began as a 13-year-old newspaper boy selling the Adelaide News on a street corner. I spent more time sitting on a pile of newspapers, marvelling at the illustrations papers back then featured, than spruiking my wares.
I admired the beautiful pen work of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, which was always buried somewhere near the sports pages.
I laughed at and admired the simplicity of the line work of legendary Australian political cartoonist Norm Mitchell.
Occasionally, one of my sporting heroes would be featured in a masterfully rendered charcoal drawing that would literally take my breath away.
These artists were my heroes and I so much wanted to be like them.
My first paid illustrations, while still at art school, were of pen and ink drawings of houses for the real estate section — at the time, all the images of houses “for sale” were drawings.
In my time in the profession, 28 years at The Sydney Morning Herald and two at the Canberra Times, I have witnessed at close range the disruption of picas to pixels and, along with the demise of the newspaper, that of the noble profession of cartooning/illustrating to its current tenuous position.
It seems cost-cutting in the modern newsroom has made the cartoonist an easy target, with Fairfax Media recently making redundant dozens of experienced journalists, myself included.
More are sadly bound to follow, as clickbait fever runs amok and digital metrics fail to register the beauty of a quirky piece of line work or the cleverness of a metaphor.
We are a slow-moving target in the crosshairs of management.
Fairfax was the great stable of cartoonists and illustrators; it was the place to work if you aspired to greatness, which is perhaps why my redundancy feels particularly cruel.
Tony Abbott: the greatest gift to a cartoonist
On my journey I have enjoyed drawing Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd again and the greatest gift to the cartoonist: Tony Abbott.
The combination of slapstick and goofiness coupled with a caricaturable face always gave cartoonists ample opportunity for mocking and parody.
But what took Abbott to the next level as a cartoonist’s treasure were his three-word slogans.
Years of collaboration with economics columnist Ross Gittins fine-tuned my ability to turn abstract concepts into simple, strong images. The challenge of developing Ross’s ‘Happiness Index’ concept was about as hard as it gets, but a big reward when the man himself sought me out to tell me it was a cracker.
I learnt to utilise the metaphysical, the surreal, visual puns, metaphors, analogies, the sudden twist from left field or just the plain absurd to hit that sweet spot — the perfect interplay between word and image.
Applying the principle that you can say more in a picture than with words allowed me the freedom to prick the pomposity of a politician or in political editor Peter Hartcher’s masterfully crafted comment pieces.
A collection of ink lines could also have a devastating effect on a power-broker’s ego. I knew I had done my job well when an editorial manager fielded a phone call from Canberra suggesting I should be kept on a shorter leash.
But as the cartoonists disappear, so with them goes the opportunity to drag down the rich and powerful to the commoners’ level — where we can collectively poke them in the eye. It’s a tragic loss for us all.
Today’s political cartoonists are not only threatened by the closure of newspapers, we are also competing with the super-slick memes that can be produced free on the net by the citizen reader, who in some cases is just as clever.
Yet most of these memes are flashy eye candy that are void of any real substance and lack the punch of a traditional political cartoon.
The traditional cartoon in the digital sphere also has to contend with the assumption digital producers will opt for flashy memes/gifs over static images to keep the page “alive”.
In many cases, producers have pilfered the meme/gif from someone’s Facebook post, or it was sent to the paper by a reader almost certainly at no cost.
We’re also up against younger, cheaper staff — many digital producers today are young and relatively inexperienced, and lack the political savvy of the hardened old newspaper hacks.
In 2011, during what I believed was the height of digital disruption at The Sydney Morning Herald, I took on the well-worn approach of, “if you cant beat them, join them”.
My ploy was to merge the two worlds together, thus maintaining the gravitas of the traditional cartoon while employing the techniques of the leery gif or meme.
What had once been just pen and ink on a page became a quest to absorb new software in the search for the perfect image. The two became interwoven: technology and art.
I was proud this technique — after much experimentation — was accepted in the newsroom as serious political critique.
It meant learning digital skills like Photoshop was imperative if we were to meet the increasingly tight deadlines which had become the norm as digital became king.
At one stage, I was producing between three and seven images an afternoon, while deadlines had been pulled back to about 7:00pm.
Viral videos were the order of the day
I also started producing a highly successful series of video animations that captured the spirit of YouTube and channelled serious political content.
This period spanned the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott years, which delivered many golden opportunities to parody and mock.
It was a body of work I was seriously proud of — as proud as I was of my political illustrations — with the highlight a nomination at the Australian YouTube awards in the best online animation category.
However, the many long hours, mostly in my own time, of conceptualising, writing, producing, animating and editing, came to zilch as the company video consultants concluded my genre of video no longer fit the company strategy.
I have seen the newspaper art department personnel change from one populated by master craftsmen to one of coders and developers — master craftsmen and women themselves, certainly, but quite simply, they cannot draw.
Sadly it seems, like newspapers, the traditional cartoonist will disappear.
For readers, it will be the loss of an old, close friend who they’ve laughed and cried with. A friend they may have cut out clippings of, to stick on the fridge door along with other treasured trophies — arguably a greater honour than a Facebook share.
For society, it will be the loss of another voice in the battle to hold the powerful to account.
Gone will be the whimsy, the eccentricity, the magic of seeing those ink lines grace our pages; it’s like the death of the handwritten letter.
If I was to illustrate this article, I would almost certainly depict a 13-year-old me, mullet and all, sitting on a pile of iPads. I’d be smartphone in hand, tweeting a warning of the demise of cartoonists to my future self — with the obligatory gif, emoji and a cheesy selfie to boot.
Rocco Fazzari is a Sydney-based multimedia artist who studied at the South Australian School of Art and worked at Fairfax Media for 28 years. During that time he evolved his tools and technique for digital media, and now produces art forms including illustration and video. He exhibits his fine art regularly.