I interned at the Ventura County Star during my last quarter of college and for a few months after I graduated. My earliest mentors worked at the Star and a few of my friends remain. So when I heard two weeks ago that the once safe paper was laying off 17 newsroom employees, I worried about who would get axed. I was shocked by one casualty: my very, very distant cousin Steve Greenberg.
Steve was the paper’s editorial cartoonist, in fact the sole remaining member of its graphics department, and quite possibly the newsroom’s lone remaining Jew—anti-Semites. It was hard to believe that such a valued member of the staff could be let go. And what would Steve do now to pay his mortgage? Steve is roughly my parents’ age—hardly time for a career change—and cartoonists jobs have grown incredibly rare. Steve still sketches one political cartoon a week for The Jewish Journal, but you can be sure that won’t support much more than dinner with the wife.
“Sorry to hear the news, Steve,” I wrote in an e-mail right after learning the Star’s brass thought he was expendable. “What a bunch of idiots.”
He responded that he was “shell-shocked.” The rest of that exchange was private, but the Comic Riffs blog at Washingpost.com recently spoke with Steve about the career cataclysm. The interview and a cartoon Steve drew when the incredibly unpopular Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, resigned are after the jump:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Given the many hats you wear at the Star, how surprised were you to get this news?
STEVE GREENBERG: I thought I was the safest person in the industry—other than [the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s widely syndicated] Mike Luckovich. Of the rank-and-file cartoonists, I thought I was about the safest because it wasn’t a full-time position.
Since February, the Star was down to a one-man art department—me. And I’m probably the only person at my paper who had visibility beyond the immediate market.
MC: Did you have any indication that this was coming?
SG: Not at all. I just got a great performance evalulation. They told me that this was not about the quality of the work.
MC: How did you get the news?
SG: It was Wednesday [the day after the election]—late in the day. There were two meetings going on. In one room, we were geting laid off; in the other room, they were being told that their coworkers were getting laid off.
MC: And had you been hired as an editorial cartoonist?
SG: I created my last two or three positions based on doing informational graphics—I turned graphics-only positions into editorial-cartoonist positions.
MC: As you face the job market, how do you see the outlook now for newspaper cartoonists?
SG: Cartoon positions are disappearing, probably forever. I believe it’s very counterproductive for newspapers to cut their best visual people, praying that the Internet will save them. Visuals, humor, irreverence are important. They’re cutting the people who are in the best position to help them survive.
Online may be the only remaining place for cartooning to really survive—it’s about the only growth industry for cartooning. I think the daily newspaper is not going to be a particularly viable form for cartooning in the future.
MC: You’ve been in journalism for decades—can you speak to what it’s like, watching this change occur?
SG: It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see the industry declining and this sea change: that the bedrock institution of the newspaper might not survive ... it’s mind-boggling. All the old assumptions are out the window. We must be flexible, adapt to change and do what one needs to do.
MC: So where do you look from here?
SG: I’m just starting to sort out the possibilities. I’m looking at diverse things: Can I create a Web comic? Can I [create] informational graphics for a business? ...
I’m 54 years old and I’ve got to reinvent myself.
Good luck, cuz.