An uncle who hadn't seen Scott Nychay for a while asked him at a family party a few weeks ago how things were going at work. The Northwest Herald laid me off last October, Nychay replied. Then why, a puzzled cousin asked, is the Herald bragging about you on TV?
The Herald had featured Nychay in TV ads before. It had put his face on billboards. But this ad he knew nothing about. It turned out to be a 15-second spot running early in the morning on WBBM TV, the Herald's "news partner." Thanks to an understanding between marketing departments, the Herald advertises on WBBM and WBBM advertises in the Herald. "More than 60 awards in 2005," the spot says, "including: best-overall news-paper, AP top-ten sports section, and Fischetti editorial-cartoonist honor. Maybe that's why more people in McHenry County read the Northwest Herald than all other papers combined. The Northwest Herald--closer to home."
The John Fischetti is a national award named for the editorial cartoonist of the old Chicago Daily News, and it's given annually by Columbia College. Last year Nychay competed against 71 other cartoonists who each submitted a cartoon drawn in 2005; Nychay's entry, "Intelligent Design," earned him a tie for second and a $1,000 prize. The cartoon briefly appeared in the Herald ad.
In his eight years at the Herald Nychay won ten first-place state awards from the AP and the Illinois Press Association, along with several other honors. When the tsunami hit Asia in 2004 and again when Katrina hit the gulf coast in 2005, he launched a "drawing support" campaign, selling signed prints of his cartoons. (He says he raised a total of $50,000 for the Red Cross Relief Fund.) But at strapped newspapers, talent and public-spiritedness aren't job guarantees, least of all for editorial cartoonists, an endangered species.
Monday I got Nychay's old boss on the phone and asked him to explain the ad. The explanation, in a word, was Whoops! Chris Krug, group editor of the Herald, the Kane County Chronicle, and other regional papers in the Shaw Newspapers chain, says the ad was created in 2005; an updated version began running last July (a few months before Nychay lost his job) between 5 and 6:30 in the morning--a classic out-of-sight, out-of-mind time slot. "I'm grateful you brought it to our attention," Krug told me. "We're the smallest newspaper group in metropolitan Chicago and we're battling it out with the Sun-Times and the Tribune and the Daily Herald with extremely limited resources. This was clearly an oversight on our part and not an attempt to gain ground through the work of a former employee.
"I know the ad's been pulled. It was pulled this morning."
If Nychay had called Krug straightaway, maybe Krug would have pulled the ad and apologized and that would have been that. But Nychay took his troubles to a larger forum. "Is this ethical to run an ad with someone who no longer is employed at the company and perhaps worth a story?" he wondered in a letter sent to various people who focus on journalism ethics. "It speaks to the larger issue of the demise of the editorial cartoonist in a nation that prides itself on freedom of the press."
The replies were spirited and pretty much unanimous. "It's kind of unethical and really pathetic," wrote Kelly McBride, the Poynter Institute's resident ethicist. "Kind of unethical because their commercials imply that you still work there, that they are proud of your work and that your work brings value to the paper in a way that sets it apart from its competitors. Really pathetic because they have no shame. Sure they let you go for economic reasons, but come on!!! If you're going to lay a guy off, at least have the decency to come clean with the audience."
"Sounds dodgy to me," replied Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. I called Cunningham to ask permission to use his letter and found him willing to speak more forcefully: it sounded to him like Nychay "was getting screwed."
Joe Skeel, editor of Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists, told Nychay the situation fell outside the scope of SPJ's code of ethics. That said, "I personally think it's a slimy thing to do. They think you are good enough to advertise, but not employ?"
Instead of allowing me to quote from his reply to Nychay, Andy Schotz, chairman of SPJ's ethics committee, drafted a statement. "The paper only flashed Nychay's work briefly on the screen and didn't show or mention him specifically, so maybe there was some thought about being sensitive," he reasoned. "But proudly trumpeting the excellent work of someone whose job you recently eliminated takes nerve. That's an extra step of publicity that's bound to create hard feelings for the journalist who was cut loose, as well as readers upset that Nychay was let go. (Let's hope the readers cared.)"
Schotz added, "It's a shame that the editorial cartoonist is often the first to go when a newspaper makes cuts. How amazing it is that in an era of quick-hit short stories and graphics to accommodate short attention spans, newspapers chop out editorial cartoons--unique, visual stories, with instant, powerful messages."
To the distress of old-fashioned journalists everywhere, editorial cartoonists are being wiped out. According to the National Journal, which surveyed the business on the eve of the annual convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists earlier this month, the number of full-time cartoonists at American dailies has dropped from about 200 to 80 in the past two decades. Newspapers still like to publish cartoons, but it's easy and cheap to pick them up from syndicates. Besides, effective cartoonists infuriate readers, and publishers today have trouble understanding why they should pay someone a salary to do that. Among cartoonists, there's no more notorious evidence of their disregard than the failure of the Chicago Tribune to replace Jeff MacNelly, the three-time Pulitzer winner who died in 2000.
Last October Rick Kogan wrote a tribute in the Tribune Magazine to Bill Mauldin, who died in 2003 and whose cartoons had just gone on display at the Jean Albano Gallery. Noting the absence of a successor to MacNelly at the Tribune, Kogan continued, "I showed some of Mauldin's work to editorial page editor Bruce Dold. He smiled and said, 'They don't make 'em like MacNelly and Mauldin anymore.' Would he hire Mauldin if he walked in the door today? 'In a second,' said Dold. 'In a second.'"
I doubt there's a cartoonist working in America who believes that. Mauldins don't come cheap, and the decision to hire one wouldn't be Dold's alone. After MacNelly died I got to know Nick Anderson, one of a handful of first-rank cartoonists who thought they were in line for the Tribune job but eventually gave up on it. Anderson won a Pulitzer in 2005 at Louisville's Courier-Journal and was a finalist this year at the Houston Chronicle. It was Anderson, president-elect of the AAEC, who gave me the heads-up about Scott Nychay. "It strikes me as profoundly unethical," Anderson e-mailed me. "They are bragging about the achievements of an employee they unceremoniously sacked."
The Northwest Herald's decision to let Nychay go wasn't a decision to abandon cartoons. The paper started paying freelancer Stacy Curtis to draw three a week. Curtis had been the staff cartoonist at the Times of Northwest Indiana for six years--until he was axed in early 2006. "I kept my head down as low as I could as long as I could, but eventually they made the cut," he says. "I think I lasted as long as I did because I had editors there fighting for me, because I was doing local cartoons and it was something they prided themselves on. In the end they couldn't do it any longer."
Curtis drew for the Herald only until March. "They just didn't have the money," he explains. So now the Herald is running cartoons by Greg Wallace of the Bureau County Republican, a Shaw paper published three days a week in Princeton, Illinois. "We're pig farmers and hog farmers down here," he says, but he keeps up with the news from Chicago's western suburbs, and the Herald, Kane County Chronicle, and other Shaw newspapers are happy to use his work. I asked if he was the only staff cartoonist at a Shaw paper in Illinois and he said that tech-nically he isn't one either. His main job at the Republican is graphic designer.
For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Scott Nychay's award-winning cartoon "Intelligent Design".