The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three Pulitzer-winning cartoonists let go in one shocking day

McClatchy, citing ‘continuing evolution’ for the cuts, says its newspapers will no longer publish daily opinion cartoons

A recent cartoon by Jack Ohman. (Jack Ohman/Sacramento Bee)
5 min

Jack Ohman cannot recall another day like it, even amid decades of brutal cuts in the field of newspaper political cartooning.

On Tuesday, three Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonists — Ohman of the Sacramento Bee, Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader and Kevin Siers of the Charlotte Observer — were all let go by McClatchy newspapers.

Ohman and Siers confirmed their firings to The Washington Post. Pett, who noted that he was a freelance employee, said his last day will be later this month.

Even in a field accustomed to scores of layoffs in recent decades, the triple hit Tuesday sent shock waves through the newspaper cartooning industry.

Speaking as president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, Ohman told The Post by phone Wednesday: “This is just another brick in the wall” of continuing layoffs in the field. “But we haven’t had three Pulitzer [cartoon] winners go out the door on the same day before.”

Ohman said he was “stunningly blindsided” when informed of his firing. “I don’t know what to make of it,” he added, noting that he was the only Bee staffer to be laid off.

“I felt like I had been T-boned at an intersection,” Ohman said of his Tuesday morning firing over Google Meet. “Devastated.”

Ohman won the cartooning Pulitzer in 2016, Siers received the prize in 2014 and Pett won in 2000. No traditional full-time staff newspaper cartoonist has won the Pulitzer since 2017.

The Bee responded to a Post request for comment Wednesday by sharing a statement from McClatchy opinion editor Peter St. Onge, who wrote that its two cartoonist firings were part of a “continuing evolution” by parent company McClatchy, which will “no longer publish daily opinion cartoons.”

“We made this decision based on changing reader habits and our relentless focus on providing the communities we serve with local news and information they can’t get elsewhere,” the statement said.

McClatchy’s move comes after another chain, Gannett Co. — publisher of USA Today and more than 250 dailies — last year began to rethink its opinion sections, including the dropping of editorial cartoons.

“I’ve seen a lot of talk about ‘the bean counters’ destroying editorial cartooning, but I don’t think these decisions are fueled by profit motives alone. We’re simply not paid that much,” Siers told The Post via email Wednesday.

“There seems to be a rethinking among corporate management over the years as to how a newspaper’s opinion pages should engage with readers. They’ve convinced themselves and the industry that readers no longer appreciate good editorial cartoons, when I feel that it’s the boardroom itself that is uncomfortable with our satire,” Siers said.

“My local editorial page editors throughout my tenure have always been my biggest cheerleaders,” he added.

The AAEC told The Post in 2021 it estimated that fewer than 30 staff newspaper jobs remained for full-time editorial cartoonists. Several decades ago, there were well more than 100 such jobs, industry experts have said. (The Post has a rotation of political cartoonists.)

McClatchy said in a statement about Ohman and Siers: “This is a difficult decision, as it affects two of our talented colleagues, both Pulitzer Prize-winning opinion cartoonists. Each has provided readers with sharp, artful and insightful commentary that holds officials and institutions accountable. We are grateful for their important contributions to journalism and their commitment to excellence.”

Pett told The Post that the firing ends his four-decade career as a newspaper cartoonist.

“It is not the readers but the industry gatekeepers who have given up on political cartoons, for a variety of reasons,” Pett told The Post. “They don’t see how [political cartoons] make any money and they alienate people, and they can be a pain in the neck. So why bother, just because they are historically powerful and popular, and a longtime mainstay of the Fourth Estate? The democracy is doing great, right?”

Ohman said he’ll continue creating syndicated cartoons for Tribune Content Agency and will move forward with other opportunities, including an in-progress graphic memoir. He adds that he continues to help plan the national AAEC conference set for October in the Bay Area, where the imperiled state of the newspaper cartooning industry might well be Topic No. 1.

The Herb Block Foundation said in a statement Wednesday that it “is shaken to see the continued disappearance of the staff positions of editorial cartoonists at newspapers and the lack of regard for their importance.”

The organization, named for the legendary Post cartoonist, added: “An editorial cartoon gives readers a quick and informative point of view on current events that provokes its audience.” The foundation also cited a quote by the late cartoonist, who signed his work Herblock: “If the prime role of a free press is to serve as critic of the government, cartooning is often the cutting edge of that criticism.”

Ohman continues to believe in the reader popularity of political cartoons, noting that his Facebook post Wednesday announcing his layoff received “over 1,500 reactions in a few hours and hundreds of positive comments.” He also received a text Monday from California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that said: “Here in every way to support you.”