In the late summer of 2008, I got what I thought was my dream job.
After more than two years of blogging and freelancing for next to nothing, dozens and dozens of job applications and interviews, and leaving New York City for the sometimes warmer shores of San Francisco in an effort to find work, it had happened. For three months, I was the editor of Curbed SF, an outpost of the national network that includes Curbed, Eater and Racked blogs around the country. For three months, I had a modest but regular salary, and the full-time reportage job I’d always wanted. I was covering real estate and development in perhaps the NIMBYest city in America, watching the economy crash all around it. For those three months, I could not have asked for a better beat at a better time.
Then two weeks after my health insurance had kicked in, a week before Christmas, I was laid off. I was offered a freelance position at 1/3 of my former rate, which I reluctantly accepted. A month later, I filed for unemployment and began teaching myself how to draw.
More than five years after graduating from Columbia’s Journalism School, surprisingly few of my classmates are now employed as journalists. Many went into PR. Others went on to get graduate degrees in other fields — law, business, social work. Watching the mass layoffs in early 2009, it seemed like as good a time as any to expand my own skill set. I may have grown up the daughter of an editorial cartoonist, but this vocation had never appealed to me until I felt backed into a corner, watching my checking account drain.
And so over the last two years, I have drawn. I’ve reported, written and drawn a graphic novella on food activism in San Francisco; drawn many editorial comics for local, national and international outlets; and even drawn long-form investigative comic work (it’s easier to go undercover with a sketchbook than a video camera).
I’ve also written articles, too, when I’ve gotten the opportunity/response to my pitches. You know, ones with words.
But once I started drawing, it became more difficult to get those jobs. Once I started drawing, I was just a “cartoonist,” a term I’ve heard delivered dripping with such condescension while out covering Occupy that though I am through and through a comics fan, I can’t help but cringe.
Though it was never my intention to become an illustrator, I found myself as a hired hand many times over the past year, drawing advertisements (like Google’s “A Google a Day” series that ran in the New York Times earlier this year) and, far worse for my ego, illustrating the reportage of others (like this SF Public Press piece). I took these jobs so I could eat. They nearly always paid better than the writing work I’ve seen since 2006.
I didn’t realize that in the process, I was apparently undermining my own credibility. From Mediabistro:
Cartoonist Susie Cagle was very publicly arrested last month while covering the Occupy Oakland protest. And yet, in its recent list of journalists who had been arrested while covering the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Associated Press did not include Cagle. We suspect it’s because she’s a cartoonist and not a traditional journalist.
Underemployed journalists often take day jobs that are less high profile. Bartending, retail and food service don’t become a writer’s identity — why am I only allowed to be one thing?
My outspoken championing of art in news certainly has something to do with this. I started Graphic Journos back in April, around the same time I spoke on a panel at the National Conference for Media Reform on the medium (catch me at SXSWi in Austin, TX with the same crew in March 2012). After nearly a year producing drawn reportage outside of the “comics” sphere and in the regular news and feature sections of newspapers, magazines and websites, I was frustrated with the lack of respect given to visual journalism.
Even as all of media seems to be creaming their pants over infographics, few are making the connection between images and information.
Most of our media is still controlled by word people. Word people don’t understand picture people; and to be fair, most picture people don’t understand word people. If you’ve worked at a publication, you understand the turf battle I’m talking about — people on both sides fighting for more space for what they perceive to be the most important part of the news, and the best way of disseminating it to readers.
By trying to do both words and pictures, I seem to have confused both sides. So please, for the last time: Susie Cagle. Journalist, and cartoonist. Yes, both.