Breaking News and Making Money: Susie Cagle and Ted Rall on Print vs. Online Publishing

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This is the second part of my two-part interview with the graphic journalist Susie Cagle. In part one, based on one of her San Diego Comic-Con panels, Cagle touched upon print versus online methods of content distribution. Here, she discusses her second SDCC session, Publisher’s Weekly‘s “Serious Pictures: Comics and Journalism in the New Era,” which raised the same issue in a different context.

Ted Rall, a syndicated editorial cartoonist, was also on this panel, and he took issue with some of Cagle’s comments. Their exchange was cut short just as it was getting interesting, so I decided to continue the conversation by including his perspective and her replies.

If you’d like to see the actual 50-minute presentation in its entirety—and if you can deal with uneven sound quality—then watch this video from The Comics Journal.

Susie Cagle: Lots of people who were comfortable in print media say there’s no money on the Internet, that you can’t make a living when you give it away for free, and that we need to rely on various forms of paywalls to make ends meet.

I love the equality of giving things away for free. I license nearly all my work Creative Commons. I like people to share it. I think we’re experiencing some level of cultural change in how people choose to spend their money, especially as we are getting more of our media for free. Kickstarter can take the credit for much of that. I raised several thousand dollars to support my Occupy reporting independently. But I still think we have a ways to go before that’s perceived as a legitimate form of patronage for creative labor as opposed to begging.I’m also excited about the cool stuff we can only do online. I’m exploring multimedia applications of illustrated journalism, adding elements to my work that can’t be replicated on the printed page. I’m especially passionate about pairing audio with comics and illustrations, something only made convenient for me with new consumer web technologies like SoundCloud and ThingLink. A tiny bit of this can go a long way, keeping the art itself minimal but ultimately providing a lot more information.

There are also formal advantages. I like color and white space; the web has lots of both, and it doesn’t cost extra.

I love paper media, but because of the state of things I’m not able to work in it as much. It would be nice to stretch in a book—I hope I get that opportunity. I’m working on something.

. . .

The cover of Rall's upcoming graphic novel, newly announced at his Comic-Con panel.

Ted Rall: Susie Cagle, an up-and-coming cartoonist who has covered the Occupy Oakland movement, asserted at our panel that it is not possible to break news in print media now that the Internet has made everything so much more immediate. I disagree with that. In the panel, I pointed out that Bob Woodward, for example, would probably say that it is quite possible to make news through books that come out years after they are initially conceived.

This, I think, is a misconception that many younger people involved in journalism have: they seem to believe that immediacy and breaking news are the same thing. However, it is entirely possible to release information quickly; for example, a government press release that is simply recast as news, without actually breaking news. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to break news in a non-immediate fashion. So what really matters is control of the information. If you release it first, then you have broken the news first.

Susie also claimed that it is not only possible to make a living on the Internet, something with which I sort of agree, but that it is far more possible to make a living online then it is in print. I say that this is not at all the case. It all depends on which world you are best at navigating. For older journalists such as myself, I am more familiar with what it takes to get work into print than I am with how to monetize my work online.

Granted, it is becoming harder and harder to make a living in print. That said, it is still nearly impossible to make any kind of credible living online as a writer. Very few people do. Many young people who are used to living on ramen noodles think that learning $200 here and $300 there isn’t bad, and if I were them I would agree. But once you are a little older and you have a mortgage to pay and perhaps a family to support, it is absolutely impossible for most working journalist to find enough pay online to pay their bills.

In the final analysis, the Internet has had a salutary democratizing effect. The problem is, it has divided the pie so many ways into such a high number of ever thinner slices that it is difficult for professionals of any kind to make an honest living. This will become more and more apparent to younger journalists who are breaking in online as they try to survive in the future.

I don’t think that Susie is wrong. She is right for herself. I am right for myself. No two careers are the same. It is ridiculous to generalize about this industry, especially during this period of transition.

. . .

Above and below: building occupation field sketches, Occupy San Francisco. Truthout, April 2012

Susie Cagle: Well, Ted straw-manned me a bit here. I never said it’s not possible to break news in books. I certainly think that it is. I said that I’m working on a book about Occupy and the movement’s history in the Bay Area, and that book publishers have said they see that more as news and less as history, hence a concern about publishing it a year or two from now when the public interest in Occupy, they think, will have waned significantly. I think it will have tremendous value, but I don’t own a publishing company so I don’t get to make these decisions.

As Ted said, the people who have contacts in that industry are able to succeed in that industry. I’ve found it much easier to work piece by piece
—those aren’t always $300 pieces, sometimes they’re $2,000. Besides the newsy advantage of immediate publishing, that’s my economic reality: I’m far more likely to get a lot of those smaller jobs than one big job. It’s not at all different from any other freelance journalist; the ones I know sure aren’t making most of their money from books, and the people I do know in books have all seen their advances and royalties cut by huge chunks in recent years.

But I also think there’s some strategic advantage for me working like this at this stage of my career. I’m constantly reminding people that I exist and that I’m working. I’m building an audience while honing my skills and experimenting. I’m taking advantage of media shifts and new opportunities. And I’ve still got those book concepts on the back burner.

All things being equal, I’d like to continue mostly working in periodicals, though Ted is right that it would be nice if the work paid better.

Above and below: Occupy watercolors. Truthout, December 2011–March 2012

.At, find several books for freelance illustrators and designers, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Illustrator or Graphic Designer, Breaking into Freelance Illustration, and Freelance Design in Practice.