Damn! Over here I keep a list of great story ideas and names of people I’ve really got to get around to catching up with, just to see what their story is today. Like MPR’s Bill Kling. Like all the guys who played in The Warheads years ago. And like Kirk Anderson, the former cartoonist for the Pioneer Press whose heave-ho in April 2003 was early, solid confirmation that "local, local" was going to have more to do with "money, money" and "innocuous, innocuous" than reader appeal.
So what happens? That bastard, David Brauer at MinnPost.com, posts the news that Anderson’s weekly, spot-on evisceration of the myriad Bush follies, "Banana Republic: Adventures in Amnesia" is being dropped by the Star Tribune. (Brauer likes being called a bastard when he beats someone on a story.)
Much to my disappointment, when I called Anderson was not raging against the machine. "It had to happen sooner or later," he said. "I’m thankful to the Star Tribune for giving me the opportunity." And, "I wish that it could have gone on endlessly." Well, you and me both, Kirk.
With 70% of the public saying they believe the country has jumped the rails and is wandering in a profoundly bad direction (not to mention seriously considering a 180 degree change next year) you would assume the topics Anderson was trading in — gross abuse of executive power, officially sanctioned torture, the decline of our international reputation, etc. — would be thoroughly mainstream fare — and in a novel, entertaining concept.
Obviously the quarter page the Strib had been giving Anderson will not go to a Denny Hecker ad — (but let’s not give them ideas) — and most likely will be filled with … well what? More deep thoughts from Debra Saunders and Jonah Goldberg?
Anderson is very complimentary to opinion exchange editor, Eric Ringham. The feeling is mutuial.
"I think Kirk’s a genius," says Ringham. "I really hope we can find a way to work together again. I just wish his fans were more vocal than they were. I loved it. But I didn’t hear the kind of buzz I wanted to hear. But the decision was strictly about money."
Being a classier guy than me Anderson wouldn’t
divulge how much the Strib was paying him, (I’m guessing
somewhere between a free-lance music review and a quarter the monster
salary of one of those sweet old switchboard ladies). He did put it in
perspective saying that he and his wife aren’t big spenders and "pretty
much live like college kids".
Ringham likewise insists that the decision to drop, "Banana Republic" was, "not content driven." And, as for the money involved, the intention, he says, really is to hire a part time writer with the Anderson money, someone who will have to be paid at Guild rates. (If Captain Fishsticks or John Hinderaker gets the job the Strib will take unholy hell from this quarter.)
As Ringham describes it he approached Anderson around the time of the Strib’s expensive re-design with the idea of doing some kind of "graphic novel", (as Brauer also pointed out). "In very short order Kirk brought back four different proposals, all of them very professional."
The decision to drop "Banana Republic", he says, was made by interim editor for the editorial page, Scott Gillespie, who was recently elevated (some say "pushed") into the Op-Ed department in the wake of the paper’s not exactly cheery parting with Susan Albright.
"But," says Ringham, "I don’t know that I fault him for the decision, and I may very well have made the same decision were it mine to make."
It is my opinion that Steve Sack does a very good job as the paper’s official cartoonist. But in an age of declining readership … yadda yadda .. when papers are supposedly on high alert for topics and concepts that attract the mythical "younger reader", the decision to drop a sharp-edged, "Daily Show"-worthy weekly cartoon strip/graphic novel arouses suspicions (again) that the new, "local, local, hyper-local" Strib’s idea of irresistible fare for "younger readers" and people hip to "new media" are celebrity consumer features on Hannah Montana, reviews of "Halo 3" and of course, the latest sighting of Josh Hartnett.
Anderson also has no bitter rip for the PiPress, although literally everyone who might have had a hand in "right-sizing" him out of that building in ’03 are now gone themselves. (For all intents and purposes the PiPress editorial "department" has been reduced to a staff of one, Jim Ragsdale. He’ll be local enough.) Neither paper, Anderson says, rode him hard to mushify his cartoons, even in the run-up to the war in ’03, when almost every paper in the country (with the notable exception of deputy editor Jim Boyd at the Strib) was swallowing the Bush administration bit and charging hard for freedom and glory, shock and awe.
"Of course," he says, "as a staffer at the Pioneer Press my cartoon ideas got shaped a lot more than as a freelancer for the Star Tribune. I’d be told to ‘tweak this’ and ‘change that’. But it wasn’t that bad. I look at some of the ideas I had and I’m grateful they said, ‘No’."
This despite the prevailing mood at the recent Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, where, he says, most of the complaining was about "the push toward the mushy middle" and the "local, local" gimmick, the latter of which — as has often been said — serves to discreetly remove the biggest and most provocative themes and material of the moment from the playlist of editorial writers and satirists.
"The war in Iraq is a huge national story and provides a lot of ideas," says Anderson, who by the way is free to re-launch "Banana Republic" anywhere he chooses. "It’s tougher doing a cartoon on the Chamber of Commerce. It’s not nearly as juicy."