The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s News Challenge award winners were announced Wednesday at MIT, and my project was among the 12 of 2,400 entries to have been awarded a grant. It’s research I’m working on with my colleague Michael Mateas (UC Santa Cruz). Here’s a summary of what we’re doing:
Among the casualties of local newspaper cuts and closures has been the local editorial cartoonist. There is reason to believe that the abandonment of traditions like the local editorial cartoon have accelerated the downward spiral in print news readership. The Poynter Institute has reported that the daily editorial page gets as many readers as sports and business, and cartoons often serve as an appealing and familiar entry point into the news. Additionally, local papers often have difficulty differentiating their print and online editions, failing to produce content that is uniquely suited for online distribution.
Our answer to both these problems is Cartoonist, an authoring system for the rapid creation of current event games, playable editorials that we hope will adapt the cartoon onto the computer. A user of this system will take a current event, define topics and roles, and generate a simple game that represents those relationships through its game mechanics and visuals. The result: newsgames that represent a story as an interactive system, inviting online news sites to introduce readers to local issues and then to direct them to additional coverage.
This work comes partly out of research for the Newsgames book (also funded by Knight), partly out of my own experience making commercial editorial games at Persuasive Games, and partly out of work on game generation Michael and I have been talking about individually and together for many years now.
We talk about these issues more extensively in Newgames, but the idea is this: the newspaper used to provide soft-landing welcome mats for readers, largely in the form of content like sports, comics, and puzzles. People may have appeared to read the paper for the news, but many bought the paper for the funnies or the crossword, getting the news as a bonus along the way. The comics and the crossword are more orthogonal to current events, but the editorial cartoon offers a more direct vector into civic matters, particularly for local issues that might not be as familiar or visible.
Of course, small and local newspapers have been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn in the news business. One way such organizations have reduced costs is by eliminating seemingly extraneous work like op-ed columns and local editorial cartoonists.Â And with the move to online distribution, local newspapers have not reinvented these forms for the digital age, and they are at risk of disappearing. So even though cartoon games may seem like an unintuitive way to advance the cause of journalism writ large, we believe they are much more central than it seems on first blush.
I’ll be working on the project with Georgia Tech Digital Media PhD students Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer, who also co-authored Newsgames, and UCSC Computer Science PhD student Mike Treanor. Others will surely (I hope!) join the project at both institutions. Many thanks to the Knight Foundation and the KNC jury. We’re very grateful!
Let me see if I get this straight.
Local papers will soon be able to pay a developer for a game that allows viewers (aka readers) to generate a local editorial cartoon because said papers fired their editorial cartoonists (not because readers didn’t appreciate and support a local cartoonist, but because the bean counters employed by said papers always go after the meat first, i.e. the editorial & news departments). And now that said papers have an interactive game, they can completely forget about the possibility of hiring a flesh & blood editorial cartoonist again. At all. Ever.
Thank you Mr. Bogost for your support of the cartooning arts.
Local papers, local cartoonists, media companies small and large, or anyone else will soon be able themselves to create editorial games that will translate and extend the venerable tradition of editorial cartooning into the digital age, a necessary step in keeping the cartooning arts alive and thriving.
In fact, it’s our hope that cartoonists like yourself might partake of the tool as experts with much to bring to the table, and much to gain, perhaps, if you’ll give it a chance. That is, if you can take time away from being an asshole on the Internet to consider such a possibility. You know where to find me. And you can call me Dr. Bogost, by the way.
As far as Mr. Hodin’s concerns go, I’d be interested in hearing how or if the game makers would be compensated, or if it’s just meant to be a “for your portfolio” sort of thing. Would you sell the technology to local papers, or would this be freeware?
My cynical side is trending towards the idea that newspapers might view this as a way to avoid paying for an in-house editorial cartoonist. On the other hand, if they’ve already axed the cartoonist anyway, then what’s the problem?
I’m probably short-sighting this, but I’m having a hard time seeing people take the time to make a game that sheds light on, parodies, or thumbs its nose at local events. My concept of game-making – even a quick flash game – is one that requires unique skills and plenty of time.
Anyway, DR(!) Bogost, if your software breaks down those skill walls and somehow allows local people to semi-quickly and semi-painlessly comment on contemporary events, hurrah!
Congratulations, regardless, on your award and grant. It must be very gratifying to be among the very few who “won.”
Anyway you could argue that editorial cartooning doesn’t deserve to be saved. Relevant Penny Arcade: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2009/4/1/
I appreciate your picking up on Mr. Holdin’s comments, which, in truth, gave me considerable pause. It’s probably more accurate to say that Cartoonist is borrowing from and extending the tradition of cartooning; it doesn’t really purport to replace the print cartoon, nor are its outputs equivalent to them.
In answer to your question, the software will be free and open-source (it’s a requirement of the grant), so people can do whatever they want with it. And yes, our hope is to break down precisely the wall you describe for simple games… much work to do, but we’re confident that we can do it.
Thanks for your congratulations, much appreciated.
Dear DR. Bogost,
Congratulations should be extended for landing a Knight Fellowship. You now join at least four members of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists who have managed to make the cut, including Hy Rosen who was selected to be in the inaugural fellowship program in 1967.
I don’t know what your background is, or your relationships are, with editorial cartoonists, but perhaps if you hung out with more of us you would have less of a thin skin — and a greater understanding of why your project might be seen as more a threat to our profession than an enhancement.
After all, on the face of it, it does appear you are simply giving editors and publishers another reason (and a tool) with which to replace us. However, as you are just beginning this project, I would not want to prejudge you or your efforts before seeing what you’ve come up with.
So, with the above paragraphs in mind, I would like to invite you to next year’s convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, which will be held at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL, from July 6-9.
Hope to see you there,
Minister of Information (yeah, that really is my title), AAEC
JP — thanks for your comment and your invitation. We are working with some cartoonists already, and it’s our strong hope to work with more. I think we have more goals in common than in opposition, but I do agree that we have to prove that to you. I’d just like to think that we’d have a shot to do so. We’d love to participate in the AAEC, and by then we should have a great deal to share as well.
Looking forward to the conversation, Ian. In the meantime, there are a number of AAEC cartoonists who would be happy to give you feedback during the genesis of your project.
As you will no doubt be out in the Bay area at some point, you might also want to look up local cartoonist Tom Meyer (whose 2006 Knight Fellowship unfortunately did not save him from being pushed out of his long-time SF Chronicle job in 2009), or animator Mark Fiore, this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, who lives just north of San Francisco.
I want to say something snarky, but instead: it’s nice to see reasonable people discuss things reasonably.
Congratulations on your grant, Ian. Great to hear that it will be an open source project.
I’d also like to offer my congratulations. I followed the Georgia Tech newsgames blog for a time, and I’m rather excited to see what’s come of it thus far, and what more may yet come of it.
As far as “Cartoonist” goes, I’m particularly interested in seeing how editorial writers and journalists make use of the tool. Will they develop meatier technical capabilities for themselves? I like the idea of authorities and their subjects being equalized by formal constraints, but I also wonder how much more a seasoned editorial writer or cartoonist could do. The myths that “the crowd is always wise” and that professional authority is irrelevant in the age of online journalism have always grated on me a bit because of the way they take populist spirit to a too-haughty level.
On a related note: I’m an undergrad with a background in student and freelance journalism. I mention this because I like to query friends and peers about what draws them to any one particular news outlet, and, JP, you’ll be pleased to hear, that good editorials and cartoons are almost a universal draw, even for those who might otherwise wretch at the thought of regularly reading the plain, old news.
Ryan, many thanks. In fact, I’m completely with you on the over-celebration of populism, and our initial push with Cartoonist will be for experts and newspeople, not for the general public (although we’ll release and open-source it generally, so there’s no telling what people will do with it).
Ian, one caveat on handing *anything* like this to editors: As a result of cutbacks and “added duties” over the last 10-15 years, most newspaper have forced their editorial writers and editors to take on the job of actually laying out their pages as well — often with no training in either graphic design or the software they are using.
The results have not been pretty. Just sticking to edit toons, I’ve seen them stretch vertical art to fit horizontal spaces, drop large files into small image boxes without resizing (thereby cropping out most of the cartoon), and enlarging lo-rez thumbnails to 3 column-widths or more. In the mid-90s, after one of my cartoons ran in my local paper as unreadable bits, I confronted my editor; he had been scanning in the art himself, but had never been shown how to calibrate the settings, and so everything was going in at 50 dpi, not the 600 dpi it needed to be.
My point is: you could create a great tool, but without the proper training, editors and publisher will just make a hash of it.
Congratulations on the fellowship, Dr. B.
Your lecture to our class at the University of Baltimore was startling and remarkable.
I’ll never look at airport security, or even ice cream, the same way again.
Responding to two of JP’s comments that got lost in spam again (sorry!)
I know Mark Fiore’s work of course, and thanks for the suggestion of Tom Meyer. I’ll see what we can do to get in touch with them.
On editors, you’re very correct of course. While I haven’t experienced this in print, I have experienced it online, where supposedly real estate is at less of a premium.
Part of our development plan includes working closely with editors to consider issues of workflow and usage. It doesn’t guarantee we’ll avoid the issues you mention, but it’s a start.