David Horsey
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David Horsey

We talk with Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist David Horsey.

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About the Episode

David Horsey, Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist, joins us to discuss his decision to leave the Seattle P-I for a similar role with the Los Angeles Times, as well as the art of creating political cartoons and its role in journalism today.

Related:
David Horsey's Seattle P-I blog

About David Horsey

David Horsey is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist in the United States. His cartoons are syndicated to newspapers nationwide.

Horsey is a native of Seattle. He began perfecting his craft as a cartoonist in the Cascade, the school newspaper at Ingraham High School. He attended the University of Washington, where, as a freshman, he became the editorial cartoonist of the student newspaper The Daily. He went on to become the first editorial cartoonist to be chosen as editor-in-chief of The Daily. He graduated in 1976 with a degree in communications.

Horsey's first job was as a reporter for the Bellevue Journal-American, but in 1979 he was hired to be the editorial cartoonist of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he worked until he was hired by Los Angeles Times in December 2011.

Horsey has been recognized for his work with numerous awards over the years, the most notable of which is the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. He received this award first in 1999, when many of his cartoons focused on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and again in 2003, when he often lampooned the Bush administration.

Enrique Cerna:
David Horsey, welcome to Conversations.

David Horsey:
Thank you, Enrique.

Enrique:
Leaving the Seattle P.I. after a lot of years.

David:
Yeah.

Enrique:
That's got to be a bit tough and different.

David:
It's a huge change. I mean I like to change jobs every 32 years whether I need to or not, but yeah, I was with the P.I. really my whole career. And a few years ago, I just said, I'm just going to ride this out because it's been a great place for me, always got great support there, won a couple of Pulitzers and they love me. But things changed, of course, three years ago, when print publication of the P.I. stopped. And so life has been different. I've been working for the Hearst newspapers nationally, but, in some ways, that was great, but sort of awkward because it's this mix of publications from the P.I., which is totally online, to Houston chronicle, which is a giant newspaper, to groups of, a group of newspapers in Connecticut, which is mostly local, and just, it was kind of an odd fit. And so I started thinking about a change some months ago. And decided I couldn't work here, the place that appealed to me was the L.A. times, west coast, great paper with a national presence. And things, amazingly, worked out.

Enrique:
And it's still a paper too.

David:
Actually, and it is still a big paper, yeah. They also, and this is pertinent to what I'm doing now, they are the second largest newspaper website in the country, just below the New York Times. So that's where my work initially is appearing. And taking over an established blog called top of the ticket and re-crafting it for what I do, cartoons and commentary, and so I'll have an audience of, they claim, about 20 million people.

Enrique:
Wow.

David:
That is different.

Enrique:
The change and the transition, it's a little scary?

David:
Well, it is. I mean when you work at a place a long time, you know everybody, they know you, they trust you, they value you. And I haven't had to worry about impressing people for a while.
[LAUGHTER]
Maybe that's the wrong word, but proving myself. So I'm proving myself again. Especially in the online environment. It's, that's a tougher thing than in the past. Because they know exactly how many people are looking at what you do. In the old days, print newspapers, there was sort of this vague idea that, yeah, I guess people like him, they find the paper. But now they know exactly the number of people that are coming to look at my cartoons or read my columns. So it's kind of hitting the ground running.

Enrique:
Right. Almost sounds like a football player in a way who's, you know, they negotiate a contract, and it's based on how they performed the year before, how many yards, all these things. And that's part of the reality of what you do now.

David:
Yeah, yeah. It's a different world. Journalism has changed. It used to be, ah, a kinder place, I guess. People could coast for a while. But it's true, the economy in general. People really have to keep learning, keep improving, keep producing and proving their worth. So I guess I'm just like everybody else.

Enrique:
You still mourn the loss of the P.I. as a newspaper?

David:
Yeah. Well, I don't know, I guess I've gotten over it a bit. I wish the P.I. was still around. It was not only a great place to work, but I think for the city, you know, to have two newspapers that are competing and viable and getting out there and doing all the news that needs to be done is important. So it's a loss for the town, and what I miss is just what it was. The cliche was always the feisty P.I., we were always the underdog. The day I walked in there, people were saying, ah, we're probably gonna close next week, it was always a sense that at any moment, it could go away. But I think that just kept a weird energy about the P.I. And especially in the last couple of years before it stopped publication. I think it was as good as ever. I mean it was a great group of people, talented journalists, doing award winning work. And I think the P.I. went out at the top really in terms of product. But you know, the world has changed. Finances of newspapers are still incredibly shaky. So you need, you know, a place like the L.A. times, for instance, is much more stable, simply because they're bigger.

Enrique:
Right. And they've gone through their rock 'n roll issues too and probably continue.

David:
Sure.

Enrique:
Probably like everybody.

David:
The people I met there keep talking about, yeah, it's not like it used to be. We used to have a thousand people in the newsroom, and you think, well, you can probably get along with a few less than that. The P.I. I think at its height probably had about 175.

Enrique:
Did the energy for you change when the P.I. went away as a newspaper and obviously became smaller because of it just being an online resource and publication?

David:
Um, yeah, it was a different kind of energy. I mean still, at Seattlepi.com, there is a sense of building something new. So that's fun. But for what I do, I kind of lost a sense of audience. And because I was working for a number of papers, it was sort of defused, and so I think I lost my energy a bit. Part of it was I was working at home, which is great in some ways, but it's easy to relax a little too much and...

Enrique:
There's something about the camaraderie and the energy of a newsroom...

David:
Exactly.

Enrique:
And being in a place.

David:
And that's what I rediscovered almost from the day I walked in the L.A. times, oh, yeah, I missed this. I had almost forgotten about this. I was sort of settled into this idea that I can do this on my own, sitting in my own office on my own. And I can, but it's not the same as having that energy and just ideas bouncing around that you latch on to and run with.

Enrique:
You aren't leaving Seattle actually?

David:
Um, probably not.
[LAUGHTER]
I am spending a lot of time in L.A. but it's sort of a commuting thing. So the plan is that I live in Seattle, work here most of the time, but with frequent visits down south. And so I think for now anyhow, that's a good balance for me. And I think it's gonna work for the paper. I mean if there was some compelling reason to move, I guess I would do it. But you know, Seattle's been my home my whole life. And you have to, it would be hard to move away, at least not for very long.

Enrique:
Was being a journalist something that you always wanted to do?

David:
Um, it's something I was always getting ready for without knowing it. When I was, I think second or third grade, I drew my own newspaper.

Enrique:
Really?

David:
It was just for the fun of it. I made up stories and I've always had an interest in politics, I've always enjoyed writing and drawing has always been an obvious talent since I was four years old. So I kept doing things that were preparing me. When I was in high school, I got in the student newspaper and was drawing cartoons and writing editorials. And now that I think about it, that's more or less what I ended up doing my whole life, not quite editorials, but comedy. And then college at the university of Washington, I worked on the student newspaper, and drew cartoons, and became editor. And that was the point where I realized I was skipping classes and spending all my time at this paper, and until late in the evening, that maybe this was the thing I wanted to do. So I think a lot of people think of me as an artist and I am an artist of a type. But really, I'm a journalist who happens to draw. I love newspapers, I love journalism, just gets me going, and I'm a voyeur, I love getting into the inside of things and seeing what's going on. And my focus has mostly been politics, just because it's this endless story that I love to follow with the most amazing characters.

Enrique:
Right.

David:
Some of them incredibly ridiculous. And I've had this privilege for my whole career of putting out my opinion about all of this. It's amazing, that people have let me do that, rewarded me for it. But yeah, it just seems to be what I was born to do. And this job with the times actually feels especially that way, because it's a real fusion of drawing and writing. And it's, right now anyhow, pure politics because I'm following the campaign very closely. So it's like I've arrived, I guess.

Enrique:
The nirvana where you wanted to be. Take me through the creation of a political cartoon.

David:
Yeah.

Enrique:
Where you get the idea, how you focus it, how you draw it, how you make it happen.

David:
Yeah. Well, it's not unlike writing a column or something. Each day, I start out looking for what's the hot topic of the day in politics or in the world. And I do a lot of reading, as widely as I can, just to see what are people talking about, what's in the news, you know, what information do I need. I pull all that in. And then decide, okay, this is the topic of the day. And then, especially now, I'm on two tracks, because I'm thinking, okay, what do I want to say about this in a column? That's actually the easier part. When I get to the cartoon, it's tougher because not only do I need to figure out what I want to say, but how to say it. Because cartoons are a visual metaphor. I'm looking for some simple way to whittle down all this information and make a statement about it. So there's a very insecure period of every day, which may be 5 minutes or a couple hours, where I'm just kicking around ideas, looking for that image that would stay in a cartoon. And then something will just pop. And I can't explain really how it happens. I hope it never goes away. Some days, it's harder to find than others, but once I have that idea, it's usually pretty fully formed in my head, I can kind of see the drawing. Then it's a matter of just drawing it. These days, I do the basic drawing the old fashioned way with pen and ink on paper. But then I scan that into my computer, and finish it off in color on the computer, and then send it off that way.

Enrique:
Has the technology made it easier to do what you do now? Or a little more pressure to it or what?

David:
Well, it's mostly made it easy. I've always worked pretty much on deadline. And the deadlines are maybe a little harder these days because with online, it's an endless deadline. They always want more.

Enrique:
Right.

David:
But mostly, it's easier because it's technology. I remember when I first started at the P.I., went to the, oh, the democratic convention in New York in 1980, Jimmy Carter was being renominated. And I did a full page cartoon for the P.I. about the week in New York, and got it all done, and the only way I could get it back to the P.I. was Fed Ex. So it had to be done sort of a day ahead. And anyway, sent it off, and then I proceeded to go party all night. And the next morning, I got a phone call, my very blurry somewhat hung over state, and it's my editor saying, where's the cartoon? And I said, I sent it. It was the only experience I ever had where Fed Ex lost it. So I had to spend the rest of the day redrawing it and had to send it the same way. Anyway, very awkward to actually deliver this stuff, the delivery was hard. And I remember another time, during the New Hampshire primary, sitting outside a Fed Ex office, trying to finish off a cartoon so I could get it off. Now, it's, you scan it in, and it's gone, it's printed within minutes of when I do it. I mean I brought this just to demonstrate.

Enrique:
Go iPad.

David:
Yeah. I mean this is where my work is now. And, um, not only can I read my own work there, I can send it with this. I can type a column, I can literally take a picture of a cartoon if I need to, and send it off. So technology has radically changed what I do.

Enrique:
And the idea of being able to give it the color.

David:
Exactly. There's a long line in my cartoons.

Enrique:
Have you done a cartoon, I guess this is always a question, a bit of a favorite.

David:
Oh, wow. Um, I have lots of favorites and it changes over time. I think my favorite right now that I've displayed various places, I did a few months ago, and it's simple. I like it because I like the drawing, I like the message, and it's just, but it says it quickly. And it's an image of uncle Sam and a fortune teller. And he's saying, can you tell me about my future? And the fortune teller is looking into the crystal ball and she says, "I would, but I can't read Chinese."
[LAUGHTER]
So it's very simple. But there's a lot going on there. It's talking about the rise of china and our economy. Everything behind it, people can bring to it right away.

Enrique:
You know, there's sort of a combination here. Because there's the telling of an event, something that is timely of today, or it could be happy, it could be sad. But anyway, there could be a sense of humor out of this whole thing. And yet also the seriousness that sometimes you have to capture.

David:
Yeah. I mean it starts with the seriousness. All this stuff I'm talking about is serious. And my purpose is serious. But the great thing about cartoons is that through the humor and irony and the exaggeration of the image, you can talk about the serious stuff in a way that draws people in, and it's quick, if it's a good cartoon, it says a lot in a very short burst of words and image. And I've found that even if people disagree, there's something sort of subversive about a cartoon. You can't help But kind of like it. Some of my biggest fans, actually I call them anti fans, are people who disagree with me. And I hear from them online all the time. And they tell me what an idiot I am. But they tell me that every day. Which means they're looking.

Enrique:
They're looking at it, they're checking it out.

David:
And they're engaged.

Enrique:
I'm kind of wondering too, when you see and covering politics especially, someone that is about to enter a presidential race in this case. And you look at them and you see their features, it's almost like the late night comedy guys, are you, oh, man, I can't wait to draw this person?

David:
Yeah, well, or sometimes it's the other way. I hope this person doesn't win because their face is boring. You know, Tim Pawlenty, I'm really glad he got out early. He wouldn't have been fun to draw at all. But Mitt Romney has got a great square jaw, and you know, he's pretty easy to do. Newt Gingrich, a fabulous character! But someone like Gingrich or Bill Clinton, part of it is not just how they look, it's the complex, complexity of their personalities that you get to play with.

Enrique:
And they give you a lot of material, let's face it.

David:
They do, exactly. And not everyone does, you know. You know, one of the drawbacks of doing more local and state cartoons in Seattle has always been that most of our politicians are just really straight arrow, bland, technocrats. Maybe that's overstating it, but they're not characters actually, which is actually good for the state and good for government, but isn't so great for cartooning.

Enrique:
How about Tim Eyman?

David:
There's a wonderful exception.
[LAUGHTER]
Yeah. Because he, you know, what a character. I mean I've done him over and over again. I don't know what he's going to do without me really.
[LAUGHTER]
Yeah, Tim. He's actually, I've met him a few times, he's actually a nice guy, but I kind of look at him as an anarchist. I mean he just, he wants to shoot down any idea that comes along that costs anybody any money. So you know, I disagree with almost everything he does.

Enrique:
Yeah, but he gives you material.

David:
Exactly, yes, yeah. What I do, I do opinion journalism. So what I'm working with most of the time is the people I'm working with and the issues are the things I think are misguided or goofy or just wrong. I'm working the opposition. So when you've got somebody in opposition like Tim, it provides me a lot of work.

Enrique:
President Obama.

David:
You know, he's...

Enrique:
The ears.

David:
He is a great character. Easy to draw. But I haven't, strangely, I don't draw him a lot. Part of it is despite how he looks, he doesn't, unlike Clinton, for instance, he doesn't have that kind of complex, crazy lifestyle, or private life, or even the sort of outside personality. He's more like a Washington state politician actually.
[LAUGHTER]
And I have to admit, part of it is my politics tend more in the Obama direction, so the last few years, I've spent a lot more time picking on the republican congress than on the president.

Enrique:
And in what you do, I mean, you're a commentator?

David:
Right, yeah.

Enrique:
Almost editorialist to some degree.

David:
Absolutely, yeah. And I try to, what's interesting is I think there's a contrast between my cartoons and commentaries I write. Because the cartoons, by their nature, have to be just whittled away, this is what I think. So they tend to be a little more strident maybe. It's much more of an analytical piece with some conclusions. But it's an interesting balancing act.

Enrique:
Was there a cartoon that got you in trouble?

David:
Well, lots of them.
[LAUGHTER]

Enrique:
And that's the joy of it, isn't it?

David:
Yeah. Luckily not, mostly for the right reasons. I mean almost every cartoon will make somebody mad. In fact, I've often talked about a cartoon I did when the world cup came to the U.S. for the first time. And it was a quiet summer day, and no news, and I thought, I'll do something on the world cup, and I thought I'll do something about how American kids, most playing soccer more than other sports. And I had these kids watching the world cup on TV and sharing. Their dad comes in from playing baseball, and he's looking at his kids and turns to his wife and says, honey, I'm worried about the kids. So that's the cartoon. The whole cartoon is right there, really wasn't much of a cartoon, and yet that made somebody mad. Somebody called me up and said, if you like soccer so much, you ought to move to Europe! So everything offends somebody. My concern, and luckily, I've learned how not to do this, is if there's some element in the cartoon that offends someone, unintentionally, my job is sort of to offend people, but I want it to be for the right reasons. And because cartoons are made of symbols, things can sneak in that people can read in a different way that you didn't intend. And my earlier years doing this, every once in a while, I'd run into trouble with one element of the community or another where they were, you know, they took offense and probably not without reason. But it wasn't my intent. So I figured out how to do that better.

Enrique:
So now, you're going to be in full gear covering the presidential campaign?

David:
Yes.

Enrique:
Which I would think is just going to be a lot of joy for you?

David:
Oh, absolutely. I mean every four years, it's like the olympics and the Super Bowl and world series of politics all wrapped together. And I just, I love these election years. I'm one of those sick people who, after the election is over, I can't wait until the next one starts.
[LAUGHTER]

Enrique:
You're not going to move away from here. But yet, you know, you're going to be out there working for another paper and traveling all over the country. But the fact that this has been home, I would think that that's the one thing that you were probably feeling pretty good about, even though you're going to be working for another entity, you still get to park yourself here.

David:
Yeah, yeah. Well, this is a fabulous city. And my family and friends are here. And my, you know, I'm a fourth generation Washingtonian. So this is where my roots are. And I'm not sure I've ever felt them quite as much as I do now. I realize I like L.A., I like California, but this place is, I know this place, I'm rooted here. I know the history and the one thing I'm going to miss is not being as connected to Seattle. Because this is my town. So I hope, hope my friends and fans here just follow me online. Because I'm still doing the same thing, just in a different technology in a different place.

Enrique:
David Horsey, two time Pulitzer prize winner. And actually, we're not really losing you. We just get to see you some place else.

David:
Exactly.

Enrique:
Thank you for your time.

David:
My pleasure.

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03/09/12

Thank you for sharing, David. I admire you both as an artist and a journalist and found it quite interesting to hear from you on how you do what you do.

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that those of us who may have never had the opportunity to see your work, can do so now.

"See" you at the Times!

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