Stephen Pastis got a great deal of attention from his "Pearls Before Swine" cartoon Sunday strip that appeared in Jan. 13 newspapers. It focuses on the role of newspapers as watchdogs over local government, and how that future could be jeopardized by the internet.
"That got a big reaction," Pastis said from his California home north of San Francisco. "Jake Tapper from CNN tweeted it out to however million followers he has, and that triggered it."
He said Tapper "wanted to be a cartoonist."
Someday he might change professions. Just like the 51-year-old Pastis. The Los Angeles native was a lawyer for 10 years before becoming a cartoonist in 2002. His "Pearls Before Swine" strip appears in 800 newspapers.
Pastis is a believer in newspapers and the role they play in our democracy.
The strip relates that "once upon a time there were corrupt local governments" that were watched by people paid to investigate stories, which led to the "bad people" being caught. But then the advent of the internet, leading people to want their news for free, leaving few, if any, newspapers to watch local government. Not to worry, Pastis said, because "governments will be good now." That led to one of the characters saying he was going to subscribe to seven newspapers.
Pastis called the shrinkage/closing of local newspapers "a frustration of somebody who lives in a democracy."
"We don’t have enough people who are trained in really good reporting," he said. "It used to come from newspapers. Long term, that’s bad. When it comes to local stuff, it’s really bad. There’s nobody watching your city government or your state government, so we are screwed."
Pastis said he doesn’t think the country can properly function without watchdogs. People have gotten complacent, he said, "that we can just turn on our phone and see what we want on Twitter, and when you don’t pay for journalism, there are problems."
Pastis said he believes there are a number of watchdogs on the national scene, but a lack of them on the local scene.
"Imagine what’s happening now in some locales that we don’t know about," Pastis said. "(Journalism) really is the fourth branch of government."
Granted, Pastis has a horse in the race. The health of newspapers is as important to cartoonists as it is to journalists, printers, carriers and others who make their living or supplement it from newspapers.
As a cartoonist, Pastis said he is one of the lucky ones. His strip continues to be run by a large number of newspapers.
"For most of my compatriots, it’s been a rough time," he said. "Nowadays, you can’t launch as a new strip anymore. The syndicates have stopped doing that."
And some newspapers have cut back on the strips that they’ve run. Many times, however, readers let newspaper editors know they are not happy about losing their favorite comics.
He said The Boston Globe cut an entire page of comics. The outrage was so severe that the newspaper reinstated it.
Pastis wonders if the outrage would have been so loud if the paper had cut back on local news.
Someday they might find out.
As Joni Mitchell sang, "You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone."