Tom Toles admits cartooning is a “really weird thing to do.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist reads as much as he can as fast as he can, determines “who the good guys are and who are the bad guys are” to make an opinion and thinks about expressing it through imagery until he connects things that he admits probably shouldn’t connect.
Then he draws it.
He said it’s not all that interesting or inspiring, even though he wishes it was when giving talks to students, as he did Thursday afternoon to The Spectrum staff in the newspaper’s office. Toles, a Spectrum alum, told the current staff that that’s because life isn’t like a movie.
“Where you struggle in the beginning, you overcome the obstacles because of your perseverance and your moral standards and then you get to the end and it’s a reward and everybody’s happy – it’s not that way,” Toles said. “It’s hard and complicated and confusing.”
He said it’s still hard for him to draw political cartoons, even after winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1990. He said work is always going to be difficult and the successful ones are the ones that simply keep doing it. His main advice for journalists?
“Find out. Tell,” Toles said.
Toles, a political cartoonist for The Washington Post who attended UB and drew for The Spectrum in the 1970s, gave a candid and at times humorous talk to the current staff about topics like his drawing process and how journalism is changing. But Toles, with his wife Gretchen sitting beside him, was more like another participant in a discussion than a speaker, as he asked the Spectrum staff as many if not more questions than they asked him.
Toles said cartooning is still hard for him to this day, but he has had success by continuing to do it. He said the “faulty wiring” in his head allows him to come up with ideas for cartoons and connect ideas that may not make sense at the outset.
He said he doesn’t go out of his way to be provocative with his cartoons, but he’s not afraid of angering people either. He said if anything he is hurting himself by being “too timid” with his cartoons, because the outrageous is what is driving traffic. He said cartoonists shouldn’t create provocative work just to get attention.
Toles also talked about how journalism is changing. He said the traditional print newspapers that he grew up with are “eroding away” and being replaced by something that’s going in a direction no one knows.
He discussed the effects the Internet has had on journalism, like pay-walls on newspaper’s websites that require users to subscribe to read content. He discussed social media specifically and the possibility it could eventually control content users see.
“A lot of the traffic is coming to the Post through Facebook and other social media and the question is, [does Facebook] eventually capture that flow and start providing their own content?” Toles said. “But if Facebook becomes the only news organization, that can’t be a good thing.”
But for the most part, Toles was interested in asking questions, like about the pieces the Spectrum staff is working on and their views on the changing landscape of journalism.
“I’m probably learning more from people here than people are learning from me,” Toles said of his visit to UB this week.
Toles was also laid back and humorous in his discussion. After Gretchen jokingly shook him because she felt he was too sleepy with his responses, Toles went into a humorous tirade about how tiring the meetings, dinners and “random” people he’d been meeting while on campus as UB’s Signature Series honored guest were.
Toles also spoke about working at The Spectrum. He said he spent all of his time outside of class in the newspaper’s office, which was in a different building on South Campus than where it currently is in the Student Union on North Campus. He added that he had never seen his Wikipedia page photo, a picture of him in The Spectrum office from 1970, until four years ago.
He said although The Spectrum’s header is different than when he was a student, he “felt warm” when looking at a current issue of the paper because it made him think of the memories he had while working for The Spectrum.
“Journalism is something you love or you don’t,” Toles said. “The Spectrum meant the most to me.”
Evan Schneider is a news desk editor and can be reached at email@example.com.