by Pat Bagley, Immediate Past President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists
Bullet, meet metatarsal.
The Gannett newspaper chain just shot itself in the foot. Steve Benson, a 37-year veteran of The Arizona Republic and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning, was let go yesterday. He was swept up in a company-wide downsizing by unthinking business school graduates who have no clue what Benson does for them: he draws in readers.
He makes them money.
(Full disclosure: Steve and I were editorial cartoonists together at the Brigham Young University newspaper The Daily Universe. When Benson went home for the summer I was picked as a temporary “replacement”. He returned in the fall and I expected to be let go, but it was decided to keep both of us. Why? Because our cartoons were wildly popular with students, a fact not lost on advertisers. Double the pleasure, double the fun — double the revenue.)
I went on to The Salt Lake Tribune and Steve, after a brief stint in Washington DC with a Republican Party publication, was hired by The Arizona Republic. He quickly became a legend, in no small part for helping bring down the corrupt governorship of fellow-Mormon Evan Mecham. (Fun aside: in the midst of the scandal Mecham called to tell Steve his eternal salvation was in jeopardy if he didn’t back off). He is an institution in Arizona, almost a coequal branch of government.
Steve is more than a friend, which is why news of his daughter’s death in September was so shocking. Rebecca, a single mother, was cycling home from work when fatally struck by a car. As Steve said to me, she was his rock. As one can only imagine without having suffered such a loss, he has been struggling with a tsunami of pain since.
Gannett made a business decision devoid of empathy. I get that. Money is the root of all corporate America. But there was a time when the people running The Republic knew their readers, the local culture, and, more important, their employees. They would know Steve’s true value, not only to the community but to their bottom line. They also would have known him as family and shared in his loss.
Steve’s dismissal is not only a crime to journalism and Arizona, but to the future viability of The Republic; something the really-smart suits in corporate are too stupid to realize.