David Horsey chats about move to LA Times

David HorseyAt the stroke of midnight on January 1, Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist David Horsey (BA, 1976) ended his remarkable tenure with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he has worked for more than 30 years, to take a position with the Los Angeles Times political team. Department of Communication Chair David Domke caught up with Horsey to learn more about Horsey’s life working in newspapers and the transition he has made to digital news.

David Domke: Do you remember your first day at the Post-Intelligencer?

David Horsey: I do. I had sort of an interesting entry into my career at the P-I because I literally went on the payroll in June 1979 while I was in Vienna at the SALT talks (the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) between Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev. I just happened to be there. I was on vacation in Greece and I’d been hired by the P-I and I thought, “Heck, why don’t I just go up to Vienna and see what I can see.”

I was writing stories from the UPI office (United Press International) using a German typewriter, which meant the keys were in different places. They were being sent from UPI to the P-I in Seattle. The UPI in Seattle was based one floor up from the P-I newsroom. When I got back to Seattle the first thing the editor said when I walked in was, “Where are all the stories you were supposed to send?” And I said, “Uh, I sent them.” But apparently no one bothered to go upstairs to get them from the UPI office. It’s gotten a little easier to work long distance now.

Domke: What did you do at The Daily?

Horsey: When I arrived at the University of Washington I had only vague ideas of what I wanted to do. I’d worked on my school newspaper at Ingraham High School – wrote editorials and drew cartoons. Apparently I should have known then that’s what I’d be doing the rest of my life. But I didn’t, and I was a graphic design major. I was in a weight-training class my freshman year ‘cause I was a skinny kid who needed to bulk up. I ended up drawing cartoons about the instructor who was a very big guy and he caught me. Rather than hanging me from a barbell he said, “You ought a go work for The Daily.” I was a cartoonist there for several years and then made the unusual jump to being editor. At that point it just convinced me, “Hey I’m spending all my time here. I should be a communication major.” So I switched my major, did the Olympia internship, and did an internship with the Tacoma News Tribune. After I graduated, I went to the Journal-American in Bellevue, which was a newly created daily newspaper. I was working as a reporter and thanks to my internship in Olympia I became the Olympia reporter for Journal-American and its sister papers in Longview and Port Angeles. I was perfectly happy being a reporter until the P-I called wanting to know if I wanted to be a cartoonist.

Domke: What about cartooning is so compelling for you? What are the pieces that get you up in the morning about the job?

Horsey: I’ve always been fascinated with history, with politics. Having the privilege of commenting on it and being a little know-it-all, it’s just been great to be engaged. I’m a bit of a voyeur. It’s given me the chance to go places. I’ve worked in Japan and Mexico. I was always surprised, even as a new reporter, people will let you into their lives if you show them a press pass. People will tell you anything.

On a national and international scale I’ve lived through some amazing things: end of the Cold War, the transformation of American politics from basically a debate that was driven by liberalism from the 1940s on to, starting with Reagan, the dominance of conservatism and what all that has meant. It’s a fascinating thing to watch this and try to figure out what it means, where we’re going next and to be able to, almost every day, say what I wanted to say about it in a cartoon or a written piece. Most people have boring jobs I think. Mine has hardly ever been boring.

Domke: Have you ever done cartoons that people were just outraged about?

Horsey: Pretty much every day. Even innocuous cartoons, I’ve found, someone will get mad for some reason. I did a cartoon for the World Cup that was in the U.S. for the first time. It was just a silly little summer-day cartoon and I was certain it wouldn’t offend anyone. But next day someone called up and said I should move to Europe if I like soccer so much. I’ve discovered there are a lot of people out there just poised to get outraged. Part of my task in life is to make them outraged. And it’s funny — I’ve become especially aware of this since most of my work is online. The comments I get there are usually way over the top. And people say the nastiest things. But these people come back day after day to say those nasty things and see what I’ve done. So in weird ways they are my most loyal readers.

Domke: What is the basis for your decision to end your run at the P-I and move to LATimes.com?

Horsey: Once the P-I print publication stopped it kind of changed and I started thinking maybe I should try something new. It’s now or never as far as taking on a bigger challenge. I had this opportunity come up with LA Times and I thought this was exactly what I wanted to do. It was taking what I’ve done all this time, but taking it to a new level. LATimes.com is the second largest website in the country. They claim 20 million readers. That’s a lot more than I’ve had. If there’s a downside of working at one place too long it’s that it gets a little too easy. You’re not challenged. And now, taking on a new challenge like this I’m alert. I know I’ve got to do well from the start and do well every day. And, of course, in the world of online news you know immediately if it’s working or not because the numbers are there. In newspapers you can kind of hide — nobody knows exactly who’s reading what — that’s no longer the case with the brave new world of online news.

Domke: How many cartoons will you be producing a week?

Horsey: Another reason this appealed to me is because I’ve always enjoyed writing as much as I’ve enjoyed drawing. I’ve shifted between the two over the years, but the writing component is as important a part of this as the drawing. So every cartoon I do will have at least a short column underneath it. Some days the words will dominate and I might have a caricature along with it, but it’s really a nice combination of writing and drawing that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I think a typical week will be three cartoons and a couple days more written. So five days a week is my duty to the LA Times.

Domke: You’re going to be working on the “Top of the Ticket blog” right? Are you the sole voice or are there others?

Horsey: I’ll be the sole voice. “Top of the Ticket” shifts a little bit depending on who it is. My most immediate predecessor (Andrew Malcolm) was a pretty conservative guy so his readers might be in for a little surprise when I show up. It will shift dramatically because there will be cartoons. I don’t know anybody else in the country who does this. So I’m hoping that will catch some attention.

Domke: What will you focus on the next few months?

Horsey: I’ll be coming in right at the start of the 2012 presidential primary season. I’ll be headed to South Carolina for the primary there to get a first-hand look at the campaign. I suspect that might be a pretty dramatic one with the way things are going. It might be a make-or-break place for Newt Gingrich or any number of candidates. This is an unpredictable year.

Domke: One last question. What would you say to your two children if they wanted to be political cartoonists?

Horsey: Well I probably wouldn’t say what my parents said (laughing): “Do whatever you want.” I’d say “Hey, there’re no jobs, kid.” Things have changed dramatically. Because there are fewer newspapers there are fewer jobs for political cartoonists. It’s kind of disappearing from the journalism scene, although there are great opportunities online. The problem, as with everything else online, is how do you make money doing it? It was never easy. Maybe at its height, 30 or 40 years ago, there were still only maybe 200 political cartoonists getting paid. Now the number is well below 100. So I don’t know if I’d tell my children to go that way. Luckily, neither of them is inclined to do that so I don’t have to worry about their futures. I just have to worry about mine. Luckily I still have one.