Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau told the Washington Post this weekend that it would have been "comedy malpractice" to ignore the topic of restrictive new state laws and bills surrounding abortion. The newspapers that publish his strip, including the O, have different dynamics to consider.
Several have decided not to run Doonesbury this week, with some publishing a week of substitute Doonesburys provided by Trudeau. (That includes, by the way, papers in progressive cities like Portland, Ore.) Among North Carolina's larger newspapers, the Greensboro News & Record and Winston-Salem Journal are not running the strip. Our neighbor, the Rock-Hill Herald, also decided no. Our sister paper in Raleigh decided yes.
Rick Thames, editor of the Observer, tells me today that the O will be publishing the comic in our print edition on all but one day - Thursday. That day's strip was deemed too graphic, Rick said, and losing the one day won't disrupt the narrative of the week.
It's a decision newspapers confront frequently - especially on our editorial pages, where we choose among dozens of letters to the editor and submissions to the Buzz each day. When does something add to the collective conversation about an issue, and when does it detract? When is shock an effective communications tool, and when is it merely gratuitous? In Doonesbury's case, while some might find his humor a powerful way to expose absurdity, some might consider it offensive to seek chuckles in so serious a topic.
With comics, there's an additional consideration, of course: audience. The journalist in me prefers to err on the side of including more voices in debates, not less, but as a dad with a 10-year old who goes directly to the comics when he gets home from school, welllllll...
Says Thames: "Readers of Doonesbury expect its creator to delve into politically and socially sensitive topics. That comes with the strip. But our comics page is a destination for all ages. Many would find that one day's installment too explicit."
John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record, writes in his excellent blog today that as an editor, he would have substituted the Doonesbury strip this week because if he's going to make readers angry, he'd rather do it with a news story.
But, he says:
Now, as a reader, I feel cheated. Doonesbury is an institution and by this time, you know what you’re going to get. Doonesbury is The Daily Show on the comics page. When people would complain that they didn’t like a particular strip, I would say, “That’s OK. We don’t expect people to like every comic we print. That’s why we publish two dozen of them with different styles and tones. You can pick and choose.”
I wish I had listened to myself and let readers pick and choose.
We don't always get these decisions right - on the editorial pages or elsewhere - but the O is finding a good balance this week. Thames notes that anyone who wants to see Thursday's strip has the option of viewing it online, in the comics section of CharlotteObserver.com, which can be found by going to the entertainment page.
Peter St. Onge