Musicals about newspaper publishing are few and far between. As I sat reimagining the story of Newsies from an old movie to a new stage show I wondered what would be lost when we eventually lose newspapers. I wanted to make at least one cogent argument defending print media to a culture that doesn't seem to care if the daily paper disappears altogether. What could that argument be?
Social media moves news through the world faster than a print reporter ever can. Anyone with a smart phone is a potential eyewitness cameraman capturing and transmitting stories at speeds that turn Reuter photos and traditional reporting into, well... yesterday's news.
And last week's stories on hiring homeless people as roaming Internet hot-spots made me wonder if they will be the new town criers of our never-out-of-reach world?
Pundits, political and social are plentiful. What amateurs may lack in accuracy or professionalism can arguably be made up in volume, (if anyone is willing to read 30 online stories to be certain they've gotten the full picture.) The limited space of traditional Op-Ed pages have been made obsolete by the infinite opportunities to express personal views in blogs and chat-rooms. Public opinion, you might say, has gone free range.
In our world that has almost outgrown storing anything in physical form, (I still have floppy discs sitting useless in a drawer), I sat flipping through the oversized pages of my newspaper looking for that one item that cannot be improved upon or hasn't been outmoded. If it's not the news or editorials, it's certainly not classified ads or movie reviews or sport statistics or obituaries... And then I came face to face with an item whose attributes cannot be quickly scrolled through. It's a newspaper stronghold that demands attention and participation: The political cartoon.
Yes, I am aware that more people get their news and opinions from comedy television like The Daily Show or SNL. But television formats are inflexible. They must remain engaging, fast paced and time specific. They need to pre-digest opinion and spit out conclusions in rapid-fire joke format even if the punch-line is at the expense of truth. Facts and fairness be damned. If it's funny, it's on the air. A show, a writer, or a comedian certainly can exert personal views, but the god that must be served is popularity, not verity.
A political cartoon, on the other hand, although a vessel of the artist's opinion, feeds the mind differently. The reader is required to actively interpret the image, read and translate the caption, and, finally, put them together to discern the message. Those miniscule added intellectual efforts transform the daily intake of political opinion from the Wonder Bread of quip to the nutritionally significant realm of high fiber nourishment.
Not convinced? Please consider the heroic act of our own patriot, Paul Revere. No, not his midnight ride. I refer to his afternoon sketch. The Boston Massacre was a story carried citizen to citizen and reported by every newspaper in the colonies. Everyone knew what had happened. Still, there was no move to action until Paul Revere produced a drawing of the incident. The publishing of that drawing was the call to arms that ignited our Revolutionary War. Throughout history the political cartoon has kept the record of our follies and triumphs. They have leveled the mighty and motivated the seemingly powerless. Can we forget that just a few years ago a series of political cartoons criticizing censorship in the Islamic world used images of the prophet Muhammad and almost ignited a full-out holy war? Art has the power to transform, to illuminate, to educate, inspire and motivate.
Here was the argument I could put forth in a family musical about the newsboy strike of 1899. I turned the hero of Newsies into an untrained artist who chronicles his world with sketches, and those sketches become the rallying cry for political and social change.
Is there any role better for art to play? Is there anywhere else it can be found and digested other than in newsprint? I hold that political cartoons are the perfect union of art and commerce. In fact, I'd argue that it's a marriage worth passing a constitutional amendment to preserve.