In 1983, Jeffrey Koterba, then a staffer for The Gateway, was named the nation’s outstanding collegiate cartoonist by the Society of Professional Journalists.
Koterba, his cartoons and his creativity traveled from The Gateway office to The Omaha World-Herald, where Koterba created daily cartoons for 31 years until this September, when his job was “eliminated due to cost-cutting measures,” he announced in a tweet.
Poynter reports that “the number of communities that had their own newspaper in 2004 and now have no original reporting whatsoever, in print or digitally, has grown to 1,800.”
The “death of the hometown newspaper” – and the unemployment of the people who make up these local papers – is a “tragedy” in Koterba’s eyes, but not a shock.
“I was one of maybe 20-something, 25 full-time newspaper cartoonists left in the country,” he said. “It’s a huge loss, it’s a tragedy, but it’s how the industry is going.”
Where exactly is the industry going, though? In “Political cartoons are out of touch – it’s time to make way for memes,” communication professor Jennifer Grygiel advocates for publishers to use memes, rather than just political cartoons, in their opinion pages. Cartoons, she argues, require time, detail and art skills that not every person possesses. Memes are more accessible.
Koterba, however, doesn’t think the industry is heading in that direction – yet. “Generic” memes, he said, could not replicate all that editorial cartoons offer.
“A specific piece of art with a cartoonist who knows the community, reflects the community, reflects the sensibilities of the community is so important,” he said.
A born and raised Omahan, Koterba said he was able to connect with readers directly because he was a known, trusted and integrated member of the Omaha community.
In his time at the World-Herald, Koterba created roughly 10,000 cartoons, commenting and illustrating on a range of topics including politics, pop culture, society, technology, sports and weather. Editorial cartoons, he said, add personality to the paper and some readers “look for that every day.” Koterba’s work is nationally syndicated, as well, appearing in over 850 newspapers.
Koterba now creates cartoons on his iPad, with the kitchen counter or coffee shops becoming a makeshift studio. Before, he used pencils, pens, brushes and watercolors, and his creative process involved sketching, scanning, laser printing and hand painting. If Koterba needed to press undo, he would print out another copy and start over.
“I’m loving creating my work in a digital format—I never thought I’d say that,” he said. “Before when I was drawing an eyeball, I would have to squint and I would think ‘I should get a magnifying glass’ to get in to paint this little tiny eyeball. Now I can pinch, zoom and bring the eyeball up to me, and now I can put shadows and a blood shot in there … I like to think that the level of detail, in the same way when people look at each other, that they can pick up on certain things about that person.”
Koterba, a true creative, is also a speaker, author, musician and creative consultant. He said he is in the process of “kind of reinventing” himself, but is still drawing and creating cartoons – many of which he shares on Twitter. He has also created a Patreon page, which allows patrons to support Koterba while gaining early access to his newest work.
“Leaving the paper and not being able to say thank you and farewell to my readers—it’s been heartening to see the kind of feedback I have gotten,” he said. “I received, either through social media or email or other forms, something like 3,000 messages and I hope to one day respond to everybody.”