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Editorial cartoonist Ed Stein rues the future of newspapers

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At the height of his career, cartoonist Ed Stein's work was featured on the editorial pages of 450 newspapers nationwide, and graced the pages of the NY Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and Playboy Magazine. He was the editorial cartoonist for the Rocky Mountain News from 1978 to the fall of 2009, when Denver's much-loved second paper bit the dust.

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"The collapse of the Rocky was devastating in a number of ways," Stein said. "When you lose that audience it's not the same. I always depended on the sense of having a conversation with my readership. The cartoons continued to be syndicated, but now there was no sense of feedback. My editorial cartoons lost their vibrancy."

At the time, Stein was also drawing a comic strip for the Rocky called "Denver Square." With an entirely local focus, the strip featured wry comments on life in the Mile High City. After the paper's demise, he took the strip's basic format and characters and gave them a national focus. Rechristened "Freshly Squeezed," it's now a family oriented cartoon with a dad, mom, kid, and two grandparents who have lost their retirement savings and are forced to move in with their kids. "The humor," Stein said, "is derived from a family squeezed in together in a house that's too small."

Ed Stein has been drawing cartoons since he was a kid in third grade. "It was a revelation to me that I could do something the other kids couldn't," he said. "I started drawing compulsively and looking at cartoons in magazines, trying to figure them out. I fell in love with writing something funny and illustrating it. It was the fusion of humor and art that appealed to me."

Figuring he'd probably have a hard time making a living as a cartoonist, he went for a major in Graphic Design at DU.

"But then the 60s happened" he said. "Some friends of mine started an underground newspaper on campus called the Student Free Press. I did a cartoon for the first issue. It was about Chancellor Mitchell. He'd kicked some students out for participating in a sit-in on campus, despite promises he'd made to work with the student council on disciplinary matters. The cartoon showed him making promises with his fingers crossed behind his back."

Stein walked into the Student Union on the day the paper came out and found everybody talking about the cartoon.

"That's when I realized I could be a bad boy and get rewarded for it, which is basically what editorial cartooning is," he said, "making fun of people in authority and getting rewarded for it. People take you seriously. It's bizarre."

After graduation, he spent nine years doing paste up and copy-editing, and drawing cartoons on a freelance basis for anybody who’d publish him – Cervis Journal, the Lafayette Leader, Straight Creek Journal, and The Broomfield Star – all the while looking for that elusive position as a full-time political cartoonist.

"I kept talking to the Rocky," he said. "I must have walked in there a dozen times. They started publishing me on a freelance basis."

The paper finally hired him full-time in 1978 and he stayed with them ‘til they closed. It comes as no surprise that Stein is pessimistic about the future of newspapers in this country. "We're seeing increasing layoffs on newspapers across the US," he said. "I think democracy depends on a vigorous newspaper press; not bloggers, not TV news, not cable. Newspapers are the only thing with the power and authority to hold our political and economic leaders accountable. Some of what we see going on in politics now is a direct result of the decline of newspapers. I don't know what's going to replace them or even if they can be replaced. Who's left to call the politicians bluff? Where are the truth tellers?"


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Ed Stein

Freelance writer Don Morreale is currently at work on a collection of his Examiner articles for publication this coming spring.


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