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Fit to Print


This week, I put myself in a cartoon for the 20th anniversary of The Rocky Mountain Outlook newspaper. Since the beginning, I’ve been the cartoonist for my local paper with a cartoon in every issue, so it’s also my 20th anniversary.

In August of 2001, Shonna and I bought our townhouse in Canmore and moved here from Banff. At the same time, I left the Banff Crag & Canyon newspaper, where I’d been the cartoonist for three years, drawing one cartoon a week for what amounted to beer money.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook was launching, the brainchild of Bob Schott, Larry Marshall and Carol Picard. As editor, Carol offered me the cartoonist position. Then, a short time later, she asked me why I wasn’t syndicated.

Syndication sends the same cartoon to several publications. They pay a fee to run it, substantially less than an original. It’s the reason you used to see the same comic strip page in many daily newspapers or the same Dave Barry humour column across the United States.

At the time, my limited understanding was that an artist had to sign with a syndicate, a company that would act as an agent, send out the work, collect the fees and pay the artist a royalty.

Carol set me straight. When she told me I could do it myself, it was a light through the clouds moment.

She gets tired of me thanking her, but tough noogies. Without her advice, support and mentorship, it’s unlikely that I would be a full-time artist today.

I’ll skip the details of the steep learning curve and logistics, but the short version is that I began creating syndicated cartoons and cold-calling newspapers across Canada. One or two cartoons a week soon became six, plus the local cartoon for the Outlook. In black and white for the first few years, then colour as newspapers made that transition on their editorial pages.

For four and a half years, I worked mornings, evenings and weekends drawing cartoons while working a full-time day job to pay the bills.

In January of 2006, I became a full-time artist, and I’ve been unemployable ever since.

At launch, the other valley papers mocked their audacity. Still, Bob, Larry and Carol soon made The Outlook the paper of record for the Bow Valley, including Stoney Nakoda, Exshaw, Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise. After her partners and close friends both passed on before their time, Carol eventually sold the newspaper. 

Ownership, publishers, editors, and staff have come and gone over twenty years. The only people there for the first issue who are still here today are reporter Cathy Ellis, accountant Donna Brown, and this here cartoonist.

I’ve never actually been staff with my name on the masthead, simply a regular weekly contributor. But I still consider myself part of the paper, as do many readers.

While some believe the newspaper industry is dying or dead, I would argue that it’s experiencing a difficult transition and struggling for footing like many in the internet age. Formerly large daily newspapers compete with Facebook and Twitter, stories shared by people who don’t care if they’re true, just that they support what they already believe.

We’ve become familiar with the term fake news because we must frequently ask ourselves if what we’re reading comes from that deep and polluted well.

Many of these newspaper chains slash and burn their newsrooms to stay profitable or solvent, cutting costs wherever they can. But people pick up the paper for what they can’t get on Google News, National Newswatch or the T.V. News channels and sites.

They pick up their hometown paper for local news and views, the stories that make their community theirs.

People in Ottawa don’t care about a rural town in B.C. unless it’s burning and feeds their addiction to tragedy. Just as somebody in Mayerthorpe, Alberta doesn’t care about the new rec centre in Guelph, Ontario.

But the people who report those stories to the people who care about them are local reporters in local communities. So, when a tiny little paper in rural Saskatchewan only prints stories from the national news wire, it’s no wonder no local businesses want to advertise in it because nobody’s reading it.

Advertisers pay for newspapers. It’s the reason your local community paper is often free. However, when the content within is suddenly uninteresting or irrelevant to the people who live there, it’s hard to convince a business that their customers will see their ad. They might as well be advertising in the Yellow Pages.

COVID has been tough on many businesses, and newspapers are no exception. I’ve made no secret about the fact that I lost syndicated newspaper clients at the beginning of the pandemic. While they all said it would be temporary, only one of those has since hired me back, over a year and a half later.

I’ve seen reporters and editors lose their jobs sacrificed to the balance sheet, and many local papers have become shells of their former publications. One newspaper chain sacrificed all freelance content, then gave the cartoonist spot to one of my competitors for supplying them all with free cartoons for months on end.

Apparently, that cartoonist has never heard that nobody wins a race to the bottom.

A few other papers are now running bargain bin priced syndicated cartoons from the United States. Why would anybody in rural Manitoba want to see cartoons about Biden, Trump and the U.S. Congress each week in their small-town community paper?

Carol, Bob, and Larry started the Rocky Mountain Outlook to create a newspaper that the Valley could be proud of. It has won many awards in several categories, setting the standard for community journalism.

I hope that when this pandemic finally ends –and it will end—that our community and several others once again realize the value and benefit of local journalism and news.

When nobody is left to tell the stories, vet sources, check facts, present both sides of an argument, and provide ongoing investigations into complicated issues, the information we rely on won’t be worth repeating.

We’ll simply be sharing more ranting and raving on Facebook and Twitter by the loudest and angriest among us.

And that ain’t news.

© Patrick LaMontagne

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Zen and the Art of Course Correction

It would be an understatement to describe this past year as challenging. However you choose to define it, we’ve all lost something, and much of it won’t be coming back.

Those newspapers that laid me off a year ago said that it would be temporary, but to still believe that now would be wishful thinking. We can choose to desperately hang on to false hope or have a moment of grief and move on.

Like many people, I’ve been struggling with next steps and feeling a little bit helpless and defeated, despite knowing I’ve got plenty for which to be grateful.

There’s an old Zen proverb that states, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have a couple of mentors, people without whose assistance I might not be a self-employed artist today.

In 2001, at thirty years old, I was drawing a weekly editorial cartoon for the Banff Crag and Canyon, something I’d done for a few years. At the time, I had no designs on becoming a professional artist; it was just an amusing side gig.  Even still, I began drawing other cartoons for casual clients along with some illustration work. When my newspaper publisher discovered this, she told me I could only draw cartoons for The Crag in Banff and couldn’t do any other cartoons. For $30 a week, I was not about to accept that and planned to quit.

At the same time, an upstart newspaper was about to launch in Canmore. The owners wanted to create a better vision of a paper for the whole Bow Valley, consisting of Exshaw, Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise. One of the Crag and Canyon reporters left to join the new paper and let them know I was unhappy. The new editor had already planned to offer me the job as their editorial cartoonist.

It was only a bit more money, but Shonna and I had just left Banff to buy our first home in Canmore, and the timing was right.

Carol Picard was the editor and part-owner, and before too long, she asked me why I wasn’t syndicated. I told her it was difficult for an unknown artist to sign with a syndicate.

She told me that was silly, that I should do it myself, something I didn’t know was possible. At the time, submissions went by fax (look it up, kids). So I went to the library in Calgary to find all of the addresses and contact info for Canadian newspapers. None of that information was as yet available online.

And I bought a fax machine.

For the next couple of years, in addition to the Rocky Mountain Outlook cartoon, I drew two or three cartoons a week, sent them out to newspapers and got almost no bites. It was brutal, demoralizing and I came close to quitting many times. I had a full-time job to pay the bills and drew cartoons early in the mornings before work and in the evenings afterward, as well as every weekend.

It took over a year of submissions, but I still remember my first syndicated weekly paper, The Vulcan Advocate. They paid me $10 a week for a syndicated cartoon. That first $40 cheque was like winning the lottery. By the end of the second year, I had two papers.

Carol no longer owns the Rocky Mountain Outlook, but it survives and thrives today. Their competitors, the same two papers that ridiculed them for their brash audacity; one is gone and the other is a shell of what it once was.

I still draw a local cartoon for The Outlook. It will be twenty years this fall since their first issue, and I have never missed a week. There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be an artist for a living had Carol not intervened at the right time.

During those early first few years of syndicated cartooning, I watched a Sunday morning news show where they interviewed one of Canada’s most notable and accomplished editorial cartoonists, Terry Mosher. Drawing under his nom-de-cartoon, Aislin, he’s been a cartoonist since the late 60s, part of the foundation of the Montreal Gazette.

In the interview, he remarked about how difficult it was for young cartoonists to get started. In my early thirties, I was not so young, but knowing little about the rest of the industry, with no contacts to speak of, I threw a Hail Mary pass and sent him an email, asking for advice.

He replied with one line, “Send me some of your stuff.”

Over the next few years, we got to know each other, and he introduced me to the world of Canadian editorial cartooning. He told me I needed to draw more, that I had to send out at least five cartoons a week, rather than two or three.

As I wasn’t a very good artist, with no grasp of the fundamentals, it took many hours to draw a cartoon, three or four times what it takes today, so I struggled to increase my workload.

Terry was the editorial cartoon editor of Maclean’s Magazine and put me in the rotation in the company of some of the most well-known cartoonists in Canada. It paid $400, which at the time seemed like a lot of money. He introduced me to Doug Firby, the former editor of the Calgary Herald. Doug was generous with his time and advice and started using my cartoons when their in-house cartoonist Vance Rodewalt had days off.

Terry came out west in 2003 with his wife to talk at the Banff Centre and visit family in Jasper. They took Shonna and I out to dinner, and we were their guests at his presentation. It was an exciting visit. I had the assignment for Maclean’s that week. Though I don’t recall the cartoon’s context, I had to draw former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, and I remember sending Terry the cartoon for his OK while he was still in Jasper.

He called me and said, “it doesn’t look like him.”

Having spent hours on it, I was crushed, but he told me over the phone how to fix it. Put his eyes closer together; his hair is bigger; you’ve got the mouth wrong. I scrambled to write it all down and worked ’til 2 in the morning fixing it, even though I had to be at my day job by 8:30. His critique was accurate, and he said my revision was much better.

Terry taught me how to take constructive criticism. There is ALWAYS room for improvement.

I was so appalled that I had failed to capture Klein’s face that I became obsessed with becoming an expert at capturing likenesses, which has served me well in my painted work. When Klein retired from office in 2006, I painted a caricature that appeared in the Calgary Herald and other Alberta papers. I sold a few prints of it and somebody gave him one for his retirement. This photo appeared in the Calgary Herald.

My credibility as a Maclean’s magazine cartoonist opened doors with many other newspapers across Canada. In 2005, I quit my day job and became a full-time professional artist.

Because Canmore is one of Canada’s most expensive communities in which to live, there was no chance of living on one income. Shonna and I agreed that if I couldn’t pay half of the mortgage and bills, I’d get a part-time job. It didn’t seem like as big risk then as it would now.

Both Carol Picard and Terry Mosher were the mentors I needed at the time, and I remain forever grateful for their help.

Some time ago, my friend Crystal, a graphic designer in Calgary, recommended a podcast by David Duchemin. I’ve written about it before.

David has had a strange but wonderful creative career. He’s been a comedian, photographer, author and educator. I guarantee there are other professions in there with which I’m not yet familiar. His podcast is geared toward creatives, and it’s quite inspirational. We’re about the same age, but I think of David as older than I am, based on his wealth of experience.

I’ve never shied away from sending emails to people whenever they’ve influenced me or provided content worth my time. I know what it’s like to work in a lonely profession. No matter how successful or influential you might imagine someone might be, they’re still just people. We all like to know that we’re doing a good job or are providing value to somebody else.

People are too often quick to criticize but slow to applaud.

When I’ve found one of his podcasts particularly resonant or uplifting, I’ve sent David an email.

Not too long ago, following one of those messages, for which he was always gracious and kind, we got into a more detailed discussion about this business of art. He lives on Vancouver Island, one of Shonna’s and my favourite haunts, and he’d already said to let him know when I was next in the area.

But not too long into this discussion, he said that we should have a phone call.

After some initial small talk, David suggested I could be doing better at marketing my work. Realizing he was treating me with kid gloves, I assured him he could speak frankly. He wasn’t criticizing my art but my business, and I already knew I had plenty of room for improvement. As I said, I welcome constructive criticism, especially from somebody who has walked their talk.

He hit me with both barrels, and I couldn’t take notes fast enough.

For two hours, David lobbed marketing advice and ideas at me, and we had a fascinating discussion. Many of these suggestions seemed so obvious in hindsight, but I had never considered them. Grateful for the help, I asked him why he was so generous with his time and advice, especially since we didn’t yet know each other well.

I can’t remember his exact words, but it came down to this – for the quality of my artwork, I should be a lot further ahead, and he wanted to help me get there.

David gave me a crash course lesson in getting more newsletter followers and better serving them. He stressed the importance of focusing less on individual sales and more on my relationships with those who’ve supported my work for years. His philosophy on serving my audience revealed how I’m already doing that well and pointed out where I could be doing better.

He helped me make improvements to my website, with more changes coming. He suggested I offer desktop and mobile device wallpapers to my audience, something I should have thought of years ago, but it had never occurred to me. The immediate positive feedback from my subscribers was overwhelming. They loved them!

He reminded me that many of my customers buy my work for the children in their lives. Wouldn’t they love to be able to give their grandkids, nieces and nephews colouring pages of my paintings? What about publishing a colouring book from them later? Let me tell you, that was a palm to the forehead moment. I’m releasing a few of those to my subscribers today, and I learned a lot while creating them.

David was surprised with how quickly I’ve implemented some of the ideas generated from our discussions. My view on that is simple. When somebody gives you a push in the right direction, the one you’ve REALLY needed, you don’t sit down and think about it. You take advantage of the momentum and speed up.

That’s how you show your gratitude for their generosity.

I wrote to David the other day, “While telling my wife about our last chat and the options you suggested, she said it was nice to see me excited about my work again, focusing on forward movement, rather than worrying so much.”

He replied, “That makes me very happy.”

I don’t know how long I’ll benefit from David’s willingness to share his hard-earned knowledge with me. I’m simply going to do the work to be worthy of it.

If you’re a photographer, designer, illustrator, cartoonist, any other type of creative, I’d encourage you to check out his site and listen to his podcast, ‘A Beautiful Anarchy.‘ Recommend it to any creatives in your life, too, especially if they could use a boost.

My first two mentors showed up when I was at a significant crossroads in my career and life, though I only recognized it in hindsight.

This time, there is no doubt.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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A Local Cartoonist

Although I have syndicated clients across Canada and produce cartoons each day for them, I also draw one local cartoon each week for The Rocky Mountain Outlook, the paper of record for Banff, Canmore, Lake Louise and area.

I’ve been their cartoonist since they opened their doors in 2001 and I’ve never missed an issue. In the early days of The Rocky Mountain Outlook, one of the owners, also the Editor, encouraged me to self-syndicate, which meant draw my own cartoons and send them out to other papers in the hopes they publish them. At the time, I’d only drawn one cartoon each week for the Banff Crag & Canyon for a few years and was very new to the Outlook.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook was destined to fail. The cheap seats were full of people who said so.

I was thirty years old, and I had never envisioned a career as an artist. Not even a little. Carol Picard changed my life and it’s hard not to say Thank You every time I see her around town.

For the next five years, I drew cartoons on the side while working a full-time job to pay the bills. Early mornings before work, evenings after work and weekends, with very little money to show for it. I almost quit half a dozen times in those five years. Sometimes I drew five cartoons in a week and made $10 from the one weekly paper that ran one. That kind of thing went on for a couple of years, but it was great practice. I was finally able to become a full-time artist in 2006.

With a lot of experiments in between, eventually the editorial cartooning led to the other half of my business painting funny looking animals, which are licensed and sold in zoos, parks, retail stores and other venues across Canada and internationally. Having been a full-time professional artist for the past 13 years, I’m pretty sure I’m now unemployable in a real job.

Without The Rocky Mountain Outlook, none of that would have happened.

My editor, Tanya Foubert, delighted in calling me today to tell me that the Canadian Community Newspaper Awards were announced for 2019 and I won 1st and 2nd for Best Local Cartoon in our class. While we all know it’s not about the awards, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this feels pretty good. It’s the first win for me, although I think I got third one year.

I’ve never submitted to the National Newspaper Awards. Maybe once in the early 2000s. The Outlook submits to the CCNAs on my behalf. Since I have many clients for my cartoons, it’s always been more important to me to keep my editors and publishers supplied, happy (and paying me!) than it was to win an award.

But this one is different, because it’s the Outlook. It’s my local paper. I’ve known these people for almost twenty years. I know what the original owners went through to keep it afloat, against all odds. I know how hard the current staff and leadership work to hold to that original vision.

Once again, I am reminded of Roosevelt and The Man in the Arena.

From the official announcement of the awards on News Media Canada’s site, the first highlight was, “The Rocky Mountain Outlook from Canmore/Kananaskis/Banff/Lake Louise in Alberta picked up the most wins (five), including first place for General Excellence.”

How could I not be happy to be a part of that?

Thanks, Carol.

Cheers,
Patrick

Here are the cartoons that won. The first was about the contentious issue of Calgary’s failed bid for the 2026 Olympics. While not an official tally, half the community seemed to want it more than anything, the other half were opposed.

Second was our ongoing issue with parking in this area. My first cartoon for the Banff Crag and Canyon in 1998 was on paid parking. Everybody’s got an opinion and a solution, but nobody wants to pay for it, or stop driving whenever they want.

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