Nov. 3, 2013  

We The Journalists: David Willson

David Willson is the editorial cartoonist for the Palm Beach Daily News also known as the Shiny Sheet. He has covered a lot of well known South Florida and national stories in the occasionally controversial county, for the last 21 years.

By Lynn Walsh

DavidHeadshotFor David, drawing the cartoons is gives him a sense of carrying on his family tradition of being Palm Beach Pioneers. Successive generations of his family helped to found Palm Beach and build the area and he is carrying on this tradition through his cartoons.

Recently he decided that there was enough pithy stuff in his archive to write and publish a 20-year ‘Cartoonspective’ book: Billionaires and Butterfly Ballots. The book illustrates Palm Beach, the nexus for a lot of famously weird stories over the last 20 years, including the Butterfly Ballot election fiasco, Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, snowbirds and gold diggers. You can learn more about that here and more about David below.

SPJ Florida: What is it like to be an editorial cartoonist?

David Willson: It’s a lot of fun. But it also has its challenging aspects. Of course, I really enjoy drawing the cartoons, but the job is a lot more than that. Not only do I have to stay up-to-date on local events, but it’s my job to provide some humorous perspective to the stories of the day. That means I have to have a broad knowledge of history, culture, politics, current events and human nature. Fortunately, I’ve always had an avid interest in all of these things, so it’s the ideal job.

How did you get into a position like that?

I studied art and got involved in newspapers while I was still a student at East Carolina University as managing editor and cartoon editor of the student newspaper. I was an intern in the advertising art department of the Palm Beach Post and Times during the summer. After graduating, I was able to apply illustrations and cartooning to great effect while I worked in advertising as an art director for years.

One day the art director of Palm Beach Life magazine, who I had done some freelance illustrations for, called to tell me that the Palm Beach Daily News was going to start publishing an editorial page and wanted a freelance cartoonist to provide one editorial cartoon a week. I sent in some samples and started contributing to their paper in March 1992. I am the newspaper’s first and only editorial cartoonist.


What’s one part of your job that most folks don’t realize you do?

Mainly, I don’t think people realize all that goes into producing an editorial cartoon, much the same way that they’re really not aware of all the work that goes into a feature film while they’re watching it. The two processes are really rather similar, and include everything from casting characters that convey the right qualities to using composition and visuals to affect pacing and rhythm so that the reader gets the full effect of a punch line through an element of surprise. Even writing the dialog balloons and captions requires spare and precise sentence construction and dynamic word choices.

What is your favorite cartoon illustration? Why?

With over 1,000 cartoons in my archive, it would be impossible to pick a single favorite.

But, one of my favorite early cartoons showed school kids reciting an altered pledge of allegiance during the O.J. Simpson trial, in which America quite clearly saw that there was a different kind of justice for those who can afford it.

Of course, we’ve had plenty of cases like that in the Palm Beach area, where millionaire and billionaire defendants have lawyered up with their own “Dream Teams” and often escaped severe consequences.


What was the hardest subject or event to make into a cartoon?

We had a recent high profile story where Palm Beach Polo owner John Goodman ran a stop sign while driving under the influence and killed a young college student named Scott Wilson returning home from school. He was the son of someone I went to high school with and still know today. My own feelings about Goodman got in the way of any ideas I might have on the story. He never showed any remorse and his high-priced lawyers tried every trick in the book to get him off.

I really wasn’t able to do any cartoon about the story until he was convicted. And then, I’m afraid, it was a total gloat.

What is the worst part of your job?

Because it was a weekly freelance gig, I made a promise to myself in the beginning that if I ever got tired of doing the cartoons, I would quit. After 21 years, I still look forward to doing each cartoon. It’s fun and satisfying work.

The worst part: Sometimes I cringe when I do a cartoon that takes someone personally to task for something they’ve said or done. We all say and do things we regret and I would never enjoy being held up to ridicule myself.

We do a lot of commentary about members of the Palm Beach Town Council. My grandfather was a town councilman and I respect the fact that they are civic-minded volunteers regardless of what position they take on issues. However, editorial cartoons are a very powerful way to bring the attitudes and motivations underlying government decisions into focus. I have to stay true to my convictions and the convictions of the editorial board and won’t soft peddle my cartoons.

Do you have one piece of advice you wish you could surgically implant into college students and young professionals breaking into journalism? Being an editorial cartoonist?

I would say maintain an avid interest in everything. Stay inquisitive. Keep your mind open to everyone’s point of view. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an epiphany based on something someone I don’t agree with said.

I value well-written fiction over non-fiction for this reason. Sadly, most non-fiction writers end up cherry picking their ideas to support their original thesis. A good novelist, however, is forced to employ all ideas, pro and con, in an effort to fully flesh out characters and plot so they are believable.

Of course, all of this is doubly important if you’re an editorial cartoonist because the object is to provide eye-opening perspective in the perfect blend of non-fiction and fiction.

What do you think the future of editorial cartoons is?

I feel like the guy in The Graduate telling young Ben Braddock about ‘plastic’ saying this, but it is one word: context.
Every little or big screen, from iPhone to HDTV is perfectly suited for cartoons. Sure, animation will probably increase because of the capability of these devices and software, but even static single panel cartoons translate beautifully.

Context is the one thing that everyone is looking for in this helter-skelter media world. Not only can cartoons humorously put the stories and ideas of the day into a context that audiences empathize with, but then that empathy drives its distribution through sharing.
Of course, you have to get paid. That’s the big issue right now. Still, there are so many opportunities if you think creatively about it. When someone can write short stories and publish them on for $0.99  as Kindle downloads and become a best selling author, there is no reason why a cartoonist can’t thrive as well.


Throughout September, October and November, SPJ Florida will feature Q&As every Friday with Florida’s most prominent journalists. Want to see someone featured? Want to conduct your own Q&A? Want to join SPJ? Email us.

Lynn Walsh is the Vice President of Programs for SPJ Florida. Follow her on Twitter.

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