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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

A prize-winning view of the world

April 22, 2013

Steve Sack.

Steve Sack has been the editorial cartoonist at the Star Tribune since 1981. He says the editor back then knew him from his days at the Minnesota Daily and had followed his work at Fort Wayne, Indiana, and when a position opened at the Star Tribune, encouraged Sack to apply.

Images: courtesy Star Tribune

At first, Steve Sack didn’t believe the news that he’d won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. It wasn’t until a bottle of champagne was placed into his hands and he was a led to a Star Tribune newsroom full of clapping colleagues that he realized his decades of hard work and clever creations had earned him the newspaper world’s holy grail.

Editorially speaking, it’s a well-deserved honor.

Sack’s Pulitzer portfolio contains laugh-out-loud cartoons poking fun at big-name politicians from both sides of the aisle—think Biden and Bachmann—plus a great visual jab at fallen bicycling superstar Lance Armstrong.

And a day after he celebrated his prize, he put the finishing touches on a perfectly poignant statement about the Boston Marathon bombings.

Sack attended the U in the late ’70s and worked for the Minnesota Daily, where he learned about the newspaper business. He didn’t earn his degree, but instead jumped at a job offer from the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette in Indiana, where he worked till joining the Strib in 1981.

We spoke with Sack about his thoughts on winning a Pulitzer, his time at the U and the Minnesota Daily, and his creative process and style.

Can you describe your process? How does an average day and cartoon go?

The beginning part of my day is always pretty much the same. We have an editorial board meeting and people much smarter than I talk about the issues of the day and what positions they want to take on an issue and an event. ... After the meeting I’ll go read some papers and look at some blogs and websites and get a sense of what the story of the day is, or stories—which ones people are talking about and thinking about. By noon I’m ready to sit down and start working on ideas.

I’ll just start drawing and sketching … and by the end of the process I’ll have a dozen pieces of paper with sketches. …

Somehow, out of that mess an idea will pop into my head. It’ll hopefully express a point of view or look at the world in a way that has some unique value. Once I get that, the idea is by far the hardest and the drawing is the most fun. I love to draw; I have since I was a child. That’s where I’m able to relax and put the idea to paper.

Do you ever feel that an edgy cartoon has maybe crossed a boundary, or are there certain topics you won’t touch?

I don’t think there’s any topic that would be off limits for a cartoon. There are certainly delicate topics and certainly topics that you want to have a deft touch with. They are not all funny; they’re not all supposed to be funny. If you’re doing a cartoon about sexual abuse, you want to do something that expresses a thought without causing more hurt.

A cartoon image of Lance Armstrong riding a bicycle with spokes made of syringes."I don't think there's any topic that would be off limits for a cartoon," says sack. Given that, why backpedal from a chance to poke fun at Lance Armstrong?

Over the years, you must get accused of being biased against various political administrations.

I get accused of being anti-anything-you-want-to-name more than a couple times a year. People aren't hesitant about letting me know that they don’t like something that I’ve done. And that’s fine. I have my own little piece of real estate every day where I can spout off, and they have every right to let me know or let the paper know or write a letter [with their thoughts].

Can you talk a bit about your time here working for the Minnesota Daily?

“It was just wonderful. I started off just doing illustrations because I needed a part-time job. I saw quickly that the cartoonist was being paid more than the illustrators, so I waited till he went on vacation or a leave of absence and hopped into his chair and started doing them. Then I got to know the reporters.

There are great people who worked at the Daily. It was an amazing place. A lot of the people that I worked with there are working at the Star Tribune now, or have. There’s probably near a dozen here still. …

It was a terrific place to learn the business. Part of it is that it’s a daily paper. To have the experience of having to meet those deadlines every single day, and have your work go out there and have people see it and judge it and let you know if it’s not working—it’s a very intense experience, and I have only fond memories of it.”

What advice would you give to a college student who aspires to be an accomplished editorial cartoonist?

First off, I would advise an aspiring cartoonist to have an alternative career plan. Editorial cartooning is not a growth industry these days, and there are fewer than 50 full-time staff editorial cartoonists in the United States the last time I looked. If I were starting today, I would look to animation or graphic novels.

That said, if someone were driven to press forward, I would urge a solid understanding of art and design, history, creative writing, journalism, political science, mass communication, and especially communication technology. You know, all the things I never studied!

To check out Sack’s Pulitzer-winning creations, visit the Pulitzer cartoons. 

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