To a lot of journalists, the future of their profession looks worse than dismal. “It’s like it’s 150 years ago and you’re in whale blubber,” says Leopold. “Newspapers as we know them are done. It’s no longer the way we deliver the news.”
That’s one reason Auth was ready to leave the Inquirer: He likes to be part of the conversation, and the conversation was no longer where it once had been. When online commenting at the paper began, readers who would call to let him know what they thought of his work stopped, abruptly. He needs feedback; he thrives on it. “I wanted to try other forms of cartooning,” he says. “Philly.com was not the place.”
He wonders himself what the future of journalism might be. “The print model doesn’t look viable,” he muses. “There have always been irreverent cartoons. But how to make a living at it?” Some media critics think the role of the political cartoon has been usurped by TV programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. “I find that deplorable,” Auth says in a less-than-sunny moment. “Drawing as an act of satire is different from the spoken word.”
Satullo says Auth is still figuring out how best to engage in his new role at WHYY; he’s pushing the station’s “digital artist in residence” to make more use of Facebook and Twitter. The videos Auth makes are a plunge into a different medium; he takes the static cartoon image and grows it—and lets observers in on his creative process. It’s one more way to converse.
More than 85,000 visitors trekked to the Michener Museum during Auth’s 2012 retrospective. “Tony’s work has become a part of people’s lives,” says Leopold. “You share your breakfast table with him.” But beyond that, “He has a remarkably high batting average for work that has stood the test of time.” Auth’s curator says the reason is simple: “He’s interested in human nature, not just in picking a side.”
Auth shares his Wynnewood home with Eliza Drake Auth, the landscape and portrait painter who’s been his wife for more than 30 years. One of their daughters teaches preschool in Gulph Mills; the other works for the environmental nonprofit Worldwatch Institute. Like their dad, they’re saving the world, in their own ways.
Forty years of chronicling humanity’s—and this city’s—foibles might seem sure to make a man cynical. Auth isn’t immune to darker feelings. Twice during our interview, he teared up. It’s none of your business what about. Even our municipal court jester deserves a little privacy.
But at the heart of any cartoonist’s mission is boundless optimism: He holds a mirror up to us in hopes we’ll change.
“I remember clearly someone saying to me years ago, ‘What are you going to do when Lyndon Johnson isn’t president anymore?’” says Auth. “Somebody has said that to me about every president since.” Human idiocy is bad for the species, but great for cartooning.