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Cartoonist Jeff Koterba on his love affair with journalism – from paper boy to dream job

Cartoonist Jeff Koterba on his love affair with journalism – from paper boy to dream job

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Part of an occasional series of essays on the craft of journalism. Read previous essays by news columnist Matthew Hansen and sports columnist Tom Shatel.

My love affair with journalism began when I was a kid growing up in South Omaha. My dad repaired old TVs and sold them from our front porch, advertising his latest fixer-uppers in the classified section of the Sunday World-Herald.

He loved to see his ad in print early, so most Saturday nights he would head down 13th Street in the family Plymouth to The World-Herald building downtown, to pick up the next morning’s edition. Often I would join him for his weekly pilgrimage.

When I was 5 and 6 years old, reading the next day’s comics the night before felt like the miracle of time travel. That’s also how I learned to draw cartoons — by studying and trying to draw Snoopy and characters from the Wizard of Id and Dennis the Menace, falling asleep with ink on my hands — ink from my pens and also from the newsprint.

Reading those comics was a gateway to the rest of the newspaper. Eventually, I began reading the sports section and then the news columns. Later still, reading the Sunday editorial cartoons and editorials the night before also held a special magic for me. That’s how I first became interested in local politics and current events — through the cartoons and editorials.

Of course, my family also subscribed to the daily World-Herald. In those days, who didn’t? One wouldn’t think of not subscribing. How else were you to keep up with local news about Omaha and Nebraska?

[ Click here to subscribe to The World-Herald ]

Beyond that, my dad’s brother, Ed, had been a journalist. He’d started out at The World-Herald before heading East, where he eventually became a syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard and the Washington Post. Sadly, he was killed in a plane crash shortly after my birth. But my dad’s stories of Uncle Ed’s adventures as a White House correspondent during the Kennedy years and as a columnist who covered the early days of the U.S. space program, not to mention his attempts to become one of the first journalists to visit the South Pole, filled me with wonder and affirmed my love of journalism.

With all those stories, not to mention that ink on my hands, you might say journalism was in my blood.

I loved journalism so deeply that in junior high I became a newspaper carrier for The World-Herald — partly to make extra money, but mostly so I could read that day’s news as soon as possible. In high school, I took a job in the advertising dispatch department, working nights as a “tearsheet clerk,” literally tearing pages from the next day’s newspaper for delivery to advertisers as proof their advertisements had been published. Some advertisers, like grocery stores, even displayed their newspaper ads in their windows. It made me proud to walk into a local grocery store and see my tearsheets taped to the glass.

While attending Omaha South High School, I studied journalism and landed a spot on the school paper, the Tooter, writing stories and drawing cartoons. I immersed myself in the art of cartooning under the tutelage of Ed Fischer, who at the time was The World-Herald’s editorial cartoonist. Not long after, Fischer left Omaha, leaving open the cartooning job at the newspaper.

I knew in my heart that I wanted to become a full-time editorial cartoonist. And I wanted to draw those cartoons for my hometown newspaper. I enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and studied art and journalism. But because majoring in editorial cartooning wasn’t an option at any university, I would practice, practice, practice on my own, honing my skills late into the night, freelancing and trying to get better. Trying to get good enough to one day draw for The World-Herald. In the meantime, I made cartoons part-time for UNO TV and later for KETV. Later still I drew sports cartoons for the Kansas City Star.

After nine years of trial and error, I was hired as the fifth editorial cartoonist in the history of The World-Herald. That was in 1989. Now, approximately 9,000 cartoons later, I still love journalism. In fact, I think I love it even more. Maybe it’s because I know that now, more than ever, good journalism is essential to a well-informed citizenry. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can be a member of a community and not know what is happening in local government, schools and businesses.

These days I still love reading the newsprint version of The World-Herald. But I get just as excited about all the digital avenues in which to explore what The World-Herald has to offer. I’ve become one of those consumers of news who goes back and forth, making notes in the margins of the print edition, but also frequently checking the online versions, too, for breaking stories.

And if you haven’t heard, there have been a few recent advancements at the newspaper that have me excited. Things I couldn’t have imagined when I was “time traveling” with the Sunday comics as a kid all those years ago.

For example, if you’re a part of our Subscriber Plus family, you can now see the next day’s cartoon practically the moment the ink has dried, usually late in the afternoon the day before print publication. That’s almost like time traveling.

And those early days of my drawing cartoons for TV? Well, I also now come up with a weekly video for Omaha.com and KMTV, not only giving you insights into what went into the idea for a particular cartoon, but also, hopefully, sharing a bit of myself along the way.

And if you look closely, you might still see that ink on my hands.

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Editorial cartoonist

Jeff Koterba is an award-winning and nationally-syndicated cartoonist for the Omaha World-Herald.

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