Former Buffalo News Editor Margaret Sullivan gave newly hired editorial cartoonist Adam Zyglis a simple directive when she hired him in 2004 to fill the vacancy left behind by the departure of Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Toles.
She said, “Welcome aboard. Now go win us a Pulitzer,” Zyglis recalled.
And so he did.
On Monday, Zyglis – who was born in Buffalo, grew up in Alden and graduated from Canisius College – put down his gray German-made Faber-Castell pencil to learn he had joined the ranks of journalism immortals by winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning.
Zyglis, 32, was cited by the Pulitzer committee for using “strong images to connect with readers while conveying layers of meaning in a few words.”
The Buffalo News staff was also a finalist for the category of Breaking News Reporting for its weeklong coverage of the November 2014 snowstorms. The Pulitzer Prize Board gave the honor “for a superbly reported and written account of a lake-effect snowstorm, using human detail to illuminate the story and multimedia elements to help readers through the storm.”
The Seattle Times won the Pulitzer in that category, with The News and Los Angeles Times named as finalists.
“Congratulations to Adam Zyglis for his Pulitzer Prize for cartooning, and congratulations to the entire staff for being a finalist in the breaking news coverage of November’s lake-effect storm. What a great day for Adam and The News,” said Michael K. Connelly, News editor and vice president, in a congratulatory email to the newsroom. Connelly was out of town Monday.
“Adam’s work is exceptional; he is sharp, insightful and entertaining,” Connelly said. “Adam comes from a proud tradition at The News ... I couldn’t be more proud of his work,” Connelly said.
“I’m ecstatic,” added Warren T. Colville, The News’ publisher and president. “We are so proud of Adam’s accomplishment. Winning a Pulitzer Prize is the highest recognition for a journalist. Adam’s cartoons make us think about topical news items differently than just the words.”
Toles, Zyglis’ immediate predecessor and now an editorial cartoonist at the Washington Post, won a Pulitzer in 1990 for The News.
Bruce M. Shanks also won the award for the Buffalo Evening News in 1958 for “The Thinker,” an editorial cartoon published on Aug. 10, 1957.
In addition, News reporter Edgar May won a Pulitzer in 1961 for a series of articles on New York State’s public welfare services entitled, “Our Costly Dilemma.”
When Sullivan called Zyglis into her office that day in August 2004, the cartoonist said he was “scared to death” at the big footsteps he would be following.
“As a kid, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ But everyone in the room embraced me with open arms, and I felt like part of the Buffalo News community as soon as I got in here,” Zyglis said.
“To me, it was just an honor to get that position, and to get a job like this in my hometown was beyond a blessing.”
He had begun three months earlier as an intern in the art department, after graduating from Canisius with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, a minor in math and a concentration in fine arts.
Toles had left three years earlier, and the position nearly went unfilled, as The News considered following other newspapers across the country that were beginning to rely on syndicated services instead of an in-house editorial cartoonist as a way to reduce costs.
Sullivan, now the public editor for the New York Times, was out of the country Monday, but posted a Facebook message celebrating Zyglis’ achievement.
“Very proud of Adam Zyglis who won a Pulitzer today as cartoonist for the Buffalo News! (And pretty proud to have had the sense to hire him, when he was a super-talented kid straight out of Canisius College after Tom Toles went to the Washington Post.) Yay, Adam!! So well-deserved!”
Zyglis praised Sullivan and Connelly for maintaining a “tradition of creative freedom and independence” essential, he said, to do his job without interference. He said both provided encouragement and had given him their full confidence.
Hours after the award was announced, Zyglis said he had yet to come to grips with the magnitude of winning a Pulitzer.
“My head is spinning, I can’t believe it,” Zyglis said, beaming ear to ear.
He spoke warmly of the people he worked with at The News for the support and friendship they provided.
“It’s just the best group of people. I walk around and show people the cartoons for feedback, and when I have design issues, I go to the art department, because I’m constantly trying to get better,” Zyglis said.
“Without an awesome team and an awesome newsroom, and a city that cares, I couldn’t flourish.”
Zyglis’ cartoon topics range from local and state to national and international news, as well as sports and entertainment. Each week, he typically draws five editorial cartoons, along with an occasional caricature on the Sunday book page and the occasional cover illustration.
“I don’t like to fit into a set of standard ideological beliefs. I’m definitely more of a progressive mind set, but I pull no punches for anyone. I take it one issue at a time, and approach my work by getting at the truth and what I believe is right and wrong, and I stick to my convictions.”
Zyglis said he adheres to the time-honored journalism adage, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”
“That’s kind of my mantra,” he said.
The Pulitzer marked the third national award Zyglis has earned this month.
He won the 2015 Grambs Aronson Award for Cartooning with a Conscience. He also won second place in the National Headliner Awards for editorial cartooning, sponsored by the Atlantic City Press Club, besting his third place finishes in 2007 and 2011.
Last Year, Zyglis won the Clifford K. and James T. Berryman Award for Editorial Cartooning, given by the National Press Foundation. He was also a finalist for the Reuben Award for editorial cartoons given by the National Cartoonist Society.
He is also president-elect of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.
“I am incredibly impressed with his work. I think he’s one of the top cartoonists in the country,” Steve Sack, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, told The News in March 2014 after Zyglis won the Berryman Award.
Editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett, who won a Pulitzer in 2002 with the Christian Science Monitor, said he was “absolutely thrilled” to learn Zyglis had won the award.
“I was ecstatic that it was Adam,” Bennett said, “because he richly deserves it.”