I have a dream. It involves dozens of 826 Valencia-related high school students wearing half-aprons printed with the McSweeney's logo, hawking the San Francisco publisher's latest issue on the streets of San Francisco. Yes, McSweeney's Quarterly's newest issue, a larger-than-life newspaper named San Francisco Panorama, is set to release citywide today (December 8, 2009), and though it's probably just wishful thinking, I want you to peek outside your window and see if anything looks different. At the time of this writing, their website promises it will be available all over the city ($5 a copy the day of release, $16 thereafter), but doesn't give any details beyond the fact that you can find it at the regular places that stock McSweeney's. I've got my fingers crossed for a grander entrance, something that encompasses the grandiosity of the gesture.
The newspaper is a collaboration with writers from the San Francisco Chronicle and students from San Francisco State and the Academy of Art College. As you might guess, it will be BIG and BEAUTIFUL and probably even COLLECTIBLE. It also involves SERIOUS investigative journalism and feature-writing by the likes of Bob Porterfield, William Vollman, Stephen King and Nicholson Baker. There will be a magazine. And sports posters. Coverage on food, books, art, the environment, the Bay Bridge, Afghanistan, San Francisco real estate, and marijuana farms in Mendocino. Did I mention that the Mercury News is also involved? And the LA Times? And at least one poet laureate (Robert Haas)? And that it will be pretty? And that there will be comics?
The honest truth is that I'm dying to get a hold of it. I can't wait to walk outside my apartment, pay my five dollars and take it to coffee, although I'm worried I might feel too protective to take the risk. Part of the fun with newpapers is that I can abuse them (and make paper-mâche). Maybe I'll buy two. Or three. Three on December 8th will still be cheaper than one on the 9th, and that way if there are any pages that I want to display both sides of, I'll have the option.
There are a couple of comments by the McSweeney's press machine floating around. The first is that newspapers are an "invaluable part of print journalism" and that the San Francisco Panorama is meant to "demonstrate all great things that print journalism can (still) do." The second is that the Panorama is a guaranteed one-off; i.e., that despite the above comment, McSweeney's does not intend to break into the newspaper business. It's probably a good thing. While I'm by no means a finance or business expert, the likelihood that a paper like Panorama could be sustainable as a daily (or even a weekly) is small. 300+ pages. 5 or 6 months in the making. 150 journalists, writers, designers and artists. The probability of high-quality offset. All of these things are in keeping with the fact that McSweeney's has a reputation for the preciousness of their objects and attracts a demographic because of this. It's doubtful that the same would hold true for the SF Chronicle. After all, it's not like the idea of prettying oneself up and highlighting one's delicious tactility has yet to occur to Panorama's embattled kin.
Or has it? Panorama is bigger: 22 x 15in, as opposed to 22 x 11 1/2in, which is the New York Times standard. My guess is that Panorama will be just different enough in size to register the experience as memorable, without being overwhelming (let its volume take care of that). The folks on the editorial and design teams also seem to be clued in to the fact that information visualization is not just a tool, but an art form. Charts and graphs have a potential so far beyond their ability to support articles; they are a new language for a world starting a new phase of literacy. They also make damn good posters, a tactic I've yet to see other newspapers try. Combine this with the one stop shopping effect of local coverage and talented writers engaging in more universal topics (er -- baseball, anyone?), and maybe there's a recipe in here after all, though probably not to such a hyperbolic extent.
As I understand it, to succeed in today's climate, news organizations need to have tight control over unique content, such as with the Wall Street Journal or any one of the variety of extremely local blogs or weeklies that serve specific (and usually small) communities. The New York Times has recently begun to add local sections to both its website and its Friday and Sunday print editions (and yes, the Bay Area section is up and running), which brings to mind the fact that it also doesn't hurt to bring a well-respected brand with you. And yet, none of this guarantees print editions will sell.
Ironically, there's been a small explosion in specialty magazines even as other print media have been in decline, so is it wrong for Eggers and the staff of McSweeney's Quarterly, which belongs to this explosion, to suggest that newspapers take a look at the same approach? The answer, of course, is that these magazines are barely-affordable luxuries, and that we want our news for as close to free as we can get. At the same time, to scoff at Eggers for suggesting that some attention be paid to the way that content interweaves with its physical components is, in my opinion, to a) ignore the truth in that line of thinking and to b) take McSweeney's newest gesture too seriously -- after all, where was the fuss over issue Number 17? I, for one, would love for all my junk mail to continue to be as interesting.
Panorama seems to be less about addressing print journalism's problems than it is a creative rediscovery of the newspaper. Don't forget to tell us what you think...