Sunday, May 2, 2010


The San Francisco Panorama is old news. The one-shot newspaper was published in paper format only by McSweeney's last December -- and that makes my writing about it now just a touch untimely! The Panorama is not just a newspaper, but also a paean to newspapers and an experiment in what newspapers can be. Press materials for the paper say, "We think that the best chance for newspapers' survival is to do what the internet can't: namely, use and explore the large-paper format as thoroughly as possible. To that end, we opted for a huge and luxurious broadsheet -- 15" x 22". Then we unleashed artists and designers to show exactly how much the format can do." 

The results are gorgeous, informative, and entertaining. There's a chart called "SF Sound" on various local music over the last 50 years, a story on the most excellent radio station KPOO (available streaming online), and a photo series on the killing and cooking of lamb. A full-page feature on "The Crisis in Congo" includes charts, maps, and a timeline about the various conflicts there. These big-picture features are great at placing any smaller story in context. As Ira Glass said in introducing the "This American Life" episode on the banking crisis (PDF), there are some "news stories that you're just going to kind of sit out." ("I sat out Kosovo," he says. "I'm not proud about that fact, but I did.") If you're like me, you need materials like this that set the stage so you can understand a bit more about the characters or events as they are introduced, in isolation, in any given news story.

In keeping with what I suspect was the editors' intent to provoke, I found myself arguing with the paper: "Sure, you can produce this fabulous print publication, but you had months to do a one-off -- can other newspapers really afford the luxury of time, and the resources you put into it to produce a daily paper of this quality?" Or, "Is there truly anything here that could not be conveyed effectively and handsomely online?" Then I tried answering my own questions. I'm still not convinced that paper can necessarily convey information that the internet cannot. However, San Francisco Panorama was pleasurable for me in a way that the internet (or, I suspect, an iPad) still isn't. I wanted to read it, pore over it. And that alone makes it a valuable contribution. Maybe the pleasure of reading such a publication will make people more likely to buy it and read it, as the editors indicate in the information pamphlet that accompanies the paper. "And until someone gets people to really pay for content online, the paper newspaper is still the most viable business model for getting journalists paid to do the reporting essential to a democracy."    

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