McSweeney's Proves Print Isn't Dead

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On the morning of Dec. 8, several dozen volunteer newsies spread out across San Francisco to hawk copies of the city's brand new newspaper, the San Francisco Panorama. The 320-page doorstop, printed in full color on old-fashioned broadsheet paper, sold for $5 on the street and $16 in bookstores. With articles by Stephen King, Michael Chabon and Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist Robert Porterfield, the Panorama was an homage to the increasingly threatened — some would say obsolete — institution of print journalism. The paper's entire print run sold out in less than 90 minutes.

In fact, demand for the Panorama was so high that McSweeney's — the San Francisco–based publishing house behind the project — trucked in an extra 3,000 copies that it had intended to distribute nationally and ordered a second printing. One newsie near the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, sold out of the paper before he'd even gotten out of his car. A local bookstore had a waitlist that totaled more than 100 names. Dave Eggers, McSweeney's founder and Panorama's mastermind, was shocked. "I thought there'd be some excitement, but this went beyond anything I expected," he said. With traditional media outlets facing staff cuts, budget restraints and buyouts — 139 newspapers folded in 2009 alone — the demand for Eggers' publication was unprecedented. But then again, the Panorama isn't really a newspaper — just a literary experiment masquerading as one.

The San Francisco Panorama is actually the 33rd issue of McSweeney's Quarterly, a literary journal known for its novel packaging. Previous issues have been sold as cigar boxes and bundles of mail. But the Panorama issue is different. The one-time experiment was conceived by Eggers to prove that print media weren't dead.

"We wanted to remind people of what newspapers can do that the Internet can't," Eggers explains: the format excels at long articles, photographs and comics and can be read anywhere — "even in the bathtub."

To that extent, the Panorama achieves its goal. The publication is a graphic designer's dream, with full-page charts on everything from "The Crisis in the Congo" to how to butcher a lamb. It is easy to read and aesthetically pleasing, and there's just no way people would get through Porterfield's 22,000-word investigation into the jumbled finances of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge if they read it on the Internet. Every piece of reporting is factual and accurate, and McSweeney's tendency toward honesty — the Congo is "confusing," the bridge's funds "impossible" to track — give it a we're-on-your-side tone rarely seen in print. Currently, none of its content can be found online. "The point is to have readers pay for what they read," says Eggers. "Imagine that!"

But there's plenty to criticize about the project too: the Panorama took nine months and more than 150 people to produce. Only seven of them were full-time staff members. Reporters didn't have word limits. The Bay Bridge investigation was funded by outside sources (San Francisco Public Press and None of the sports section's 16 pages contain game scores; eight of them are filled by a Stephen King essay on the World Series. Most of the paper went to press weeks before it came out, making it a poor source for breaking news. (The front section is the one exception; its news briefs cover events only a couple of days old.) And the 15-by-22-in. pages are very unwieldy; you could read the Panorama in the bathtub, but you'd end up getting it wet.

Eggers isn't stupid. He knows the Panorama has shortcomings and admits it wouldn't work as a daily concern. "I don't think any one paper would look like this on a given day," he says. "We're just saying that other publications could take some of these features and sprinkle them into the mix." To him, Panorama works best when thought of as a "concept car at an auto show" — something that's sleek and beautiful but wholly unnecessary for someone who just wants to drive to the grocery store.

And yet people want it. They get their breaking news from the Internet, their sports scores on TV; the thousands of people who ventured into bookstores and coffee shops in search of Panorama weren't looking for that. They wanted the full-color comics, the hilarious account of a California liberal's first NASCAR race and an article titled "Are Michelle Obama's Eyebrows Too Angry-Seeming?" They wanted something well written, insightful and fun. Something that could handle in-depth investigations, thousand-word essays and an article on how to make moonshine.

They wanted a magazine.