What if there were a parallel universe where media moguls were epitomized not by profit-driven sharks like Rupert Murdoch but by passionately idealistic guys motivated by the love of journalism that serves its community and celebrates the written word?
Step through the portal to San Francisco Panorama.
Published Tuesday, Panorama is a 320-page newspaper filled with all-original content — and a resounding rebuke to the noisy meme that print journalism is dying.
Or maybe it's just a spit in the wind.
But the guy doing the spitting is notable: renowned author, screenwriter, publisher and crusader Dave Eggers.
The indefatigable Eggers writes bestselling fiction (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; You Shall Know Our Velocity), nonfiction (Zeitoun; What Is the What), screenplays (Away We Go; Where the Wild Things Are), children's books and essays.
He founded McSweeney's (www.mcsweeneys.net), which publishes magazines in print, digital and DVD formats as well as books. He also founded 826 National, a network of writing and tutoring centers for children and teenagers.
Panorama is a one-time project, says Oscar Villalon, McSweeney's publisher and formerly book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. "We're not competing with anyone. This is a prototype, to show what newspapers can do."
Panorama was published as a special issue of McSweeney's eponymous quarterly literary magazine. The newspaper's 20,000-copy press run sold out in one day in the San Francisco area — at $5 a copy.
That $5 bought plenty of excellent reading and attractive design. Panorama includes 112 oversized broadsheet pages (32 pages of news, 24 each of sports and arts, and 16 each of food and comics), all full color, plus a 112-page glossy magazine, a 96-page book section and three pullout posters.
It's a newspaper lover's dream; in an age of shrinking and disappearing dailies, it seems almost like a hallucination. What on earth possessed Eggers and company to create it?
Here's what the Web site says: "We at McSweeney's love newspapers. We love the Internet, too. But we believe that print newspapers are an invaluable part of the journalistic landscape. So we've spent five months collaborating with dozens of reporters, designers, photographers, and authors on a 21st-century newspaper prototype."
That five-month time line tells you that Panorama isn't meant to be a model for a daily or weekly paper. So does the roster of contributing writers and artists: Stephen King, Michael Chabon, Roddy Doyle, George Saunders, Nicholson Baker, Chip Kidd, Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, Jessica Abel and more than 100 others, including many professional journalists and journalism students.
Panorama is stuffed with interesting reads, but one of the most fascinating is a four-page "Information Pamphlet," explaining why and how this newspaper was produced. The dollars are broken down — ad revenue, editorial costs, printing costs per section and unit. So are the staff numbers: seven full time, three part time and a raft of contributors, plus a couple of rafts of interns from eight universities. The full-time staffers wore a bunch of hats; Eggers himself not only served as editor but wrote several stories and designed the magazine and books, news and op-ed sections.
Even more interesting is the why: "We've got a lot of friends who used to work at newspapers and were laid off. And we've got a lot of friends working at newspapers now who keep watching their space shrink as budgets get tighter and space more precious. The Panorama is just a reminder that readers will be more likely to pay for a physical paper if they're given something very different than what they can get on the Internet. 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."
Wow. What a concept.
Panorama is a vivid demonstration of many of the things print can do better than digital. Its oversized pages — 15 by 22 inches — display excellent photography and graphics and clean, thoughtful design that never sacrifices readability. The 16-page comics section, which ranges from full-page strips by hip graphic novelists to games for kids, is a blast.
Those pages also accommodate the kind of in-depth long-form reporting that TV and Internet sources rarely provide, like an eight-page news section on the ongoing construction (and budget expansion) of the Bay Bridge east span over San Francisco Bay, a story for which Panorama partnered with SF Public Press, one of the proliferating nonprofit news organizations.
And Panorama is rich in wonderful writing, from novelist China Miéville's fascinating take on why we need a break from apocalyptic movies (and why The Road is a movie about consumerism) to Stephen King's seven pages of love/hate coverage of the 2009 World Series — the kind of writing no one can knock out on Internet right-this-second deadlines.
Panorama won't transport us all to that parallel universe where newspaper journalism is above concern for profits, but it gives people in the business, and people who love newspapers, something to think about. As newspaper companies scramble to find a way to make money online, Eggers' project offers a fresh perspective: Remember the reasons people have been reading newspapers for all these years.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.