Thursday, December 10, 2009

A newspaper to inspire you all over again

I stood in line with half a dozen people yesterday waiting patiently to buy a newspaper, wondering if I ever would witness anything like that again.

It was inspiring to see people eagerly scoop up a paper so fat with news that you had to take care that some of its 12 sections didn’t come tumbling out.

And the paper indeed was fat with news, real news. Real stuff I didn’t know about. Real stuff about my city, my country and my world. Real stuff I hadn’t heard anywhere else.

The paper was the one-time-only issue of the San Francisco Panorama, a broadsheet produced – as sort of a cross between a statement and a stunt – by McSweeney’s, the refreshingly idiosyncratic publishing house operating in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Most of the 20,000 copies of the $5 paper sold out without hours of hitting the street on Tuesday, which some newspaper people seized as a sign that even the hip, jaded and highly wired residents of San Francisco still cared about newspapers.

But the depth and ambition of this newspaper, whose price bumped to $16 on Wednesday and still is being offered here, were unlike anything you’ll see nowadays in most American cities.

While the enthusiastic response to Panorama cannot rightfully be construed as a vote of confidence in contemporary newspapers, it is well worth examining by publishers and editors eager to put new life into their increasingly lifeless publications.

And it is well worth celebrating by all of us who love newspapers, because it reminds us of how compelling a newspaper can be.

Smartly reported, sharply written and striking to behold, Panorama brims with passion and compassion for the Bay Area and the larger world we – and our kids – all inhabit.

Though Panorama is presented as a very broad broadsheet printed on newsprint, it reworks and updates the conventional format of a newspaper. Articles are long and written a in a literary, un-telegraphic style. Layouts emphasize storytelling, not story count. Most important of all, the content is meaty and provocative.

A page-one investigative piece as fine as I have seen in years ripped the lid off the inept reconstruction the long-overdue new bridge to Oakland. The project, Panorama predicted, eventually will cost $12 billion – or twice as much as we had been led to believe – “a figure that leaves even the officials in charge ‘staggered.’”

A second in-depth report details how the unbridled cultivation of illegal pot in scenic Mendocino County is poisoning wildlife, wrecking the environment, poaching scarce water assets and exploiting illegal immigrant workers. A report about gold mining in remote Imperial County tells a disturbing tale of environmental exploitation and corporate greed. Another piece delves deeply into the economics and politics of water in California, the scarcest commodity and the most politically charged issue in the state.

Farther from home, Panorama covered the wars in Afghanistan with short but incisive backgrounders, rounded out with first-person stories of two of the enlisted men bearing the brunt of the fighting – one of whom has served five tours at the front. A full-page infographic about the Congo crisis truly demonstrates how a picture can be worth thousands of words.

Perhaps the most moving feature in the publication was an article entitled “Lying to Live.” It is a series of translations of confessions extracted under torture from Iranian dissidents held at the infamous Evin Prison, where the only hope a prisoner has to survive is to tell the guards what they want to hear. “Jail officials’ kindness created a positive atmosphere in this jail, where I could think and get close to God,” said a statement attributed to journalist Saeed Shariati. His fate was not made clear.

Panorama didn’t stint on sports and entertainment, and even included two of the rarest things in most newspapers today: A 116-page, saddle-stitched Sunday magazine packaged in slick cover stock, plus a full-dress, 100-page, bound book section. Also included is a 16-page, full-color comics section containing nothing but deliciously edgy, home-grown strips.

Panorama even excelled in what it left out, eschewing the daily Tiger Woods hot-body count and coverage of the crashingly boring White House party crashers.

It’s not fair to measure conventional newspapers against the one-off issue of Panorama, which took 11 months to produce without the economic, staffing and deadline constraints increasingly encumbering most other publications.

But this experiment serves as a refreshing and inspiring reminder of the strength of journalism and the possibilities of print. Best of all, I am happy to report, the folks in line with me could hardly wait to read it.


Blogger Clever Idea Widgetry said...

How many buyers were just collecting their share of newsprint's final great gasp?

7:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now put out that same kind of product 365 days a year, every year.

8:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that Panorama demonstrates the power and market for quality journalism. But it is misleading to call it a newspaper or think that it provides any lessons for the newspaper industry. It's a magazine printed on a broadsheet. A newspaper's primary purpose is to report the news, by tradition on a daily basis. This was a one-time effort, featuring long-form articles on which writers spent days if not weeks of effort, that could not be duplicated on a daily basis.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Nicolas Kayser-Bril said...

i'm not surprised. A French publishing house has been doing the same thing for a few years now: Quarterly news, large format, expensive journalism. 15€/20$ per issue. Sold out most of the time. Profitable since the first issue. €2.1m yearly sales.

The future of journalism? Probably, at least in part.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Cribbs said...

I think it's a bit of an overcorrection to call the White House crashers "boring." Same with Tiger Woods. Right? I'm assuming you're tired of the excessive coverage of both subjects, but neither could be considered boring.

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Ed Murrieta said...

What the business arrangement with the Chronicle? How much did it cost to print? How much did it cost to distribute? Did the Chronicle pay for the printing? The distribution? How much is the Chronicle paying Panorama to republish its content? Were any of the contributors compensated? If so, how much? Was the project profitable? If not, how unprofitable was it?

11:11 AM  
Blogger Chronboy said...

It's a nice job, but Stephan King on last October's World Series? Panorama isn't a newspaper, it's a reinvented magazine without the glossy paper. It's great having that type of investigative journalism, but it's a heck of a lot easier producing (and selling it) it annually than 365 days a year.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's the point: When we talk about the online product and the offline product, we are talking about two very different markets. Some people will "take" both. Some won't. Some will be willing to pay a premium price in return for quality content. Too much of the industry wants to squish online and offline together, denying a satisfying product to both audiences and making no one happy. While big media has focused on the potential of online, it takes these outsiders to show us all that offline still has tremendous potential. It just has to be rebuilt again from the bottom up. The readers and advertisers are sure to follow.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People are paying for a one-of-a-kind experience. It's new, it's special. It won't be around long. It's collectible. People love collectibles. Newspapers should do something to make every issue more collectible.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great idea, great execution, great journalism. Now, can it be repeated? They can count on one customer returning to see if they can pull it off again.

5:02 PM  
Anonymous Jim Donnelly said...

Without having seen the paper, I love the idea: Be daring. Knock some sacred cows over. Dare to be something better than a throwaway rag. I wish these people all the best. One of the biggest problems in the industry has been too many people in positions of authority who were trying to say yes to everything and avoid making waves at any cost. That killed the biz as much as advertising losses did. All together now: Product, product, product.

6:22 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A friend was kind enough to buy me a copy. Spent an hour last night reading, non-stop. What a great vehicle for news and in-depth long-style reporting. I know it's a prototype but wanted to let the publishing house know that I would subscribe in a minute or buy on a newsstand if it were available. Who cares if some call it a magazine. . it's the content and format that count.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love how people are so quick to shoot this whole project down by arguing they could not do it 365 days of the year.

Who said you ever needed to?
The idea is to RE-INVENT, not RE-PLACE.

There are already many types of newspapers out there, they are not all DAILY.

Glad to see someone is actually trying out new ideas for format, composition and layout.

That said, I would be a lot of the love and attention was the novelty factor. Would it still carry on the 10th or 50th printing, however frequent it was distributed??


10:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does the debate have to only be about printing daily or less?

How about a Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday four-page broadsheet filled with news briefs (plus comics and puzzles and sports box scores), sold newsstand-only for 50 cents?

Follow that with a Tuesday edition (packed with biz/economy news/views) and Thursday (entertainment) edition that's more magazine-like, but with sections.

Subscribers would get deliveries Tues. and Thurs. (with the day-old news), plus Sunday, which could-perhaps-be something like the Panorama experience?

3:22 PM  

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