Monday, February 15, 2010

McSweeney's Panorama: The future of newspapers, a relic, or just a really cool novelty?

Two months ago, McSweeney's published the San Francisco Panorama, a 300-plus-page newspaper that was designed to "demonstrate the unique possibilities of the American newspaper." It had more than 200 contributors, contained 10 sections, a separate 112-page magazine, a book review section, comics and was printed on a broadsheet. In short, it was meant to be a celebration of the newspaper, something to excite people while others eagerly race to write the latest obituary on the industry.

I finally got one this weekend, buying it at a Barnes & Noble for $16. The papers were located behind the checkout counter, encased in a large plastic bag. In the past this might have meant the contents inside featured pictures of topless women or pantsless men. The store placed it behind the counter because they were apparently afraid people might want to steal the newspaper's content. That'd be a crime, of course, even though Google News refers to that as a solid business plan.

Its sheer size stands out, and not just the 300 pages. It was printed on 15X22 broadsheet, the type of size rarely seen these days. Holding it takes a reader back in time, to the days before tighter budgets led to shrinking newsprint. It's definitely a throwback, like one of those giant cellular phones that pop up in movies from the early 1990s, which were often as large as a character's head. But that size is part of the appeal of the Panorama. McSweeney's argues newspapers should embrace its paper format, since it offers possibilities that simply aren't available online or even in tabloid format. In the same way that people still love going to the movies because there's nothing quite like seeing a film on the big-screen, reading a paper that actually looks and feels and smells like a newspaper can offer an experience unavailable in any other form of media.

Newspapers seem embarrassed by their size these days, like a 6-foot seventh-grader who hunches over because he feels out of place and awkward around his classmates. Papers still make money off the paper product but not nearly as much as they used to, and companies often seem to be simply biding their time until everything's online or simply gone for good. The Panorama offers outstanding design. Superb full-page graphics perfectly utilize the format. Of course, countless newspapers still do this seven days a week, but designers seem to be an even more endangered species than writers and copy editors. When the cuts come they're often the first to be sacrificed. The Panorama shows that it'd be a mistake to forget about the look of a newspaper. If they ever do go all online, newspapers will simply be another site that offers nothing but words. It wouldn't just be an aesthetic loss. Readers would also be losing out on the type of information that can't just be summarized in a 50-word paragraph.

But the Panorama does deliver with its words as well, in countless stories, both long and short. My favorite story was by noted author Nicholson Baker, which carried the headline "Can a paper mill save a forest?" The theme of the story - which explores the plight of paper mills in Jay, Maine - is that the digital age might be more damaging to the environment than the newspaper industry. People love to say that if papers die, "At least a lot fewer trees will be killed." They often say this with a certain amount of glee and unjustified pride, as if they're the first person to ever think of this astoundingly uncreative quip. Baker's story shows that, well, that might be alarmingly untrue.

He quotes a man named Don Carli, who works at the Institue for Sustainable Communication.

Carli told Baker, "If the marketplace for timber, harvested sustainably from Maine's forests, collapses because of the propagation of a myth - which some might say is a fraud - that says that using the newspaper is killing trees, then what happens is the landholder can no longer generate the revenue to pay a master logger for sustainable timber harvesting, and can't pay taxes. Then a developer offers to buy the land at a steep premium over what it was worth as a forest, and the developer clear-cuts the land and turns it into a low-density development."

Basically, Carli's saying that - as most 5-year-olds know but some newspaper critics apparently don't - trees grow back. Trees that are used to make newspapers grow back. Trees eliminated to put in apartments or restaurants...those don't grow back. Carli then throws a shot at the data centers and server farms that are taking over the countryside while paper mills die out faster than the newspapers that ultimately emerge thanks to them. Baker writes, "There is now a roughly comparable carbon footprint between server farms and paper mills, but the rate of growth in server and data-center energy consumption is 'metastasizing,' [Carli] said." Carli finishes by saying, "You can't go to ConEd and get another ten megawatts of power. You can buy the computers, you can buy the servers. You just can't get juice for them, because the grid is tapped out. So when we start thinking about transforming more and more of our communication to digital media, we really do have to be asking, 'where will the electrons come from?"

Some of the other top stories:
* A story by J. Malcolm Garcia on the travesty of elections in Afghanistan.
* An incredibly in-depth report on the Bay Bridge, a project will cost tax-payers more than $12 billion.
* A disturbing analysis by Aidan Gardiner about an increase in familicides, when a family member - usually a male - kills a spouse and at least one of the children. There are numerous theories about why they occur more now - the economy is the main reason - but the sobering fact is they do happen more often. When the Panorama published in December, there had already been 20 familicides. In a normal year, there are four to six.
* A chef walks through the 58 steps needed to take a lamb from slaughter to the plate. Complete with pictures (not for the squeamish or vegetarian-inclined).
* In the book section, an amusing, extensive feature by Joshuah Bearman on the search for the next Mr. Romance, the title given to the long-haired warrior types who are Fabio's literary spawn and appear on the covers of romance books.

You'll have to take my word about these stories or go out and get a paper. None of the stories are on McSweeney's website, which was sort of the point of the whole enterprise. They wanted to show the possibilities of print. But that obviously limits the reach of the stories. Thousands - maybe millions - of people who might have read some of these stories never will, simply because they're in the paper version but nowhere else. The reality is that papers continue to struggle with finding the balance between the paper product and their Internet offerings. What should they offer in the hard copy and what should they put on the web? No one's come up with a definitive answer, meaning no one's come up with a definitive answer that brings in money and doesn't simply give away everything for free. The Panorama doesn't offer any insight into that question. And no matter how much I and others love print, it's naive to think there would ever again be a day where a newspaper could completely ignore the Internet, as the Panorama did.

Papers are still working hard to find the solution. The scary thing is that there might not be one.

There is one big benefit to not having the stories on the web: no reader comments. Stories are much more pleasant to read when they don't include racist, poorly spelled rants that blame immigrants and Obama for everything from snowstorms to the lackluster slam dunk contest at the NBA All-Star game.

Many of the pieces are quite ambitious. They are long, spreading out over six, seven, eight pages. They require an investment. Readers have to devote time to the stories. But again, that's something newspapers can provide that other forms of media still can't come close to matching. Everyone can offer 100-word recaps or 500-word analysis. But newspapers can provide the 2,500-word stories that are worth reading, not because they're long, but because they provide information unavailable anywhere else.

There really isn't any breaking news in the Panorama, the area where people still count on newspapers, although the original breaking news then explodes on the web in a million different directions. If print does make a comeback, newspapers will still be charged with providing breaking news, whether it's in crime, politics, or sports. Original reporting providing in-depth looks at news and features will separate newspapers from those who simply pontificate and opine online. Still, papers can't forfeit their position as the provider of breaking news, even if those stories are seemingly on the web eleven seconds after an event happens.

Numerous big-name writers contributed to the issue. They add a buzz to the product, even if I would have preferred to seen those slots taken by some of the thousands of newspaper reporters laid off the past few years. Stephen King wrote a story on the Yankees victory in the World Series. It's entertaining, but King's hardly hurting for work or outlets for his writing, and as someone who's read quite a bit of his baseball writing, I remain a much bigger fan of his horror work.

The paper took nearly a year to put together, from conception to execution. Others have pointed out that a schedule like that hardly qualifies as anything that resembles a newspaper's publishing schedule. And they're right. There's a reason newspaper people still like to call their product the Daily Miracle. A paper like the New York Times publishes a Sunday paper that contains dozens of must-read stories, outstanding graphics, great analysis and unmatched investigations. People take it for granted. Maybe the Panorama will help readers regain an appreciation for what their local paper produces 365 times a year.

Then again, probably not.

In some of my Walter Mitty moments, when I'm not imagining being a shooting guard for the Lakers or a reclusive author who ignores a legion of fawning fans while I collect royalties, I sometimes picture being a media mogul. A mogul. Someone with Bruce Wayne-type money. I acquired the riches in a noble fashion, perhaps by curing a deadly disease, and not through an inheritance or a shady land deal. I buy a struggling paper. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, for example. My first order of business is to pen a Jerry Maguire-like memo that invigorates the troops. Layoffs have ended, I announce. The paper's hiring 500 new staffers, putting bureaus in Washington and LA and Duluth and Rochester. We'll have a dozen reporters covering the state government. Photographers and copy editors and designers are cherished. Sportswriters will again travel to every major event, on this continent and overseas. We'll start a Sunday magazine. And a book review. Travel budget is now unlimited. We'll send reporters to Iraq and Afghanistan and South America. Free health insurance for all employees, and their families. Free cookies on Fridays. Staff members weep when they read the memo, then forward it to everyone they know.

The paper becomes the envy of the business, and of all media, whether online or in print. 60 Minutes profiles us; maybe Lesley Stahl interviews me. Reporters and editors from throughout the country flock to Minneapolis to work for the paper, attracted by the newspaper's dedication to reporting and my benevolent leadership (I let my underlings do their jobs and I rarely visit the office; perhaps on the major holidays, when I bring in champagne and five-figure bonus checks).

My dream paper would actually look a lot like the Panorama, and would have many of the same ambitions for its stories, although there would probably be fewer celebrities writing them. The Panorama's a superb one-issue collector's piece. No, it doesn't offer a new business plan to save the industry. It looks, feels and smells like a newspaper, even if it isn't necessarily published like one. But it entertains. And informs. Read it and you'll learn a few things you didn't know yesterday. Because of those things, the Panorama's a success.

Whether the dozens of newspapers that produce similar results 365 days a year have a viable future remains unknown. In the end, the Panorama's a love letter to the industry. Hopefully, it's not a goodbye letter to a dying one.

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