McSweeney's "San Francisco Panorama": Beautiful and Strange

Brow Beat
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Dec. 11 2009 4:50 PM

McSweeney's "San Francisco Panorama": Beautiful and Strange

McSweeney's, the Bay Area-based journal and publishing house led by Dave Eggers, has made its reputation turning quirky literary undertakings into beautiful, audacious print objects: a seven-volume "treatise on violence," for example, or a magazine that came in pieces in a box . So I was excited to hear McSweeney's latest project was the San Francisco Panorama , a "21 st -century newspaper prototype" centered on San Francisco, the city I grew up in and adore. This is an overdue endeavor. The Golden Gate may be the most chronically underserved daily-journalism market in the country, and it lacks a meaty, aggressive, national-class newspaper with local roots. The Panorama— a 328-page, full-color behemoth styled after the great Sunday editions of yore—is trying to be a beacon on that path.

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It's also trying to prove a point. The point, as an insert in the paper makes clear, is that a great print newspaper need not be a corporate money drain: It can, instead, be pulled together by an independent staff and maybe even turn a little profit. (The prototype's print run was 20,000, with each copy retailing for $16—except for those sold in San Francisco on publication day, which cost just $5. The printing and editorial expenses were $7.98 per copy; ad revenue was $61,000.) Gripers and wet towels across the land might point out that $16 is kind of a lot to spend on a newspaper—or that six months is, practically speaking, an unacceptably long time for one issue to spend in production. These people would be right.

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And yet a copy of the Panorama has just landed on my desk, and it is the most gorgeous newsprint object I have ever seen. It's utterly seductive. Each section is designed around artful, oversize photos and elegant graphics; stories run between them in stylish, well-spaced Sabon font. The project was designed, we're told, to show what newspapers can do that the Web cannot; and insofar as one of those things is arranging story elements on a fixed-size page that can lie flat on a breakfast table, the Panorama makes a beautifully persuasive argument.

The writing—most of which is essayistic in approach and some of which is first-rate—is freed from a newspaper's normal constraints of style and form. Most pieces seem to run across at least two pages and (delightfully for me) are centered on the quirks and culture of the Bay Area. Oddities abound. A "special section" of the paper consists entirely of Stephen King's thoughts about the World Series. The " Panorama magazine"  contains a rococo study of power pop by Michael Chabon and a lengthy first-person account of NASCAR by Andrew Sean Greer. The "book review"—which is actually another magazine printed on slightly less nice paper—contains a short story by George Saunders and quatrains by the likes of John Ashbery and Paul Muldoon. There is "a complimentary poster" bearing a cartoon version of a 49ers play. Also, a cardstock diagram you can cut out and fold into the shape of a rocket. This was clearly a labor of love and self-indulgence, and like many of McSweeney's projects, it offers surprises at every turn.

Of course, it's an odd kind of paper that contains a six-page report by William T. Vollman, complete with 137 footnotes. The Panorama presents itself as an argument for "newspapers' survival," but that premise is a Trojan horse. Newspaper stories are written to be read once or twice, top to bottom, and then tossed out, shat on, used to start a fire. It's almost inconceivable to return to a newspaper piece—even a brilliant one—weeks after it appeared to resavor its insights or its prose. The stylish and evergreen reporting that makes up the Panorama , by contrast, is designed to be enjoyed at length and leisure, maybe even folded into an anthology one day. It is a magazine form grafted onto broadsheet. McSweeney's real ambitions seem to run less toward newspapers and more toward the golden age of glossy.

Like many golden ages, this one never quite existed in real life. Elegantly typeset long-form journalism a la Panorama did thrive in the middle of the century, as income and ad revenue climbed after the war. But by the late '60s, magazines were in a phase of crisis. Newsstand behemoths like Collier's , Life , and the Saturday Evening Post had started creaking and coming apart. The New Journalism renaissance we now associate with this period did not herald a golden stretch; it was much more the consequence of specialty mags like Esquire and Rolling Stone— targeted publications better suited to a tricky ad-sales climate—rising from the ashes of the industry.  

The quirky efflorescence of that era seems to inspire the Panorama , which contains subsections like "Arts One": a thin and retro-styled insert profiling things like local radio and San Francisco murals. But there's something naggingly backward about the path of its idealism. If the innovations of the '60s and '70s showed anything, it was that journalism thrives by reimagining itself to fit new media and new constraints. A lot of writers these days think of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) as an artifact of long-form California journalism from a greener era. Fewer realize that most of those pieces were composed for crumbling magazines that bit the dust within months of its publication.

"The old capital has always/ Just been sacked," as poet (and Panorama quatrain contributor) Robert Hass once wrote. The true newspaper of the 21 st century will innovate on the canvas as it's given—whatever that may be—rather than trying to pump some life into a form that's run its course. Inventive, beautiful experiments are being done with online journalism at the moment, but you'd never know it from McSweeney's curiously bare-bones Web site . Eggers, in fact, purports to have no Internet connection at his house. Well, here's a challenge: Get wired up. Let McSweeney's turn its creativity on the large, uncharted landscape that lies ahead of newspapers, not the one they've left behind. That's where imagination and passion is most needed these days—and, more to the point: Why not.

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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