The San Francisco Panorama: A Newspaper Critique

December 26, 2009

McSweeney's Issue 33<br>The San Francisco Panorama.jpegI have been a Dave Eggers fan ever since reading, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” in 2000. I identified with the early-20’s angst in his autobiographical book, and I admired his decision to plow the earnings from his fantastically successful book into children’s writing workshops in San Francisco and Chicago.

He also put some of his earnings into creating a literary journal, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. With Egger’s characteristic creativity, the journal changes format, topic and genre every quarter. In one quarter subscribers might receive a box of pamphlets, a la Thomas Paine, and a hardbound book of graphic novel comics in the next quarter.

When news came that McSweeney’s Winter 2009 edition would be a one-time broadsheet Sunday-format newspaper, The San Francisco Panorama, I got excited. Eggers, who would be editor, had big ambitions. “We’re kind of hoping the Panorama becomes a touchstone for folks,” Eggers told Media Bistro, “Reminding them, ‘Those ideas you had? They are good ideas, and this is how they might look like.'”

As the publication date got closer, the buzz increased and Eggers set the bar for success higher. “We started this six months ago with an eye to reinventing the form,” Eggers told the San Francisco Gate.

As someone with more than a passing interest in news media, I quickly ordered up my own copy. It arrived at my house in a big cardboard envelope on December 19.

Printed and distributed on December 9 in San Francisco, the newspaper includes some limited recent local news and separate sections for sports, business, arts, food, opinion, a magazine and a book review. The paper, printed on a 15″ broadsheet you remember from the old days, is on bright white stock much heavier than most newsprint. It’s also a big, fat 300+ pages, almost entirely in full color.

I tweeted my excitement about the Panorama‘s arrival in my mailbox. A journalism pro almost immediately tweeted back: “Did it save journalism?” The question wasn’t idle. Eggers himself had set this high bar for success.

Now that I’ve read through most of the paper, and I’ve begun working through the magazine and book review (about 100 pages each) I can provide my nutshell review: The Panorama is not a newspaper. It is a non-profit literary journal in the format of a newspaper. It provides some good ideas but does not save journalism – or newspapers.

There are some wonderful things about the Panorama: The design, beginning with the bright white paper, 15″x 22″ format and color on just about every page is eye popping. Every section is filled with huge photographs (the front page is a giant photo of the new Bay Bridge construction) and full-page and double truck graphics on everything from solar phenomenon to San Francisco music history.

And if you choose to suspend reality – as with reading any good fiction – the Panorama is a wonderful read.

But the Panorama benefits by skipping or ignoring some realities newspapers struggle with regularly: Mainly limits on time and space and the need to fill the paper with revenue-earning advertising.

writers had the luxury of many months to write their stories – as well as almost no limit on space. The result is a series of tremendously long articles, many over 3,000 words and a couple over 10,000. Unfortunately the added story lengths tend to ramble, rather than additionally inform.

Although the Panorama did sell advertising – an accompanying pamphlet reports about $61,000 of ads were sold – the ads are sparse and placed more like an afterthought than as something positioned for revenue. The result creates huge seas of print on some pages. More than a couple of pages are entirely covered with a single long-form story that’s already jumped from the section’s front page.

Reading the Panorama, I was reminded more than once of my college newspaper days. As editor I was forced on occasion to fill whole pages with overly long stories because if I didn’t do so, a star writer would quit. Or fill a page with a winter still-life photo to keep my only sports photographer on staff. These were indulgent choices that only seemed to make my reporters and their friends happy. Inevitably, one of my roommates – my fiercest critics – would chastise me as they sashayed out of the can, The Clark Scarlet in hand: “Hey Fourcher! What’s up with the freaking story on the Transcendental Meditation guy? It’s longer than the interview of the Congressman!”

Eggers explained his thinking to the LA Times, “I think it’s life-affirming when you say, ‘Let’s just write it at the length it needs to be and not keep shrinking everything.'”

The Panorama‘s huge average story length is not the only anchor weighing it down: It is full of undirected liberal angst. Cases in point: The Magazine’s two short entry “Dispatches”, one from an Army psychiatrist in Afghanistan who laments that his job is to patch soldier’s minds up only to go back to the brutality of battle, and another from a Gulf of Mexico deckhand who moans about his vessel’s toxic waste dumping. The highly trained doctor behaves as if the conditions of war and the purpose of his job is surprising. The deckhand does nothing about his ship’s dumping and thanks the reader for listening.

This sort of writing seems criminal when one considers the Power Of The Press. Newspapers do not exist so we may simply unburden ourselves of our personal demons – that’s what diaries and blogs are for. Newspapers are capable of bringing sunlight to the dark places so change may come and evil can be arrested.

But even the Panorama‘s long-form news articles seem afflicted by this intense introspection. A long article about water rights in the Central Valley is burdened by long passages detailing the writer’s perspective of the Valley. An opinion article entitled, “Can A Paper Mill Save A Forest” has little to do with the headline and instead follows the writer as he tries to make friends with a series of forlorn former mill workers and glorifies their quaint, soon to be shuttered Maine mill town.

There was very little information and fact in the writing and much more “feeling”. Personally, I think this is garbage writing when it comes to newspapers. It became increasingly difficult for me to read the publication. I felt like I was being less and less informed and more and more preached to.

Clearly, Eggers took his hand off the tiller when it came to his writers, and let them do whatever they thought best. The result is mushy and makes me mad.

Mad, because Eggers had a real opportunity to show the world how it should be done. But instead of wrestling with the timeless conflict all newspapers deal with: editorial’s struggle with time, space and advertising, he dumped it all for a writer’s vanity project. Ultimately, the graphic contributions introduced by the Panorama are displaced by its written content.

Is this a fun read? Yes. I still love McSweeney’s. But I find very little of the Panorama replicable for the real world.