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Omni Daily Crush: "The San Francisco Panorama"

Panorama1 I haven't subscribed to a daily newspaper for over seventeen years. I should be the target demographic: word and news crazy, I grew up in the thrall of one of the country's great papers, the Washington Post. Now, like a lot of people, I get almost all my news online, but that doesn't explain all seventeen years of my truancy. Maybe I was spoiled by the Post: no other local daily, outside of New York, has seemed as good (or maybe just as mine) since. Maybe I was just a cheap grad student who was living in obscure 19th-century novels for a few years before the internet hit. But whatever the cause, what seemed not long ago like a basic minimum for participating in society (I remember thinking, when I subbed for my friends' paper routes, that any house in our Maryland suburb that didn't get the Post must have been the home of freakish outcasts) is something that I've hardly considered for years. That's not to say that I don't mourn what appears to be the rapid passing of the daily from our doorsteps. But clearly, I voted with my feet long ago for some substitute combo plate of internet papers, magazines, blogs, alt weeklies, and radio to feed my own news, culture, and sports habits.

But this past Sunday morning, I did put up my feet and enjoy a newspaper in the flesh for the first time (outside of a vacation) in a long time. My paper wasn't the fat sabbath version of a daily, though, but issue 33 of McSweeney's, the literary journal that has, in previous issues, incarnated itself as a bundle of mail, a box of pamphlets, a comics anthology, and, once in a while, as a regular old literary journal. McSwys 33 calls itself the San Francisco Panorama. It comes in a plastic bag, and it looks--and acts--just like a Sunday paper, with news, comics, arts, food, opinion, and sports sections, and a magazine, a book review, and a double-sided poster insert of local sports heroes. It appeared on the streets of San Francisco on December 8, and has slowly started to become available elsewhere in the country (I'm told we'll start shipping copies from Amazon in a week or two after the new year).

The Panorama comes wrapped not only in a plastic bag, but in a whole lotta rhetoric and media coverage (to which this post no doubt adds) about the viability of the print newspaper and what this one-time event has to say about it. The McSwys people have even gone to the length of including a four-page "information pamphlet" in the Panorama with a FAQ, detailed financial data, and a timeline of its conception and production. "One of the original goals" of the project, they write, "was to prove that you could put out a newspaper without a billion dollars and a circulation of 500,000." Did they prove it? Or is this a little like Buffalo Bill's Wild West show touring the East just as the Wild West itself was dying out? They made a lovely and fascinating one-time newspaper that may sell 20,000 copies at $16 apiece. Whether that says anything about the viability of small or large daily newspapers without the usual Eggers army of interns and famous literary names at their disposal, I have no idea. But I'm going to try to leave those inevitable meta questions behind now, and say a little instead about what it was like to read this single edition.

Panorama2 I tried to treat it like an old-fashioned Sunday paper experience (my kids were away on a sleepover at their grandparents', which helped complete the illusion). I started with the front section, but since its production schedule precluded any breaking news, I found myself thumbing through all the other sections pretty much right away. I dove into the paper's headline local investigative piece on cost overruns in the rebuilding of the Bay Bridge, but had to come up for air: we have our own zillion-dollar public works plans here in Seattle to keep track of, and my brain apparently has about a $12 billion caring capacity for such things. As with any newspaper I've ever held, the section I read most closely and completely was the sports section, with solid pieces on Bay Area teams that I usually couldn't care less about and Stephen King's special pull-out-section essay on the World Series, which made the Yankees win a little more bearable when seen from the perspective of a grouchy Red Sox fan.

I could only consume a small fraction of the paper before my Sunday morning was spilling out into the afternoon (and yes, isn't sheer lethargic excess--cut with the fiber of semi-useful knowledge--the whole point of a Sunday paper?), and I've made it only a little farther since. But here are some more highlights of what is by any measure a vast bargain at the price of a paperback book:

  • Panorama3 The Comics section: strong large format Sunday pages from many of the indie comics titans (Clowes, Ware, Bechdel, Deitch, Tomine, Spiegelman, etc.) are a reminder that, even as comics in book form have been in a Golden Age, newspaper strips--and the Sunday versions especially--have sucked for a long time. Special bonus: an extra Chris Ware insert, with a classic Rocket Sam comic (that, as it happens, I have a print of hanging on my home office wall--see photo) and a build-your-own cut-out on the reverse. If my kids and I construct the paper rocket this weekend, I'll do a follow-up with photo.
  • Nicholson Baker's visit to a closed paper mill in Maine, which argues that, when compared to the giant, rural server farms running the internet, old-fashioned paper production may be the less-wasteful and more sustainable information option.
  • The gorgeous and lively Food section, highlighted by David Chang's how-to spread on preparing an easy version of  Momofuku ramen.
  • The Panorama Magazine: I've only skimmed this so far, but on first flipthrough, it looks like the best part of the whole package, worth the cover price all by itself, with eight long-form pieces of journalism that are uniformly enticing, from off-the-beaten-track, personal angles on the foreclosure crisis and Sarah Palin to a funny and insightful account of daily life in Antarctica's human colony (along with, among other short pieces from famous people, Chip Kidd's redesign of the Amtrak ticket). I want to read them all, and find myself doing so right now when it's past midnight and I should be finishing this post.
  • The weakest link on my first incomplete tour of the Panorama was the one closest to my interests, the book review. Perhaps it's just that I read exactly this sort of thing all the time, but it felt indistinguishable from an issue of McSwys' companion review, The Believer, and a not terribly distinguished issue at that. But I did like Geoff Nicholson's appreciation of J.G. Ballard, as well as Joshuah Bearman's visit to the Mr. Romance convention and the guide to pronouncing author names, which I've long wanted to do on Omni. I can't tell you about the short stories by George Saunders, Roddy Doyle, James Franco, and others, though, because I don't read fiction in newspapers. I'm sorry: I just don't.
Panorama4 The emphasis throughout the Panorama is on long-form journalism, which, like comics and crazy charts, does work well on the vast newspaper broadsheets. (The other thing that works best on the broadsheet, but doesn't appear in the Panorama? The baseball box score page, which the internet, for all its information, has never come close to replicating for sheer volume and efficiency.) It's a reminder that an experiment like this is hard to imagine as a daily newspaper of any sort. But as a reminder of what a Sunday paper can be, it is still thrilling. (Yes, here I go again into the meta...) Is a Sunday-only newspaper any more viable than a daily? I don't know. But it also reminds me that part of what I gave up the dailies for were the alt-weeklies, which in many cities--Seattle is certainly among them--are more vibrant and useful than the daily newspapers. I know times aren't exactly easy for the weeklies either, but maybe between, say, The Stranger and the Panorama, there's something that we'll keep reading about the cities we live in. --Tom

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Thanks for the report, Tom! After reading about this project for so long, I can't wait to finally see it in person--and it sounds like I won't be disappointed.

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