The new issue of McSweeney's is a one-shot 320-page Sunday newspaper titled the San Francisco Panorama, which is intended to "demonstrate the unique possibilities and appeal of the American newspaper." Unsurprisingly, it's a beautiful object. The delights of flipping through the Panorama are boundless—every page is designed in an innovative way for a broadsheet, and in a way that the internet couldn't duplicate.
Long-form essays—ten to twenty thousand words—by William Vollmann and other writers about environmental crimes, a ridiculously expensive bridge in San Francisco, and the elections in Afghanistan appear next to a lifestyle piece about being a contract worker at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, a two-page spread about our sun and the problems it may cause for the global information network, an interview with rock musician Thao Nguyen, an entertaining essay by Stephen King about the World Series, and a stunning comics section by artists like Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine. It would take a week of diligent reading to get from one end of the paper straight through to the other.
Much has been made in blogs like the Awl of the fact that the Panorama doesn't provide a sustainable model for newspapers. After all, though it retailed for $5 on the day of publication (Tues Dec 8) in San Francisco, it now sells for $16 in bookstores around the country, and the paper required eight months of intensive work to publish this single issue. Likewise, the Panorama is paid for in part by $61,000 worth of advertising, which is proving to be an unsustainable revenue source for newspapers everywhere.
But the critics are missing the point of the project—the Panorama exists to show what happens if you take a fresh look at an information delivery system that everyone has consigned to the past. The small changes (the CD reviews feature a graph showing the critic's enjoyment of each track on the album) and the large changes (rather than rerunning bland and uninformative AP stories that run everywhere else, the third page of the paper runs many of the day's national news stories as a series of quotes and small paragraphs to serve as a briefing on important issues) are for the most part brilliant ideas that wouldn't require extra work for another newspaper to employ.
A few of the Panorama's concepts seem like pipe dreams—the book section, almost a hundred pages long and packed with fiction, interviews, and reviews, is enough to make an embattled book editor's fists clench with envy—but at least they're gorgeous pipe dreams. The newspaper industry, which has taken real, morbid glee in documenting its own death over the past few years, should consider the Panorama a slap in the face, a tribute, and a call to action, all at the same time.