The indie super-publisher McSweeney’s dropped a hefty metaphorical bomb on the streets of its home city this week—in the form of an enormous, one-time-only newspaper called The San Francisco Panorama. The 300-plus-page broadsheet—stuffed with multi-part investigative pieces, full-color comics, sports posters, a gigantic book review, a glossy magazine and brand-name writers—is intended as both an homage to an endangered species and a manifesto of sorts on the possibilities of the form.
The Panorama hasn’t made it up the coast yet, but I am eager to get my hands on a copy. The on-line page previews look, frankly, amazing. I have long bored many friends and acquaintances with a theory identical to that motivating the McSweeney’s team’s experiment: namely, that if newspapers actually became good, they might have a chance to survive. As McSweeney’s publisher Oscar Villalon (who edited me several times, in his former gig as The San Francisco Chronicle’s books editor) more or less declares, papers need to realize that there are higher, better uses for their tactile, large-format pages than reprinting three-day-old David Brooks columns or intern-written high-school sports gamers. Though you wouldn’t know it to survey the abandoned-looking metal box on the average American city street corner, it is possible to design, shoot, write and edit a forward-thinking newspaper. Witness Mario Garcia’s recent redesign of Germany’s Handelsblatt, or any of Jacek Utko‘s striking Eastern European dailies.
Most mid-sized American papers—exactly the most doomed, at the moment—contain within their rusting hulks at least a few rudiments of a bold, sleek new vessel. Maybe they have a couple writers who excel at long-form journalism, or one graphic designer who would love to bust out of the archaic five-column grid, or a single ass-kicking photographer. The people who run these papers should take a brief break from forcing their writers to launch poorly maintained blogs and making sure every single headline gets tweeted to take a look at The Panorama. I am hoping against hope that my hometown paper, The Oregonian, which employs many excellent writers and smart editors and proceeds to bury their work in an antiquated package of wire stories, snoozy section design and bad cartoons, acquires at least one copy. If nothing else, vast pages full of color and energy might reawaken the animal spirits that provoked people to get into the business in the first place. Someone might get some crazy ideas…like, there might be a future here after all.