By David Ulin
December 8, 2009
Reporting from San Francisco
In addition to books and a monthly magazine, McSweeney's publishes a literary journal, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, the new issue of which is set to appear here today in a form that confounds every trend in publishing: a 300-plus-page Sunday-style broadsheet newspaper called the San Francisco Panorama, with which Eggers and company mean to celebrate the glory of the form. Featuring news and sports as well as stand-alone food and arts sections, a magazine and a 96-page pullout Book Review, the Panorama is both homage and conversation starter.
"We don't pretend to have the solutions," Eggers says. "We're just asking a few questions. We admit how little we know, but we're trying to luxuriate in print and maybe remind people of everything it can do."
McSweeney's' projects are marked by an intention to break boundaries, and nowhere is this more true than with the quarterly. A 2005 issue was published as a bundle of mail, and other issues have come in a variety of shapes and styles.
The Panorama will be big, its pages 15 by 22 inches, and lavishly laid out, with attention to color and graphics. A two-page spread in the food section illustrates how to make bruschetta, beginning with the butchering of a lamb. The sports section features a gallery of drawings from the World Series, laid out to resemble something from a newspaper of 80 years ago.
The writing represents contemporary literary journalism at its best. Stephen King -- a Red Sox fan who views the New York Yankees with what he describes as "fear and loathing" -- reports from Baseball City, where the World Series takes place in Bloat Stadium, at the intersection of Greed Avenue and Stupid Street. Novelist Andrew Sean Greer goes to Michigan to experience NASCAR firsthand.
"Our hope," Eggers notes, "is that readers will say, 'I forgot all these things that newsprint can do.' 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.' "
Of course, it's easy to make such an argument when you're not dealing with the issues facing the commercial press. "In 2005," says Alan D. Mutter, who writes the blog Reflections of Newsosaur, "newspapers racked up a record $49 billion in ad sales. This year, they'll be lucky if they can get $28 billion."
Eggers understands these challenges. "All our friends at dailies," he says, "can't experiment the way we can because we don't have anyone to answer to." The Panorama will come out once, with a cover price of $16 in an edition of about 25,000. Although there is a plan to sell the paper on the streets in San Francisco today, national distribution will take place Wednesday via the Internet and bookstores (including Book Soup and Skylight Books in Los Angeles).
Of course, there's more to the project than simply a demonstration of what newspapers once could do. This too is typical McSweeney's. Indeed, the imprint has become a brand, the apotheosis of writerly hip in a world where cachet for literature is sorely lacking. In addition to its publishing efforts, the press works closely with 826 National, a nonprofit literacy organization for kids 6 to 18 that Eggers established in 2002. What connects these endeavors is a sense that writing and publishing should be ambitious.
Among the centerpieces of the Panorama is an investigative piece by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Porterfield, looking into cost overruns in the renovation of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It's an effort undertaken in conjunction with SF Public Press, a nonprofit Web-based start-up that is looking to fill gaps in local news coverage that have arisen with the contraction of the mainstream press.
Although the San Francisco Chronicle bills itself as "Northern California's largest newspaper," circulation is in decline and staff has been cut; the San Francisco Examiner, meanwhile, is now a free tabloid, distributed six days a week.
"The Panorama is a perfect partner," says Michael Stoll, a former reporter and editor at the Examiner and Philadelphia Inquirer who is now the Public Press' project director and has been a key liaison on the Bay Bridge piece. "They share the same love of the medium but haven't joined the stampede that has given up print for dead."
The Porterfield investigation will encompass more than 10,000 words and half a dozen graphic elements, split between a main piece and several sidebars. It's the kind of thing, Eggers notes, that is hard to do online. This, in turn, suggests a multi-platform approach, in which Twitter or Web updates are used for breaking news and print becomes an outlet for analysis and commentary. "The only thing that doesn't work," Stoll says, "is a single-media strategy."
The McSweeney's effort taps into a larger conversation about the future of long-form journalism in a world where traditional venues are in flux. Last month, the Virginia Quarterly Review, another literary journal, used its website to post an 18,000-word piece in four installments about last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai. "That's one way of experimenting," says Robert Boynton, director of literary reporting at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
"People constantly underestimate the reading appetite of the American public," Boynton adds, "But there's as big an interest in long-form journalism today as there has ever been, and as we experiment with different delivery systems it will only grow."
That's an optimistic assessment, but it's one Eggers shares. "All of the interns pay for magazines," he says. "They'll read the New Yorker, or they'll read Mother Jones. They'll pay for that, but a lot of them weren't paying for the newspaper anymore. So we started thinking, what if you offered the same sort of depth, analysis, literary value that you get in a magazine? When people sit down, they want to have an experience, and if you surprise them on every page, curate it in such a way that it's constantly surprising and constantly delighting, I think you could keep them."
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