The Year Newspaper Nostalgia Projects Only Emphasized How Traditional Newspapers Are Doomed

Nick Martens adores his copy of McSweeney’s San Francisco Panorama, but it probably won’t save the newspaper industry.

San Francisco Panorama

The best and most absurd things I read this year arrived at my door in the same ziploc bag. The best was 99% of The San Francisco Panorama, a one-off broadsheet newspaper put together by McSweeney’s as their 33rd quarterly publication. The scope of the thing is flabbergasting. Imagine a huge Sunday paper printed during the height of the industry’s power, but with every section deconstructed and recreated by dazzling literary minds. It’s packed with long-form reporting; full-color photography, illustrations, posters, and infographics; two different magazines; a grown-up comics section; and top-tier culture, news, and opinion writing.

My favorite part is the food section. The front page showcases an in-depth report on water shortages in California’s farmland, while inside is a “simple” 58-step guide to processing and cooking a lamb, a two-page spread on Momofuku’s ramen, an illustrated primer on seasonal produce, and a feature on twenty under-appreciated San Francisco restaurants, all designed with whimsy and clarity. Both its form and content are purely modern, yet only possible in a medium that has assumed an air of antiquity.

The Panorama proposes to show the possibilities still alive in the dying printed newspaper format. And it succeeds brilliantly. But in the absurd 1% of the publication, a four-page information pamphlet about how the Panorama was produced, the publishers draw a naive and misguided conclusion about what their paper’s success means.

San Francisco Panorama Note

They say:

So we were hoping to prove that with a paid circulation of, say, 10,000, you could do the real work a newspaper should do: cover the city’s news, look to the world as a whole, analyze, explain, investigate, and entertain. And along the way, we hoped to show some of the parts of the paper that used to commonly exist and probably could or should exist again.

It’s a laudable goal, but it fundamentally misunderstands the project’s appeal. The Panorama isn’t cool because it’s a newspaper; it’s cool because it’s a unique and extraordinary creative effort that uses the familiar newspaper form. According to the timeline on the back of the pamphlet, it took a cast of well-known, super talented people nearly nine months to make the one issue. And they think a paper with a circulation of 10,000 could do something of similar quality every single day? It doesn’t make sense, and that’s before taking into account the publication’s illusory and misleading financial numbers.

In a year when the newspaper industry’s low ebb somehow ebbed even lower, the Panorama offers no hope for the broadsheet. It only proves that people will pay for an unbelievably fantastic, labor-intensive, underfunded newspaper, once.

You could argue that the Panorama shows a lingering fondness for newsprint. You could even point to another recent effort as further evidence, the print-your-own-newspaper-for-surpringly-cheap service Newspaper Club. And it’s probably true that people feel nostalgia for those inky pages. The problem is that commentators inevitably turn the success of both projects into a referendum on the demise of daily print journalism, even though the two have little to do with each other. The death of newspapers isn’t sad because we won’t have sheets of newsprint in the house any more; it’s sad because careers in traditional journalism are becoming less and less viable.

Newspaper Club knows they’re not a part of that story. They go out of their way not to mention the newspaper industry on their website (which doesn’t stop every report about them from putting the project in that context). Because even if these projects show that people still like print, they say nothing optimistic about the content of traditional newspapers. The Panorama‘s ludicrously high quality and Newspaper Club’s customization instead suggest that readers are either underwhelmed or bored by old-fashioned reporting. In no way does either demonstrate that full-time journalists and editors need to fill those big, lovely pages every day. Because it’s 2010, and they don’t, and they never will again.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.