Q+A with McSweeney’s Panorama staff

When McSweeney’s published the San Francisco Panorama in December, many news designers eagerly thumbed through the 300+ page behemoth. Featuring contributions from Stephen King, Chris Ware, Junot Díaz and many other superstars, it was the boldest celebration and embrace of the printed broadsheet format in recent memory.

(Missed earlier coverage? See the press kit for a nice sampling of pages; read the Chicago Tribune’s story from February, “The New Old Journalism”; and browse Slate’s verdict, “Beautiful and Strange”).

Now, with a few months of perspective, Dave Eggers, Chris Ying and Brian McMullen kindly answered questions compiled by the SND Web Desk.

What did you do in terms of promotion?

We really wanted to celebrate the newspaper form as much as possible without diluting it. We tried to emulate, as closely as possible, the experience and context of a real newspaper. And so, leading up to the paper’s release, with few exceptions, we kept a tight lid on all the paper’s contents. There’s something inherently nice about getting the paper each day and being surprised by what’s inside of it. But we did get a good deal of help from our friends at the San Francisco Chronicle. They promoted the Panorama ahead of time in their print and web editions, and they drove a lot of the excitement about the paper.

 

McSweeneys Staff

Staff members (from left) Jesse Nathan, Jordan Bass, Michelle Quint, Brian McMullen and Christopher Benz look over proofs of the Panorama newspaper. (Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle)

 

San Francisco edition copies were sold out the first day and additional copies were a rare commodity throughout the Bay Area, what were the final numbers on copies sold? Was there a return of investment?

Sales of the Panorama on the street and in local bookstores absolutely astounded us. People were lined up to get the paper before we could even pull it off the back of the delivery truck. On the first day, from our front door, we sold every one of the 2,500 copies we had delivered to our office. By the end of the week—literally, in three or four days—we had sold out our entire print run of 20,000+ copies. We reprinted 20,000 more, and are dissolving that reserve almost as quickly. Our usual print run on any issue of McSweeney’s — and this was an issue of the quarterly — is about 20,000. Those are usually sent all over the country and world. In this case, we literally had to redirect the trucks to deliver the national shipments all to San Francisco. Because this was full of content about San Francisco, we thought we needed to satisfy the local demand before shipping them nationally.

As for making a return on the investment, at the end of the day, we’ll probably make a little bit of money. And we’re proud of that. Starting a paper from scratch—and only doing one edition—has a lot of overhead and start-up costs. We sold ads to make up some of the difference, and while we’re by no means swimming in profits, we’re happy with the results.

The design recalls — actually, it improves upon — a certain era of newspapering. Can you talk about where you found inspiration?

Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano’s book “The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911)” was an amazing early inspiration. Anyone who’s interested in newspaper design needs to see this book, which consists of 120 pages of photographs of the most intricate, commanding full-color newspaper page designs you’ll ever see, from any era. One of the Panorama designs we’re proudest of — Richard Parks’s two-page article about the Lembi Group’s SF real-estate holdings, with over 100 original building drawings by Kiera Westphal — is a riff on an article design from the January 1, 1899 issue of the World. The fact that we got to use computers to make our version of the layout felt unfair, like we were cheating.

We hung poster-size printouts of artwork by Ward Shelley and Mark Lombardi on our walls. Their work reminded us that so-called “information graphics” can be beautiful and informative at the same time. Indeed, a dash of unabashed beauty — beauty without logically defensible purpose — can elevate the value and the effect of the information presented.

We collected and pored over the designs of contemporary newspapers from all over the world, including Turkey’s Daily Zaman — which employs a wider-than-usual page to striking effect  — and the South China Morning Post, among many others. The British press is always vibrant and surprising, as are countless other markets.

Regarding typefaces: The high-quality printing presses at Paradise Post freed us to choose whatever typefaces we liked. That is, we weren’t limited to “newspaper fonts” — the kinds of fonts that were designed to be extra durable. We were also empowered to run colored type at small sizes — traditionally a newspaper no-no because of technical limitations on older presses. It’s unfortunate: newspaper printing presses have gotten better than ever — to the point that they can finally accommodate just about any technically tricky or touchy design — just as the industry is contracting.

You chose to maintain many of the conventions of a traditional newspaper. Why some and not others?

We chose a wide page — 15″ — because we liked the roomy feel. Not many years ago, 15″ was a standard newspaper page width. The NYT went down to 13.5″ a few years ago to save on paper costs, and then went even narrower in 2009.

The height of the page — 22″ — was a technical necessity, based on the capability of the printing presses that could produce a 15″ page width.

It’s interesting to note — and it was a point of frustration for us, for a while — that our decision to print in full-color, on a wider page, meant that our page count for each section was limited to 16. (Note, for example, that the Panorama contains two Arts sections: an 8-pager plus a 16-pager. We like having two Arts sections, as it turns out, but the idea arose out of technical necessity.) We’d have loved to do a 32-page or even a 48-page section, but no US printing company we contacted was equipped to handle such a printing job. The size capabilities of newspaper printing presses have been scaled back to accommodate the industry’s shrinking page format.

The covers don’t have the normal high story count that has become a staple of so many U.S. newspapers. Can you talk a bit about that design philosophy?

Throughout the paper, we tried to give every story room to breathe, to stand on its own. We love the look of a lot of papers that “stack” stories, but then again, it’s less common now for a reader to walk by a newspaper box, see the 4th story on the front page, and choose to buy the paper on impulse. It seems more likely that buying the paper is more driven by being compelled by one story or photo or graphic than by a collection of them. Within the paper, we initially were stacking stories, but then we felt the pages were clearer and more attractive when we allowed a given story to occupy one or more pages on their own. When we asked people how they usually experience a newspaper, everyone we asked said they look at every page (at least of the sections they like to read). So if people are going to turn every page, then there’s less of a reason to stack and jump. Then again, a lot of the reason we had stories occupying whole pages and spreads was that the stories were so long they demanded that much space.

Did the process and the result change your opinion of what American newspapers are doing right, or wrong? (In terms of design, content and/or editing decisions).

The point of the Panorama was never to solve any problems with the newspaper industry. What they’re doing right is putting out papers in the face of immense adversity. All we wanted to do is to let them know that people are still reading papers. It takes faith for a newspaper to increase the amount of effort and time they put into the product, if they don’t think anyone out there is paying attention. We’re paying attention!

It was a wonderful adventure to read. Any plans for another or similar project?

Well, we probably won’t be putting out a daily newspaper any time soon. We’re only eight people at McSweeney’s. We’re happy as publishers of quarterlies and books. We went into this thinking it was a one-time adventure.

Do you think there is a market for this sort of thing, or is this just a novelty?

There is a market for newspapers. The number of people excited by this project was heartening, but beyond that, it showed that people still want to read thought-provoking articles, presented in an attractive way.

What about the nuts and bolts of production (press, credits, turnaround, etc.)?

Everyone in the office — with or without hands-on design experience — was welcome and encouraged to offer ideas and opinions. In terms of the actual design work, Dave Eggers (who was a graphic designer for many years, including for the Chronicle) designed a lot of it (the books and magazine sections and the op-ed sections), as did Brian McMullen (arts, World Series) and Chris Ying (food, Bay Bridge, sports). We also worked with a lot of interns who helped with prototypes and other very significant legwork early on. Most images were printed at a linescreen of 120, which meant a minimum dpi of 240. Once we settled on a basic look — which took a couple of months of on-and-off work, ruminating over things we liked and didn’t like — pages were designed quickly. A few sections, like the op-ed section, had to be designed very quickly (Dave did that one in one day; Chris Ying did sports and the Bay Bridge sections in a few days). The 4-page Panorama pullout addresses a lot of the nitty-gritty details about timeline and number of hands on deck. Suffice it to say that a very small group of people can make something like this work.

Frank Mina is the assistant managing editor, presentation, at the San Francisco Chronicle. Flickr photo of newspaper by elainegreycats