Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Pano-Rama Ding-Dong

Who would have thought that now - the December after the Great Recession, a time when the Internet is upending the nature of the media business - we would see the launch of a new newspaper?  And yet, yesterday you could pick up a brand spanking new copy of the SF Panorama on street corners around the city.

And ONLY yesterday.  This is a one-issue-only paper.  And you couldn't pick it up on every street corner at any time.  But I'm jumping ahead of myself here.

Panorama is a literary journal masquerading as a newspaper... except that it's a real newspaper, with real stories on local and national issues.  It's the winter issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a wonderful and extremely creative "magazine" that regularly trounces the concept of the journal.  Past issues have looked like a box, or a pile of junk mail.  This one looked like a vanishing relic from our civic life.

My siblings and I had been geeking out on this for a while.  I noted that, while the issue technically would sell for $16, it would be available on SF streets on the actual date for only $5.  Never one to turn down an opportunity for arbitrage, I collected fivers from my brother and sister over Thanksgiving, promising to return at Christmas with their own locally-sourced deep-discounted copy.

The day before, I found a nifty Google Map that listed where the Panorama would be sold.  I was pretty unclear on exactly what the deal was - it listed bookstores and Newsys, but no word on whether the $5 issues could be found everywhere or only from a Newsy.  In any case, I picked out a few Newsy spots that were reasonably close to my office.  That night, I was pleased to see that they had added a new Newsy to the Caltrain station where I get off in the morning.  "Perfect!," I thought.

The next day, when I disembarked, I eagerly looked around.  No newsy.  The station is pretty big, so I checked the plaza over by the metro, as well as the section near the bike shop and along 4th Street.  No love.  I did see a Chronicle seller lurking around, but no Panorama.  I figured that they must have sold out, and resolved to find another source.

I deviated from my normal ride into work to scoot down along 7th street, where I remembered another newsy being located.  Only I didn't remember the exact location, having wiped it from my mind with the discovery of the Caltrain plant.  I roamed that neighborhood for a little while, and when that turned up empty, headed into work.

During an early lunch break, I struck out once more, armed this time with a better-memorized map.  I headed south to the spot nearest my office, on 8th between 15th and 16th.  (That has to be one of the best-named intersections in the city.)  No newsy.  Well, there was another listed on 16th, so I turned there and walked from SOMA into the Mission.  Still nothing... I saw a news stand, but it only had the Chronicle, not Panorama.  I was at Ground Zero now, though - Valencia had many bookstores that would carry it.

I walked down Valencia, skirting some intense construction on the west sidewalk.  I decided to drop in at 826 Valencia, since it was the one place on the Google map that had expliclty said it would sell them for $5.  When I got there, I noticed that the door was open, but the sign said "Open Noon-6."  It was still just a bit after 11.  I stuck my head inside, and heard some voices from deep within, but nobody in the storefront.  I closed the door and kept walking.

A few doors down was one of the bookstores.  I dropped in and chatted briefly with the pleasant man inside.  "Do you carry Panorama?" I asked.  He said that they wouldn't be selling it until tomorrow, but that it was being sold on street corners.  The nearest one is "Right there," he said, pointing back up Valencia.  I thanked him and headed back.

As I continued up the block, I noticed a HUGE semi truck parked in the middle of Valencia.  This was probably legal - there's  a dedicated middle turn lane - but also very unusual, as Valencia tends to be a quieter street than Mission.  As I looked more closely, I saw the word "Printing" on the side of the truck... and several bundles being unloaded... and a team of suspiciously young-looking people in matching yellow shirts carrying parcels from the truck... success! 

They were staging on the opposite side of Valencia, so I continued up to the intersection, then crossed over and returned.  The first person I crossed was busily loading up a station wagon.  She wouldn't sell me any; she needed to deliver them to people who had already ordered.  I walked a few steps further down and spoke with a very pleasant young woman.  "Excuse me, do you know where I can buy Panorama?"  "Right here!" she said, and opened up one of the boxes.  I asked for three copies, but they were limiting people to 2 purchases each.  Hmmm - further subterfuge would be needed.

I got the copies, thanked her, and walked away.  While attempting to deposit the issues in my messenger bag, I noticed that they weren't kidding about the broadsheet size of the paper.  It's really huge and substantial.  I could fit it in without folding or creasing the paper (other than the standard half-fold you get on broadsheets), but just barely.

I walked back up Valencia, hoping that some of the previously marked spots would now be stationed with Newsys.  No such luck.  But I recalled that several spots had been indicated on Market.  At 16th street I hopped onto Bart, took it to the Civic Center, and headed out.  One yellow pushpin had been marked at Market and 7th.  Nothing there.  I continued along to the Powell Street stop.  Nothing... wait, what was that?  On the other side of Market, right next to the cable car turnaround, another set of those distinctive yellow shirts!  Success again!

I (safely) crossed the street, accosted one of the sellers, and picked up my prized third and final copy.  Although the paper is totally interchangeable, I decided for symmetry's sake that I would call this third paper "mine."  I noted with approval the irony that I, the person who worked in San Francisco, would be reading a paper acquired at one of the most notorious tourist hotspots in the city, while my midwestern siblings would be reading papers acquired in the heart of the "real" San Francisco.

I started reading the paper on the train ride home that night.  Physically, this was a little challenging - there's a reason why most commuters prefer tabloids (paper style, not necessarily content) to broadsheets, and the Panorama's extra width meant that I needed to be careful to keep the paper on my side of the seat without shoving it into the face of my neighbor.  After he disembarked, I could relax and open up the paper fully for the rest of the ride.  From a content perspective, though, I was hooked all along.  I spent the entire hour-long train ride reading just the first section, which I almost (but didn't quite) manage to finish.

In some senses, it's similar to a regular newspaper.  There's a big headline on the front trumpeting a lead story - here, an investigative journalism piece on cost overruns for the Bay Bridge.  Also on the cover is a large photo.  Here, though, the photo covers the entire front page below the masthead, which has an extremely dramatic effect with this paper size.

The same sense of familiarity tangled with change permeated this section.  The first several pages contained several news briefs of a few sentences.  They covered regular news topics, but were written in a surprisingly literary style - focusing on a particular detail that colored the event rather than drily recounting facts.  Page Two included a staple that you see all the time in the Examiner and often in other papers as well: a police beat section, with crimes from the previous days reported and shown on a map of the city.  Now, intellectually I've always known that these reports provide only a glimpse and not the whole story - it's absurd to think that only four police reports happen in a day, and that it's always exactly four.  But, I'm accustomed to always seeing one or more reports listed in the Tenderloin, with the balance mainly reported from Bayview-Hunter's Point, with a few token reports occasionally filed from other districts in the city.  This map, without making a big deal of it, included crime reports from ALL OVER the city: Nob Hill, the Richmond, etc.  There was a single report that seemed to be from the Tenderloin, and it was for a very minor offense.  Anyways - I'm sure that this police briefing was edited as well, but it really brought out the fact that edits matter, and that our perception of the city has to a large extent been shaped by the more or less arbitrary decisions made by others in explaining and reporting.

McSweeney's isn't a humor outfit, but it can be extremely funny.  Most of the first section was told straight (albeit at a high quality of writing), but a few whimsical notes crept in.  One of my favorites was a spot that reports on Police Morale.  Richmond: "Hanging in there."  Marina: "Irritated but getting over it."  You have to know the area to get it, but I found that hilarious.

Besides the news briefs, the front section included some great in-depth reporting.  Throughout the paper, it seems like a major goal of the publication is to EXPLAIN rather than REPORT.  That is, rather than just recite some facts, it tries to contextualize what is happening and why it matters.  Instead of just answering "Who," "Where," and "What," it spends at least as much time on "How" and "Why."  For example, there's a two-page section on the conflict in the Congo, which, as they write, is now the biggest war since World War II.  With large maps, diagrams, and timelines, it provides a primer on the roots of the war, who was and is involved, and the casualties of the conflict, focusing on the atrocities committed on the civilian population and the huge number of deaths indirectly caused by the war, due to the breakdown in support for treating basic and easily preventable diseases like malaria and diarrhea.

The first section closes out with a glorious and large two-page section on the sun.  That's right: science!  It talks about sunspots and solar flares and how our civilization may be doomed.  It's pretty cool.

I've just scratched the surface of Panorama.  This morning I started reading a long article on Mendocino County, which is one of the largest marijuana-growing areas in the world.  The article covers much of the same ground as an excellent New Yorker article a few months ago, but where the New Yorker mainly focused on the legality and economics of the drug trade, this one emphasizes the indirect costs: massive environmental harm, including poisoning the land, shockingly large diversions of water.  Once I finish with this, I'll still have a large magazine to read, and a sports section, and the Bay Bridge article, and a books section (including new fiction from George Saunders, yay!), and a comics section, and... well, there's a lot.  I can't wait!

This is probably part of the intention of Panorama, but I've found myself thinking about my relationship to the media in general and newspapers in specific while reading it.  Papers were a staple of my family when I was growing up.  We subscribed to the Star-Tribune in Minnesota and the Chicago Tribune in Illinois.  Like all kids everywhere, I started reading the paper to read the comics.  I think I started branching out to other sections when I was in junior high; once my interest in politics was kindled in 8th grade, I began regularly skimming the front section of the paper, looking for headlines that looked interesting (at the time, that would have been anything regarding censorship, the Bosnian conflict, the Middle East, or technology).  When I started getting interested in pop culture, I expanded beyond the comics in the Variety or Tempo section, reading movie reviews, learning about new CDs or television shows, and generally educating myself through print about the things my peers were learning about through television.

I stopped reading the paper when I went to college, though I still read it whenever I go home to visit. I actually did fine without the news for a few years.  On September 11th, I was glued to the Internet for news of what had happened, and over the next several years developed a steady habit of the New York Times and the BBC, all online.  At one point I decided that I was spending too much time chasing down stories about things that didn't affect me and that I had no hope of changing, at which point I drastically cut back my consumption again.

When I first moved to the Bay Area, I started reading the Mercury News online almost every day, and would buy a paper on Sunday.  You know how that turned out.  These days, I make the Chronicle part of my daily routine, almost entirely focusing on local Bay Area stories.  Since I started condo-hunting, I've also made a weekly habit of checking the San Mateo Daily Journal, and occasionally visit the San Mateo County Times.

News is important, but not everything that you read in a newspaper is news, and not everything newsworthy ends up in a newspaper.  The promise of the paper is that it is one of the last universal civic institutions left in our society.  We may all worship at different churches, or not worship at all.  We all listen to different music on different radio stations.  We live in a micro-targeted world, filled with niche audiences consuming niche information directed solely at them.  There's a reason it's that way - people have individual interests, and don't want to waste time on things that they don't care for or that don't matter to them.  But some things do matter to all of us: how our tax dollars are spent on public works projects, or what's happening to our water and our air, or what to do if an earthquake strikes. 

Also, newspapers are wonderful tools for lateral discovery.  When I look for news online, I already know what I'm looking for, and can quickly learn what I want.  But when I browse the news, either with a physical paper or in an online newspaper portal, I'm scanning headlines, learning about things I never would have otherwise.  I don't like in San Mateo County, and had no idea that a grand jury is looking into the salaries of civil servants.  But I have now learned this through the local papers, and if I do end up moving into the county, it will have a fairly significant impact on me.  Ignorance isn't always bliss.

I'd love to see the Panorama, or something like it, come out every day or week.  I don't think I, or anyone, would pay $5 an issue for it each time.  I would start reading it online, and if it wasn't online, I wouldn't read it.  Panorama is doing a great job at reminding us why newspapers are important and what they can do that other forms of media cannot.  I really hope that it has a net positive effect on the industry, not just financially by showing how to sell more papers, but in mission, helping papers focus and do a really good job.  If so, December 8th may emerge as a minor milestone in media history.

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