What We Can Learn From A Newspaper Prototype

When Dave Eggers set out to publish issue number 33 of McSweeney’s as a newspaper, he had something to prove. In interviews leading up to the release of the one-off newspaper Eggers sounded almost defiant as he heralded the virtues of print:

The written word—the love of it and the power of the written word—it hasn’t changed. It’s a matter of fostering it, fertilizing it, not giving up on it, and having faith… if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s will be a newspaper—we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.

In another interview he described the newspaper issue as a “prototype” of what newspapers could be. I liked that notion. I don’t think we do enough actual prototyping amongst the “future of journalism” makers or thinkers (and especially not within most traditional newsrooms). I think groups like Hacks/Hackers and the Knight/Mozilla project are helping do more of this – but it’s still just starting.

I was pretty curious about what we could learn from this experiment which sought to bring together designers, artists, authors, journalists and cartoonists to show off the power of print, not only as a defense of newspapers but as a challenge to how we think of the news as a product.

Image via Steve Rhodes on Flickr

I got my hands on a copy of the paper – The San Francisco Panorama – a few weeks after it came out in 2009 during a trip through San Francisco, where McSweeney’s is based (It then spent about two years sitting on my bedside table). This week, with our power knocked out for days by a freak October storm, I cracked into the Panorama and read it cover to cover.

Here are a few things I think journalists and publishers (online and off) could learn from the Panorama:

Design Matters: I Want My News to Be Pretty

Why does it seem people on the web are so much more focused on news design than at newspapers? We are in a moment right now – with amazing websites, stunning infographics, kinetic typography videos – when designers are being celebrated everywhere online. Design questions get a lot of attention online. Consider the debates about the Gawker redesign, the interest in the BostonGlobe.com’s responsive web design, and the appeal of apps like Flipboard and Pulse.

However, the biggest debates in newspaper design in recent memory have been when the Wall Street Journal started using color ink and the New York Times began running ads on page one. For the most part, major changes in newspaper design have been limited shrinking broadsheets. I’m not alone in feeling frustrated by this, and seeing huge potential here. See this phenomenal Ted talk from Polish newspaper designer Jacek Utko: “Can Design Save Newspapers.”

Image via Steve Rhodes on Flickr

The Panorama is a stunning example of innovative design that uses the full real-estate of their monstrous 15”x22”pages. Printed in full color, the paper features gorgeous photos, elaborate infographics that often fill two full pages, striking pull quotes and bold fonts, and engaging artwork (including a huge comics section). Stories were not broken up and scattered across three or four pages or sections. Instead, the columns flowed constantly across the page and carried over to the following page. There was no hunting for stories and the entire product felt more unified. It invited you to read more, to dig deeper. It spoke to different learning styles, and told stories both textually and visually.

It was beautiful – an artifact in the true sense of the word. But that beauty almost always felt functional as well. In fact, in discussing the design the editor talked mostly of the function: “We went into this knowing that print has to look different than the internet… A big sheet of paper can give you the big picture and the details all at once… We think the best chance for newspapers’ survival is to do what the internet can’t.”

This all added to the costs, but I also felt better paying for it, and I am sure advertisers (whose ads felt almost like billboards on such big pages) were willing to pay a bit more as well. This is what display ads were meant to look like – Don Draper would love the Panorama.

Don’t Just Give Us News, Give Us Information

As the role of print changes in our society newspapers need to get over what it is they used to do and start thinking really creatively about what their community needs from them. In my work I’m usually advocating for policies and strategies to foster more and more accountability, with clear civic impact and import. And the San Francisco Panorama has its fair share of that.

However, the Panorama also makes clear that a newspaper can provide a range of other really useful information and data. Newspapers have long published the weather, sports scores and stock prices but the information in the Panorama went well beyond generic and general. Inside the cover page there was a page of data (most of which was actually really relevant to people’s daily life and spoke to issues in their community and family) including:

  • Retail info: Location of Christmas Tree Lots in the city, Locations of the cheapest gas in the city
  • Civic info: Unemployment numbers by community and sector, Crime reports presented on a map
  • Environmental info: Lunar cycle, List of fruits and vegetables that are in season right now

There is also a big spread in the sports section which the editors describe as “an example of how we’d like to see newspapers present stats” as opposed to the traditional list of scores.

Throughout the Panorama, within the context of longer stories and separately as stand alone pieces, readers were given a ton of data and information. For example – this is a entire page of arts, culture and entertainment related information from the current music best sellers to the contents of a local bookstore visualized.

As more and more data – especially government and civic data – becomes available newspapers should help people access and understand it. A lot has been written about the need for more curation and the fact that newsrooms are well positioned to help readers sift through the flood of information we all face. The Panorama illustrates how a newspaper could help add context to data, and weave together (and keep updated) a range of important data about a local communities that may not be available in any other single place.

At the center of the Panorama is a four page insert described as an “Information Pamphlet” which is the editor’s own commentary on their newspaper experiment. There is a lot here to chew on, but here are a few short observations and take aways:

On Collaboration – The paper includes more than 200 contributors, and involved collaborations with groups like the San Francisco Public Press. However, collaboration was vital within the Panorama staff as well. “One of our theories… was that the boundaries between designers, editors, researchers, and writers are false and detrimental to the agility and effectiveness of a newspaper staff.” For those publishing on and offline we might also throw in web designers, programers, social media editors and community engagement staff to that list.

On Community and Diversity – In a section entitled “On Diversity” the editors write, “As we were producing the Panorama, we were aware of one of the key mandates for newspapers: know your community. To that end, we wanted to feature writers from an array of diverse backgrounds, but we also wanted the subject matter covered herein to be just as varied. San Francisco, not to mention the Bay Area, is easily one of the most diverse places in America. We hope the Panorama reflects that.” Show me a major daily newspaper that expresses that kind of commitment to representing the diversity of their community.

On Definitiveness – “We can’t stress enough that the Panorama does not pretend to be definitive in any way. It’s clearly incomplete.” Later there is a section on “Things we left out.” While it has become almost cliche to talk about the death of objectivity, one form of bias people still rarely discuss is not the bias of how something is covered, but the bias inherent in choosing what to cover. I appreciated the way the editors owned their place as just part of a larger conversation, and let readers in on how they made their decisions.

On Young Readers – I have long been concerned by news organization’s abandonment of young readers – online and off. The issues young people and college students face and struggle with are rarely covered in the media. The Panorama editors discuss this as well, noting that the fall off in news readership by young people started long before the Internet. In addition to trying to be attentive to young readers, the Panorama also featured content by young authors and artists as well.

You’ll notice that I did not try to extract any lessons from the production costs and sales numbers for the Panorama, and thus am not asserting anything about what this experiment might tell us about the future of paying for the news (you can read one take on this here). This prototype is too unique, to make too many comparisons to a daily or even weekly paper and the costs and benefits associated with that. In the end, I was most interested in where the staff of the Panorama touched on the culture of newsrooms, and how we do journalisms, and suggested new ideas about both.

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