The Panorama experiment: What newspapers and magazines can still learn

What if you redesigned your newspaper, or published a start-up, that elicited reactions like this:

“Very nearly brought tears to my eyes. Everyone I know who has seen it has been similarly overwhelmed and overjoyed.”

“Excellent design, great writing and plenty of surprises throughout.”

“A beast … a magnificent venture … and an object of beauty. Must. Have. More.”

Those were actual critical reactions to Panorama, the bold experiment from Dave Eggers and the people at McSweeney’s Quarterly. Panorama is a brilliant one-off newspaper published as a love letter to the notion of the Sunday metro newspaper of years gone by. Printed as an oversized broadsheet, on heavy stock for the main sections, and glossier stock for two thick magazine inserts, it’s lush, expensive, experiential. Said McSweeney’s Publisher Oscar Villalon told Media Bistro after its release: “We’re kind of hoping the Panorama becomes a touchstone for folks, reminding them, ‘Those ideas you had? They are good ideas, and this is how they might look like.’ ”

OK then. We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of its release. What have we learned? What can we still learn? Here are some thoughts:

Passion still exists for great writing, editing and design – and the experience of reading a glorious printed page. Picking up Panorama for the first time, any fan of writing, photography, culture, life will feel: I want this. It’s something newspapers should study, and think about how, even with limited resources, they can recreate this kind of experience. Imagine anticipating a morning or more likely, a weekly newspaper with a combined impact of words and visuals that make the reader say, “Give me more.” That say to the advertiser: “I want to be part of this.” The challenge: to support it, we have to look beyond traditional advertisers. (See below.)

Students and teachers of all kinds of publishing should be studying, dissecting, imitating Panorama. What a great annual classroom project – or collaborative, department-wide – it would be to imitate Panorama on a smaller scale, focusing on campus, community and/or regional issues. Why not seek out a local foundation to provide a grant for the print costs? Or partner with a generous campus booster? This grand marriage of words and visuals would be a terrific recruiting tool for any college, and portfolio piece for all involved. The content would be something that could translate to multimedia as well. Bonus points: figuring out the advertising problem.

The business model is … a challenge. To say the least. Panorama didn’t set out to solve the industry’s advertising woes; its focus is on celebrating great content, the publisher-reader relationship, and community. Most likely due to its one-off nature, it has very few ads. Production costs were roughly $6 per copy. Obviously, not practical for a wide distribution. But the spirit and professionalism of the thing, regardless of format, is to be envied. Thinking aloud: Let’s say an existing newspaper, college classroom or community group sets out to recreate some of this spirit, to package and distribute content in this way. Could they look beyond traditional advertising sources, car dealers and pizza parlors and what-not, and seek out nontraditional funding? Instead, approach it as an art project. Write a grant proposal, seek out corporate sponsorship, philanthropical funding. Why not?

Below are some pages and close-ups from Panorama that struck me as particularly inviting, but they’re just a hint at the ton of great material assembled. As always, comments are welcome!

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