Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The newspaper, Information Age dinosaur, superannuated leftover from the glory days of mass culture, cheap and disposable booster of middlebrow department stores and network TV shows, is about to become next year’s $299 chambray work shirt, the must-have accessory for signaling one’s artfully off-handed connoisseurship. Kill your Facebook page. Forget everything you know about Twitter. Box up your iPad. The age of heritage news is upon us.
The newspaper will feature “leisurely reads” and “great reportage,” and most important, it will function as “your handsome companion from sun lounger to sun downers.” It is, in short, a lifestyle prop, a formerly utilitarian and now obsolete product retooled by world-class tastemakers, a designer newspaper. It can be yours for $10 and change, which, by Monocle standards, is a pretty good deal. (The publisher is currently selling a tiny bag of wood for $192.)
Analog information transfer makes sense at the beach. iPad screens may be built to shine brightly even in the glare of the Dubai sun, but they’re not built for dropping in the sand, or slathering with Shiseido sunscreen, or drowning in the pool. And let’s face it – Apple’s sold a gazillion of the things in the last three months. They’re a little too Nordstrom’s.
Newspapers, on the other hand, are much rarer. Oh, sure, if you’ve seen one lately you know that today’s versions have gotten kind of skimpy and shoddy, what with their mish-mash of wire copy and helpful tips about lettuce. On a conceptual level, however, they remain tremendously appealing. First off, they’re made out of wood. They evoke a classy, stylish, more thoughtful era, when people wore hats. They have so much history, so much lore, to fetishize and streamline.
San Francisco Panorama, the first designer newspaper, showed up in December 2009. It was produced by the literary quarterly McSweeney’s as a one-time celebration of the virtues of print. “We believe that if you use the hell out of the medium, if you give investigative journalism space, if you give photojournalists space, if you give graphic artists and cartoonists space — if you give readers an experience that can’t be duplicated on the web — then they will spend $1 for a copy,” exclaimed McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers in a widely circulated e-mail. “With our prototype, we aim to make the physical object so beautiful and luxurious that it will seem a bargain at $1.”
But if the goal of Panorama was to help real newspapers figure out how to remain relevant and extant in a digital world, the actual finished product was the surest sign yet that newspapers are, as a mainstream cultural force, officially dead.
In the 20th century, newspapers evolved from their artisanal roots — think of the lone publisher/printer, putting out a new issue whenever he’d collected enough material to fill four pages — into a uniform and predictable product resulting from highly organized and highly automated processes. They’re mass-produced in intellectual factories with the same magnificently efficient and repetitive genius that produces Ritz crackers and $8 polo shirts from Target. In an age of pixels and bits, however, when Kim Kardashian’s latest tweet is composed in 10 seconds and distributed to four million people around the world in the blink of an eye, newspapers feel kind of hand-made. Painstakingly assembled by tradesmen devoted to the utilitarian beauty of 72-point headlines and the superior craftsmanship of a really good crossword puzzle.
Panorama emphasized this aspect of newspapers to the point of self-satire. Its logo was hand-drawn by comic artist Daniel Clowes. Its small core staff of dedicated idealists collaborated with noted wordwrights and image-smiths to manufacture prose and pictures of a higher standard than one typically finds in a daily newspaper. Panorama reveled in the materiality of newspapers. Each page of its 120-page broadsheet section measured 15” x 22”. Its standalone book review section ran 96 pages. Its magazine added another 112. The entire package made a satisfying thunk when you dropped it on a table. Yes, it was only a one-time deal, but it was sure built to last!
Acting on faith that today’s soundbitten news consumers have a surplus of attention to devote to 20,000-word investigative pieces and 42-panel comic strips, Panorama gave its contributors room to be creative in ways the tight confines of an iPhone screen won’t permit. But all that paper made Panorama cost much more than the $1 Eggers originally envisioned readers paying for it. On the day of its debut, a couple dozen newsboy re-enactors were hawking it on the streets for $5 a copy. In bookstores and newsstands, it was $16, which was actually a pretty great deal for everything you got, but not exactly a price point designed for daily consumption. At that rate, a year’s worth would cost $5,840.
Not that anyone could read a year’s worth of Panorama in a year, or even a lifetime. The single issue contained 350,000 words. But Panorama wasn’t really designed to be read. It was designed to be appreciated. Two-page infographics on the sun and the Bay Bridge are so big they actually make the information they present hard to assimilate; at a quarter of the size, they would have been four times as effective. The huge expanses of black text on clean white newsprint make a noble statement about The Value of In-Depth Investigative Reporting, but look as daunting as Yosemite’s Half Dome. It’s hard to imagine the broadsheet portions of Panorama being read on crowded buses or cramped cafes. It’s easy to imagine its most spectacular pages attractively curated in art galleries or museums.
The demand for products like Panorama — nobly constructed, produced in limited quantities, rich with authenticity, conspicuously tasteful — seems infinite these days. Our organic heirloom tomatoes are locally grown by agricultural craftsmen. We wear locally sewn, historically significant $35 T-shirts that come in “heritage packaging.” We lust after $90,000 bespoke Jeeps. We love bling-free but deluxe versions of the formerly practical, like Field Notes memo books and $600 duffle bags.
Cue the newspaper. In its 20th-century heyday, it was the ultimate mass-market product, a cheap, daily commodity that was obsolete in a matter of hours. Exclusivity was the last thing a newspaper aspired to. The more people who bought them, the better they became. Printing costs went down, which kept the finished product remarkably affordable. Advertising rates rose, which meant publishers could set up foreign bureaus in dozens of cities around the world, pay book reviewers a livable wage, underwrite in-depth investigations, and make Dear Abby rich. Mass-production — and the mass-dissemination of news it enabled — turned papers into powerful forces for the civic good.
Thus, their future as premium-priced, limited-edition totems of refinement seems poignantly ironic. But not without hope! The web has created a culture of hyper-connoisseurship, with passionate enthusiasts forever in pursuit of the hardest to source, the most authentic, the original artifact. Designer one-offs like San Francisco Panorama and the Monocle Mediterraneo will set new newspaper acolytes on a path of exploration discovery, and the eventual appropriation of genuine heritage brands, forgotten by time but still quietly plying their in various quaint backwaters of the U.S. infosphere. Hold steady, Denver Post, Milwaukee Sentinel, Atlanta Journal-Constitution! Hipsters and tastemakers are on the way to save you from oblivion. • 19 July 2010