Panorama: returning to old business models

David Eggers doesn’t know much about the people buying Panorama, other than that they are people who buy books from independent book stores, that they are ‘very intelligent’ and are ‘charming and good at parties’. He must know, however, that people are loving the 330-page newspaper. Now in its second run, Panorama is being lapped up by McSweeneys fans throughout the Bay Area and beyond. I rushed out on December 13 to buy the last copy at the student book store, and according to Eggers, most of the newsies didn’t make it from their car to their corner before they were relieved of their 10-20 copies. There was also a report of a tackling incident. Most unfortunate.

Eggers was at UC Berkeley last night – with Panorama publisher Oscar Villalon and associate editor Jesse Nathan – to talk about the paper that ‘showed the Bay Area an exciting example of the kind of newspaper it deserves.’

During their conversation with J-School lecturer, Deidre English, the trio described Panorama as an ‘homage to the old craft of newspapers’. Said Oscar Villalon: ‘This wasn’t about reinventing the wheel. All the ideas from Panorama were ideas that were being kicked around in the newsroom.’ These ideas included ‘bigger design, a more literary bent, a wider array of voices and a longer paper’.

Eggers said, ‘We wanted to prove that some of these things might work and to give our friends in the newspaper business some optimism’. Villalon talked about the value of ‘unleashing people’ – giving them the ‘time, space and resources they need to get things done’. None of the contributors had word limits, said Eggers. ‘It’s finished when it’s finished,’ he told them.

The trio firmly believe that profit is the biggest obstacle to newspapers right now and that the solution is not to go digital. They talked about the fact that it’s a fallacy that newspapers are not profitable.

‘2006 was one of the most profitable years for newspapers,’ said Eggers, who quoted David Simon who said that 5 or 6% profit on a newspaper should be enough. I can’t find the particular quote he used, but did find Simon’s testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee on the future of journalism in which he said:

‘(W)hen newspaper chains began cutting personnel and content, their industry was one of the most profitable yet discovered by Wall Street money. We know now – because bankruptcy has opened the books – that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly 100 editors and reporters in an era when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. In the years before the internet deluge, the men and women who might have made The Sun a more essential vehicle for news and commentary – something so strong that it might have charged for its product online – they were being ushered out the door so that Wall Street could command short-term profits in the extreme.’

With advertising revenue in decline, Eggers said that ‘for the first time, people will pay for the (newspaper) product’ (rather than advertisers subsidising it). At $16, Panorama isn’t cheap – although the team says that it’s a small price to pay for 320 pages of excellent content.

When asked whether Eggers was worried about the fact that some of the investigative stories (such as the story about the true costs of the Bay Bridge and about the Pakistani 25-year-old who taught himself law to defend people against foreclosures) wouldn’t make as much impact as they could if they were online, he replied that some of the stories have been made available online but that people would have to pay for the newspaper if they wanted all the content.

When asked about the costs of the model, Villalon said that as a prototype, the paper was more expensive than if it were being produced regularly. He said that, at 20,000 copies per print run, Panorama couldn’t make use of the economies of scale that could bring costs down, but that McSweeney’s broke even on the first run, paid all of their 220 contributors and would make ‘something’ on the second.

Eggers says that Panorama should show journalists, by working together in a small collective, that it is possible to have a small operation with 10,000 readers a day, and a reading public paying $2, and that you don’t even have to be a non-profit in order to achieve this.

I’m not convinced that Panorama is necessarily a model for a daily newspaper (it took more or less a year working on an off to produce) but I am totally inspired that there is still some hope for newspapers and the printed word. And for that (and not even beginning to talk about the incredible writing, graphics and illustrations), Panorama has done its job.

3 thoughts on “Panorama: returning to old business models

  1. Heather, glad that our trip to the Pirate Store was so productive!

    After reading my own copy of Panorama, I loved the idea that the Bay Area could get a newspaper that had great writing and local coverage. The production values are also fantastic. However, I missed my usual McSweeney’s dose of ridiculousness.

    When I thought about what I’d pay for, I’d probably pick up the occasional copy of Panorama from the newsstands for that lazy Sunday morning brunch reading and discussion, but wouldn’t buy it much more than that.

    On the other hand, I’ll quite happy pay for my McSweeney’s Small Chair subscription (http://iphone.mcsweeneys.net/) on my iPhone for the foreseeable future.

    The price is right, the production values are perfect, and even with the relative trickle of content I’m paying for in that application, I still don’t have enough time in the idea to consume all of it!

  2. The product is swell. It’s astonishing how poorly they’ve handled distribution, though. The newsies were a nice, quaint touch, but delivery of copies by mail, or UPS, is beset with delays. I have a colleague who ordered his copy online the day of release. He’s gotten explanations and apologies for why he hasn’t gotten his copy, but still no paper, 60 days later. Delivery was one thing the media dinosaurs knew how to do.

  3. @andy thanks for the tip re. Small Chair – will definitely check that out. And you’re right – perhaps a lot of people who bought Panorama wouldn’t buy it regularly if that was the option – but I do think Eggers’ point about the fact that there is still a pretty huge number of people out there who read newspapers is valid.

    @Dan Oh jeepers. I actually saw on their website that they sold all the papers locally and so didn’t have any left to post😦 Bad.

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