City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

New Papers: the San Francisco Panorama

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First published April 20 2010. Second part of a two-parter on newspapers and cities. Part one concerns Newspaper Club, and is titled ‘The Papers

In the springtime of 2010, I found myself in San Francisco with an hour to kill at the ferry terminal, over a cold beer and the pleasingly tall and slender format of local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle. At first glance it seemed like a decent paper — interesting stories, well-designed. But in the self-styled ‘digital capital’ that is the Bay Area, and with the gloomy pronouncements about American newspapers in particular, it’s hard to believe its circulation is going anywhere but south.

A month or so later, I made sure I ordered another San Francisco newspaper, the San Francisco Panorama. This isn’t a daily newspaper, and probably won’t make it beyond issue one — but that’s on purpose. It’s a prototype of a newspaper, designed to demonstrate that such things are still viable. And it’s an extraordinary piece of work.

In this core mission, it just about succeeds. It tries to demonstrate that it’s possible to make a newspaper, and a local one at that, financially and creatively viable. Despite its leviathan form — which the creators are clear wouldn’t be sustainable — it easily conveys the creative possibilities in the format. Here, interestingly, it’s a hybrid, drawing much from the culture of the web as well as newspapers. And it’s beautifully designed, with a wonderful range. It feels utterly alive, and convincing, in this respect.

It’s a mammoth piece of work, and five months in the making. Numerous sections add up to something of the scale of the weekend New York Times. 320 pages. But never mind the width, feel the quality: Stephen King on the baseball World Series; a comics section featuring the peerless Chris Ware, as well as Adrian Tomine and Daniel Clowes; a wonderful infographic of the San Francisco music scene; writing by Michael Chabon, Nicholson Baker, Miranda July; Lisa Hamilton on the water crisis in California’s Central Valley; and numerous smart little editorial features (there are, in particular, many beautiful little infographic-like touches punctuating the paper).

This page at McSweeney’s gives a sense of the depth and breadth. There’s a real verve to the whole thing. I particularly appreciate the sense that it’s a city paper. It implicitly articulates the relationship between a city and its press, from unique features like detailed spreads explaining the symbolism behind local murals, to new takes on the usual features such as restaurant reviews, music scene, ads, local investigate journalism funded via, and so on.

It also comes with simple sheet describing the process, issues and implications behind the entire production, including a rough breakdown of the financials behind the project. This is smart, and almost forms an outline of a kit-of-parts, as a genuine open prototype might. McSweeney’s, who are behind the entire venture, deserve huge credit for the San Francisco Panorama, and with this kit-of-parts approach, I’d suggest that what they’ve done with the Panorama is a bit of strategic design as much as it is editorial design.

Anyone interested in media, ideas, and in the relationship between a city and its press, should try to pick up a copy. Unfortunately it looks like it’s no longer available online via the McSweeney’s store, but keep your eyes peeled. It was sold on the streets of the city on the day of its release. The comics section is available, for some reason, and you can download it as a PDF, but that somewhat defeats the point.

While we’re assessing smart, inspiring newspaper-like products, I’d also recommend a look at Unit Editions, a new publishing house set up by the great Adrian Shaughnessy (ShaughnessyWorks) and Tony Brook (Spin). Its focus is “high-quality, affordable books on graphic design and visual culture”, which is a great mission, but I’m particularly interested in their work with newsprint too, in the Spin Papers and Unit: Design/Research series.

I picked up the former of these, which includes two smartly-designed newspapers: 50 Reading Lists, which covers the essential books selected by numerous respected graphic designers, and Action Time Vision, which collates the artwork from early punk singles and albums. Both are wonderful reads, and collectable objects, and a steal at the price Unit Editions sell them (which includes P+P, which is very generous to Australia.) Their later ‘Design/Research’ publication looks equally good, on Folkways designer Ronald Clyne.

Finally, a word on MagCloud. I’ve posted something I wrote for the bespoke (aren’t they all?) Newspaper Club paper for SXSW, which further explores all these ideas, but I’d been meaning to mention MagCloud’s publication Strange Light, produced rapidly after the great Sydney dust-storm of 2009.

A photo of mine ended up in it — not the best I took that day I thought, but still, very nice to be included so thank you very much — alongside many great images (happily, the volcanic ash cloud currently engulfing Northern Europe affords a similar opportunity).

My photo bottom-left

The reproduction is pretty reasonable, though the feel of the thing is a little un-crafted (e.g. the promotional image on the back cover is particularly jarring.) But the only real issue I had with the MagCloud model is that while the publication had been produced within about 48 hours of the dust-storm, which is truly amazing, it took around four weeks to send it out via snail mail to Australia, which is hardly an advance on the 1950s. There doesn’t appear to be any local MagCloud infrastructure in this neck of the woods. (Or anywhere in the Southern or Eastern Hemispheres, as far as I can tell?)

This is hardly a problem solely for MagCloud of course. Both Fred Scharman and James Goggin have created interesting experimental publications using, and both had to be shipped to Australia due to a lack of their printing infrastructure here. Yet the combination of global and local infrastructure that we can all foresee is just not there yet. (Newspaper Club’s model might scale most smartly, given the latent arrays of newspaper printing presses everywhere, whilst maintaining a craft agenda, but that’s another story.)

It seems that, as yet, William Gibson’s line, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed’, absolutely applies to the various components of our nascent print-on-demand infrastructure.

Originally published at on April 20, 2010. This is the second part of a two-parter on newspapers, the internet, and cities. Part one concerns Newspaper Club, and is titled ‘The Papers


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