Wednesday, January 06, 2010

 

Sometimes I forget why preppy types irritate me, then I see something just dripping with the ethos of same & suddenly the sensation is entirely fresh again. My current example would be, of all things retro, a newspaper, specifically San Francisco Panorama, published on December 8 by the crowd at McSweeney’s, as a demonstration of how newspapers could survive. Howard Junker was kind enough to send me a copy & my guess would be that his exasperation at this project is not a lot lower than my own.

Panorama is a self-congratulatory conglomeration that, at its best, replicates what you can find in any number of left-of-center magazines put into a high-end broadsheet print format. Underneath the perfect-orthodontia smile of it all, are two fundamental presumptions: Newspapers could be saved if …

They focused on having great content – Stephen King on the world series, Nicholson Baker, John Ashbery, etc. etc. etc.

They took explicit advantage of the broadsheet format, dramatically upping the graphics (hence 14 pages of color comix), giving many of the articles over-the-top illustrations. Panorama does everything but bring Norman Rockwell & Maxfield Parrish back from the dead & I’m surprised the editors didn’t think of that.

Way big ifs…. What the editors demonstrate instead is just why newspapers are dying.

First, they come to a conclusion that no newspaper publisher has made in generations – that newspapers are for people who read.

Second, they give just a whiff of how much it might cost to truly take advantage of the broadsheet format, as format, to put out hundreds of pages of high-impact content on a daily basis. To suggest that it’s prohibitive is an understatement.

Third, there is very little advertising here, which should come as no surprise. But, if you want to show how to save newspapers, you will have to demonstrate how they could become profitable without costing, say, $5 a day to purchase.

There are two real problems with all of this. With one of them, I’m completely sympathetic, since I’m a compulsive reader also. I can remember the days when newspapers had if not great writers, at least good ones with some clue as to style. To see Stanley Fish’ content-free jeremiads in the New York Times is an index of just how far things have fallen. And it is true that a couple of the articles in Panorama demonstrate just how poorly the Bay Area currently is served by the Chronicle, which has failed to fund such reports as the cover piece on cost-overruns and the construction of the new Bay Bridge or why Mendocino’s dependency of the marijuana economy is an ecological disaster.¹

But this fails to address what was the essence of the old style newspaper: the ability to produce content that socially impacted a metropolitan area with a binding, bonding dominant discourse at the lowest possible price. The reason for newsprint has always been about the cost of production, not the graphic potential of the format. Which is why, when the cost of production was undercut by the internet, newsprint no longer carried any advantage.

The reason local consumer businesses felt compelled to advertise had to do with the discourse. Even when a single writer could dominate a single market – the way Herb Caen did San Francisco in the 1950s & ‘60s – costs were kept down by the knowledge that Herb Caen’s three-dot style might fly in SF, but it would be too esoteric even in nearby Modesto, while he would come across as pure country bumpkin – the Sacamenna Kid, as he would have put it – in a burg like New York. Caen’s column ran for 59 years & when he abandoned the Chronicle for the Examiner in the 1950s, the relative fortunes of the two dailies followed suit until Caen was literally traded back like a baseball player. Caen’s 1958 salary of $38,000 would be worth $283,000 now, give or take, a terrific bargain at the time, but I’ll wager that it’s more than his current closest equivalent on The Chron, Jon Carroll, makes today.

In a nation that publishes only 8,000 book titles published per year, in which every person in power is straight, white & male, one individual in a single market can have enormous impact. Along the way, Caen coined the word beatnik, popularized hippie & more or less invented The Summer of Love. He also taught readers never to call The City Frisco, although it was popular to refer to it as Baghdad by the Bay.

Since 1950, the population of the US has doubled, and the people in power – at least in the Democratic party – don’t look quite the same as they did a half century ago. But the number of book titles has grown to something over 200,000, suggesting an enormous fragmentation of interests, and it is precisely that phenomenon, the narrow-casting of identity, that has robbed the newspaper of its fundamental reason for being. In 1950, San Francisco was not only the second largest city in California, but easily the dominant metropolis in the Bay Area. San Jose, by comparison, had less than 100,000 residents. Today San Jose has 895,000, eclipsing San Franciso, which continues to have roughly three-quarters of a million. People read Herb Caen just to see if he mentioned their name. If Jon Carroll mentions your name, will anyone even notice?

But Herb Caen was not Mark Twain, let alone John Ashbery. Caen’s work doesn’t date well and it doesn’t have much applicability beyond the market area of the Chron, which barely went east of Berkeley. Today there is no columnist in the United States that has the kind of power Caen had, or Jimmy Breslin in New York or Studs Terkel (not quite the same thing, admittedly) in Chicago – the closest is probably Steve Lopez in Los Angeles, and he’s the last of a dying breed (and not even a true Angelino, having been imported from Philly in 2001 – his column in the Times won’t catch Caen’s record until 2060, at which point Lopez will be 107 – good luck with that).

So there are two functions of a newspaper that would have to be addressed if something like Panorama was to be anything other than a self-serving PR stunt. The first is the social function of the newspaper itself, and the second is the ability to deliver it at the lowest possible cost. The first may not be possible any more, period, and the ability to produce the lowest cost content has fled to the net, and certainly doesn’t lie in upping the production cost per page via high-end snazzy graphics. Panorama manages not to even see the challenge on either count. If The Chronicle represents the tragedy of the American newspaper in the 21st century, Panorama is certainly suitable to represent the farce.

 

¹ These are exactly the sorts of pieces that the Los Angeles Times or Philadelphia Inquirer would run as weeklong series in open competition for a Pulitzer. But they’re run-of-the-mill lead articles for a journal like The Nation.

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