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McSweeney's makes a newspaper: A review of Panorama
The literary quarterly creates a tribute to everything that's fit to print
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By Joe Tarr

When I was a kid, one of the few rituals I shared with my dad was on Sunday mornings. We'd hop in the car and drive to a doughnut shop for a dozen doughnuts, then head over to the cigar shop/newsstand on State Street in Erie, Pa., my hometown.

Dad would buy a couple of Sunday papers, usually the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Pittsburgh Press, and buy me a comic book or two. I fell in love with the ritual of spreading out with a Sunday paper, munching down doughnuts over the funnies.

When I got older and had more of a reason to pay attention to journalism, the ritual only deepened. A Sunday New York Times over brunch became one of the highlights of my week. But that ritual has faded in these days of digital news.

So I was a sucker for the latest McSweeney's, the quarterly literary journal that revels in experimenting with form. This issue is a one-time Sunday newspaper called Panorama, published out of San Francisco. Complete with a Sunday magazine, funnies, sports, food, arts and book sections, the project (PDF) was designed to "remind readers of all the things a printed newspaper can do."

Packaged in a Ziploc bag, the super-large broadsheet is gorgeous to look at. And McSweeney's lined up some big-name writers to provide content: Steven King writes about the 2009 World Series, William T. Vollmann about efforts to mine gold in Southern California, J. Malcolm Garcia on elections in Afghanistan, Nicholson Baker on a Maine paper mill, Michael Chabon on Big Star and Dave Eggers interviewing Junot Diaz. There's a marquee investigative piece on the construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

If that weren't enough to justify the $16 price tag (plus postage), you get original comics by Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and Kim Deitch. Ware even does a cardboard cutout for a rocket to assemble.

In short, it's everything you could want in a Sunday paper. There are short blurbs on restaurants, music, crime, and pieces stretching several thousand words. Printed on high-quality paper, Panorama emphasizes design. The approach was to focus on what the web can't do. "A big sheet of paper can give you the big picture and the details all at once," a supplement to the project explains. "A computer screen can't do this."

The design is amazing. A full center spread graphic details the Bay Bridge construction. Another two-page spread gives a blow-by-blow of preparing lambchetta, starting with the live cute lamb.

Unfortunately, some of the writing is simply too dense or experimental. Mary Williams tells her fascinating story of working in Antarctica for a year (lots of booze and sex) in an annoying second-person format.

In the end, Panorama does demonstrate what's great about newspapers. The problem with the project is, we don't need to be reminded of how great newspapers are: There's great writing in newspapers all over the world every day, including (ahem) this one. What we need are models on how newspapers can be profitable -- or how digital media can fill the role that newspapers have provided for so long.

I can imagine a future when newspapers have finally died (as everyone keeps predicting) and whatever organizational model that replaces them, sporadically prints "old-fashioned" newspapers on actual paper, to show kids how charming they were.

In McSweeney's attempt to breathe new life into the genre, it created the first commemorative newspaper.

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