Dave Eggers wants publishers and editors to get realistic about print.
Speaking at the New School's Tishman Auditorium in Manhattan on Wednesday night, the author and editor of McSweeney's was bullish about the future of newspapers and books, so long as their creators don't expect them to fund a media empire.
"The numbers can work out where you're not going to lose your shirt, but that's if you don't automatically buy a building or sports team," said Eggers. "Just be a little cautious and work within reasonable expectations, and people who are in it to make money can probably make money--as a lot of people still are."
Eggers outlined how print publishing could be artistically and financially rewarding as part of a discussion of San Francisco Panorama, the Sunday newspaper-sized issue of McSweeney's that came out in December. The 320-page issue is printed in broadsheet format and separated into traditional newspaper sections including news, sports and art as well as a book review and Panorama Magazine insert. Eggers was joined by Salon.com co-founder Laura Miller and McSweeney's staff editor and designer Chris Ying.
Eggers emphasized that newspapers could succeed by having a more independent mindset. While he acknowledged this may sound unrealistic in an age of massive media conglomerates, He pointed out that just a few years ago and certainly a few decades ago, independent papers were numerous and successful.
"But now they let people who are manufacturing widgets and other things determine newsroom budgets and what gets reported, so they are not necessarily looking at what's best for the media or the art of journalism," said Eggers.
Bringing in the talents of authors and artists, and several newspaper professionals who had recently lost their jobs, Panorama was done as an homage to the traditional newspaper and a demonstration of the potential that the form holds for creativity and compelling storytelling.
Panorama's initial print run of 20,000 copies sold out in its first day at newsstands (for $5) and bookstores (for $16) and a second printing hit the streets several weeks after, some copies of which are still available at The Strand and other independent bookstores in New York.
Eggers acknowledged that such independent papers could not compete with the Internet for breaking news, but that the printed format offers plenty of other opportunities for insightful and creative coverage that is unique from online outlets. This includes long-form articles or eye-catching layouts that tell a story visually in a way that delights readers and might have them saving pages for years (Eggers cited a feature in Panorama about the Sun that a few local schools had incorporated into their classrooms).
"You're not going to be necessarily breaking news, but if you can summarize that like how the Wall Street Journal does on its front page and have in addition to that longer, definitive features, then you will have the readership to be able to maintain this model," said Eggers.
While Panorama is framed as a local paper to the Bay Area, including an investigative front-page story on the debacle surrounding a new San Francisco Bay Bridge project, the author explained that New York readers would certainly get enough out of it to justify the $16 cost.
Just as it will be key for publishers to revise their expectations of printed products, Eggers said they also need to work to get readers to expect to pay, even a modest price, for an object that will be of value to them.
He cited the students at McSweeney's 826 Valencia nonprofit tutoring organization, who are enthusiastic about the printed page but will only reach for something that speaks to their particular interests.
"It's about scale. There might not be 500,000 subscribers but with 10,000 daily readers you can make a go of it," said Eggers. "That's where you can maintain a distinct editorial voice and that doesn't mean everybody in the metropolitan area has to necessarily read it."