Thursday, December 17th, 2009

By the Numbers: The McSweeney's 'San Francisco Panorama' Experiment

The PanoramaLast week, McSweeney's published their gorgeous, 320-page, one-shot newspaper, the San Francisco Panorama. We have not yet gotten our hands on one, here on the other coast, but the reports were all glowing, from the feature in the LA Times to the New York Times live-blogging its distribution. "The Panorama," McSweeney's honcho Dave Eggers emailed the Times, "is just a reminder that readers will be more likely to pay for the physical paper if they're given something very different than what we get on the Internet." The Panorama said its total editorial costs were $80,000, which is almost exactly one-third of the total production costs. It cost $111,000 just to print 23,000 issues; the total cost, of each issue, including editorial, was $7.98. The production time was about nine months. There were seven full-time staff members, and it was published by Oscar Villalon, the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle's book section, who took that newspaper's buyout last fall.

The income from the sale of the paper is hard to estimate. It was selling for $16 at bookstores and $5 on the street. Reports said that the original run of 20,000 was "sold out in 90 minutes." Bookstores generally only had a stockpile of 200 or fewer; we presume the majority were sold on the street. The 3000 additional copies, intended for national distribution, were immediately sold. A second print run has been ordered, of an unknown amount, to arrive in January.

The paper's advertising income was $61,000. That is $2.65 in income per issue from advertising. That means that, at a price of $5 for 23,000 issues, the newspaper would have taken a loss of 33 cents. Presumably, the people who purchased the newspaper at the $16 cost boosted it into profitability.

What was the intention? "The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive," is what Eggers wrote in his mass email, way back in June, to all concerned about the fate of print.

But what's curious about these numbers is that they are magical. The total editorial costs were $80,000. There were seven full-time staff members-although the publisher, Villalon, we understand, only began work there in September.

You can divide $80,000 pretty much any way you like and not find a way to make this make sense.

According to one contributor, the Panorama was offering a rate of 12 cents a word to writers. (That's $240, in total, for a 2000-word piece-well below newspaper market rate. And even below some Internet rates, which is hard to do.)

There were 218 contributors. So say everyone-everyone, from William T. Vollman to Stephen King-got paid $250 (to use a nice round number) for their contributions, whether it was a drawing or a 10,000 word piece of reportage. (That may not be a terrible average-although that rate, for a 10,000-word piece, works out to be a payment of $1200.) That's $54,500.

But some of those 218 contributors were artists. Another way to look at it: overall, the paper contains very roughly 350,000 words: that would be $42,000 at 12 cents a word.

At that average-per-piece, which is presumably pretty low, that leaves a bit more than $38,000 for the seven full-time staff members (and, as the paper notes, copy-editing, equipment and "one lamb").

Except, there was for illustrations a total budget of $15,000. This leaves a maximum of $23,000 for the staff, who would have been paid $3200 each for their labors.

This means that, if the publisher worked on the paper for four months, and the remaining money were divided equitably, and none of the other dozens of people working part-time were paid at all, he would have been taking home $800 a month.

Photograph by Steve Rhodes, from his excellent set of images of the paper.

64 Comments / Post A Comment

KarenUhOh (#19)

But they had a really good time putting it out.

Natan (#1,967)

Dear God, everything is not "gorgeous" because it looks like a Chris Ware book.

bigme (#2,632)

Zines never make money.

Chairman Meow (#820)

Right – this might look like a newspaper, but thinking that this has anything to do with the newspaper business model is slightly delusional.

UPDATE: A reader writes, after hearing from the publisher, that he was under the impression that the staff received no pay whatsoever.

I should probably leave it unsaid that this clearly makes Eggers' statement "The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive" more troublesome. At best.

mathnet (#27)

He's speaking at CUNY's j-school commencement.

garge (#736)

But maybe that unpaid internship got them a boyfriend?

NinetyNine (#98)

But I get can get great copy from excellent authors who get paid nothing right here on the Internet.

mathnet (#27)


NinetyNine (#98)

Alternate snark: not paying staffers? He totes gaffed your bidness model.

And how is your salary working out for you?

NinetyNine (#98)

I've invested it all in highly collectible McSweeney's publications. Arrrr!

katiebakes (#32)


NinetyNine (#98)

The proper use is 'Sugar Mold' (Sugar Foot Mold is two awkward and people might think it's an Arrested Development reference).

lia (#1,344)

shhh! denton's going to get ideas!

So you agree, then – it is the future of newspaper publishing.

David (#192)

This reminds me of Wilhelm Moser & David Colby's creation, THE MANIPULATOR (1984 – 1994, RIP), but without the beauty, those pictures, that size, the imagination!! … just hope for (a profitable publication), so long as its on paper.

Good luck!

Chairman Meow (#820)

There's also the thing Dexter Sinister was doing recently:

which was certainly artier & probably more interesting.

LondonLee (#922)

I remember The Manipulator when I was a designer in London in the 80s, the magazine shop in Soho used to have to hang it from the ceiling to display it.

I ordered one because I'm a sucker for fetishistic print objects like that, but I can't imagine there's enough people like me out there.

mathnet (#27)

I wish they would keep coming up with new issues of this collector's item because I would totally pay $16 for a newspaper over and over again.

Screen Name (#2,416)

Let's take a closer look at the math behind this project. If I take the $80,000 total editorial cost, divide that by the 23,000 issues that were printed, factor in the $16 selling price and tack on the $61,000 in advertising revenues, I come up with a net income figure of purple 19. Damn you, synaesthesia! Damn you!

gaytheist (#929)

$7.98 is way too much, I'll just read it online.

NicFit (#616)

So the newspaper business of the future will look like the music business?

But the idea was to mix the content up a bit and make people once again interested in reading a newspaper instead of having it be like a vitamin every morning.

Abe Sauer (#148)

This is a more ridiculous vanity project than The Awl's 2010 calendar.

mathnet (#27)

What are sales up to now?

Abe Sauer (#148)


KenWheaton (#401)

And considering the only people buying these things are unemployed (or soon to be) journalist nerds … well, what does that say about the market for such things.

Flashman (#418)

I haven't bought a copy of McSweeney's since the one that came in a box (2001?), but I'd buy this issue, defonitely. And I'm a soon to be unemployed architect nerd!

hockeymom (#143)

I'm going to be in need of a two-story cardboard box soon. I will gladly pay you in hobo beans and rock soup.

Abe Sauer (#148)

They sell Hobo Soup at Byerly's. What;s that say?

sferrell (#2,633)

That paper is thriving as hard as it can. I don't think I've ever seen one thrivier.

emceegee (#2,133)

Hello from gorgeous San Francisco! This is a great newspaper. Even if it only happens this once, that's one more good Bay Area paper than I've seen since, well, ever. And did you know a Sunday Times costs $6 out here? This is definitely worth 3 of your silly Sunday smartpapers!

Vince2 (#2,636)

Wow! This sort of reaction sounds very similar to what all the brilliant magazine people said about Wired. Who would ever want to read about technology except the guy who plugs in the computers? Who would ever want to advertise in that thing with its tiny type and crazy art design? Please give Eggers some credit. He can certainly generate more buzz than anyone left in the newspaper industry and he certainly delivered on the content. If you ask me that's a pretty tall order for a launch. Some chain with half a brain should be working to sign this guy up ASAP, because like Wired, where there's buzz, readers and advertising will follow.

NinetyNine (#98)

Yeah, that Wired thing is doing great. What did you guys do? Add FB Connect or something?

joeclark (#651)

Listen, I don’t see any analogue whatsoever with Wired, up to and including an absence of the talking point “Rolling Stone for propellerheads,” whatever that meant. And, God, did I ever hate Rossetto, memorably dismissed by Wolff as living in “cold and second-rate Amsterdam.”

Wired has consistently innovative graphic design and a huge suite of custom fonts designed by homosexualist wunderkind Christian Schwartz. I assume what Panorama’s got is great swaths of Garamond 3. I still want a copy.

smoo (#2,637)

Choire, tanks for pointing that Panorama is a fantasy, albeit a very nice fantasy.

It's funny that Vince2 mentions Wired. When Dave worked downstairs from Wired when it was on 3rd, I always tried to figure out how he managed to put out MIGHT magazine. It was so expensive looking. Where did he get the money? The advertisers? I had wanted to launch a magazine myself and I couldn't figure out his numbers.

It turns out that MIGHT was a fantasy too. As Dave wrote in his own book, he simply wrote personal checks to cover the costs of publishing. And when he tried to sell the magazine – which was one of the most brilliant things I had ever read – nobody would buy it because there was no profit in it. None. Zero. Absolutely no profit.

Dave is very good at showing what you could produce if you had the best writers and the best artists working for nothing and people were willing to pay a premium price for your product. But even that is clearly unsustainable. How this could possibly help the newspaper industry I don't know. If anything, it's kind of saying "in your face" more than anything else.

Dave I am going to call you out on this.

You want to show us how a newspaper could succeed? Then buy one. They are very very cheap these days.

We all know you're not going to do it because the reality of running a newspaper sucks. The realities of the numbers sucks.

Panaroma is an amazing product that only exists in a fantasy world.

No, Panorama actually exists. Whether future issues will exist is the question.

I see nothing wrong with publishing something great, once or twice, and letting it die. (Obviously that is not the point Eggers is trying to make, but.)

smoo (#2,637)

"Dave is very good at showing what you could produce if you had the best writers and the best artists working for nothing and people were willing to pay a premium price for your product. But even that is clearly unsustainable. How this could possibly help the newspaper industry I don’t know."

Hey look at that.

Flashman (#418)

"You want to show us how a newspaper could succeed? Then buy one. They are very very cheap these days."

This is a great idea. And film a documentary about it too.

joshc (#442)

Instead of running the numbers, let's all just take a moment to appreciate how adorable it is that they think that a 320-page collection of words and pictures produced over nearly a year is a "newspaper" just because of the kind of paper they chose to use.

emceegee (#2,133)

Well then, by any chance have you read it? I got more news from Panorama about the Bay Bridge fiasco and, believe it or not, more insightful local sports reportage, than I've found elsewhere.

So, I suppose in that it is shaped like a newspaper and has sections like a newspaper and, yep, has news like a newspaper…it's probably a DUCK.

joshc (#442)

I confess to not having read it, but I have no doubt that it was insightful, delightful, and well made. It's just that something that comes out once or twice a year doesn't really seem to be filling the same space in a city's hearts and minds as newspapers. Maybe that's the point of this performance?

And they are probably right. I don't read daily papers and don't know many people who do, though I guess that we all still feed off of those resources in one way or another and some of us will probably miss them when they've dried up. Maybe now we just need tactile longish format non-fiction a couple times a year, though I'm not sure that's the news of salvation a dying industry was hoping to hear.

Vince2 (#2,636)

What's interesting about these comments is that they are really stuck in old constructs about what a newspaper MUST be. This is exactly why the industry is dissolving before our eyes. State-of-the-art color presses are not be used to their potential in the new "shrunk-down" product. As Panorama shows, clever, in-depth graphics can really tell their own story. They are also more digestible for readers in their twenties and thirties. Meanwhile, everyone is still hungry for great local enterprise reporting. What we're getting now in the major metro's is not working — for the readers or the advertisers. Why not try something different — even if it's once a month? That's exactly how the rotogravures and comics started at the turn of the twentieth century.

smoo (#2,637)

Vince2, see my previous reply.

Vince2 (#2,636)

I was replying to you in part and your concept of the newspaper industry. What's going on today is really bad. I don't want to minimize it. But there have been other times of turmoil and change with much more creative responses than we see today — e.g. when the upscale broadsheet tapped out, Hearst and others came back with the tabloid. Newspaper lifestyle sections were a response to city magazines, etc. Something much more dramatic and out-of-the-box is needed for today. In my mind, Eggers and Panorama suggest several different ideas that the industry should emulate. I don't see why you're so quick to dismiss them.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

"…graphics can really tell their own story. They are also more digestible for readers in their twenties and thirties."

Thanks for chiming in, Al Neuharth!

smoo (#2,637)

Vince2, I don't understand your reply. I don't dismiss Dave's ideas. I endorse them.

The problem is that Dave says:

"The Panorama is just a reminder that readers will be more likely to pay for the physical paper if they’re given something very different than what we get on the Internet… The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive"

And then he presents misleading financials.

Why would he do that? Why not just come out front and say that Panorama as it exists currently is NOT a viable product. Here is someone saying to Use these ideas and you can thrive and then printing a product which has no financial viability at all.

Sure, when you gather a bunch of amazingly talented people and don't pay them and charge a premium price you will have a great product. Don't you think we already know that? The challenge is to produce a product with a variety of talent and employees that need to eat. And need medical insurance. Also, you have to get advertisers. And subscriptions.

Dave KNOWS that it is almost impossible and that's why he ain't gonna do it. It's easy to have all the most talented people working for no pay and then saying "look at me look what we made why can't you be like us?"

I say again. Dave Eggers: Buy a newspaper and show us how to have all this high priced talent, increase subscriptions, pay your employees and survive as an ongoing concern. Don't tell me you can't get all your fans to buy shares if you announce you're going to do it. I know you can. And I know you won't.

It's easy to tell other people how easy it is to make something better. The practical reality is very different.

smoo (#2,637)

Let me just add something to my prolixity. Just so it's clear.

If Dave Eggers took over a major newspaper, you're damn right it would look better. Read better.

Would workers be happier? Absolutely. I would love to work somewhere where Dave was in charge. It would be like Google and Pixar combined.

But increased readership? I don't know. It's not that easy to make something for a general readership. A general newspaper is not a premium product bought by a small segment of erudite readers. It's something bought and read by a huge cross-section of readers. Frankly, they don't all want Panorama. Some people would love the changes, others would hate them. Some people would hate them just because they were different. That's how some people are.

And the biggest question is would it make more money? I don't think so.

LondonLee (#922)

"It would be like Google and Pixar combined."

You mean people would work all night and live on pizza and Mountain Dew?

They'd have a Fussball table though so it would be "cool"

jacksonwest (#637)

To be fair, you can also add $7,752 in donations via toward the 10,000 word piece on the Bay Bridge. Busking: The future of journalism.

And, yes, I've also heard the rumors that none of the writers are going to see a thin dime.

jacksonwest (#637)

Actually, scratch that, McSweeney's contributed $5,000 to that pitch — so there's 6.25 percent of the editorial budget right there.

Wenalway (#2,644)

Vince2 sounds like one of the people who think they can put their hands over their ears, shout: "No, our way has to work!", and then obsess about design until newspapers fade into oblivion.

I often wonder how much positive influence Dave Eggers could have had if he'd emphasized a focus on content. People would have listened. But instead …

hman (#53)

Can't they set up a storefront to sell more copies of this publication?

pmdawn (#2,652)

it is gorgeous. i bought one from a store, who said they didn't print enough to sell on the street. assuming that's true, all the copies were sold for 16 bucks plus tax.

anyways, my girlfriend worked on a piece, worked hard for a couple months. it was published in a beautiful spread. She received neither a byline nor compensation. But it looks great.

hyperballad400 (#2,671)

got the last one at L.A.'s Book Soup yesterday. it's a nice looking thing, but discussions i've seen on the content are rather slim. that's probs due to the fact that it's freaking ridiculously heavy and most people probs won't read it. but having made it through only a few pages myself, i've got another reason: the awkies chills i'm getting for the san franciscans who wrote it, and the whiff of disarmingly hesitant gentrification and cloying social justice consciousness that emanates from the pages. at least as far as Panorama goes, the cliches of the bay are confirmed as reality. awkies chillll.
or, maybe i'm just not into dave eggers. go figger.

balsa_wood (#465)

Please stop writing "probs." For your health.

And no one knows what "awkies chills" means.

Take it down a notch, Coolio.

hyperballad400 (#2,671)

well you sat me down, balsa. you're the cooliest of 'em all!

btw, awkies chills:

The chills one gets when witnessing extreme awkwardness displayed by another individual.

A combination of the terms "awkies" and "douche chill," the latter being the chills one gets when witnessing extreme douche baggery.

Ex: "That blog comment said 'probs' so many times it gave me awkies chills."

joeclark (#651)

“Awkies chill[s]”?


geminijo (#2,721)

I don't see how this is a new business model. It sounds eerily similar to a "magazine". Or even a weekly. I love my local weekly and it costs $16 less than this.

jyeh (#2,733)

if you're in NYC, you can get them at spoonbill & sugartown in williamsburg — they had about 20 last i saw, which was last night.

btw they *are* pretty fucking beautiful. and the saunders story is totally wild.

burningbundle (#3,004)

jyeh: why the hell would you go into s & s in particular, much less williamsburg? oh, right. because it's like an eggersian freakshow of self-reflective congratulations. yes. it's fine to be beautiful. but they're so incredibly derivative, along with most mcsweeney's publications at this point. if williamsburg is a site of creation, then it's time we all get ready for a shift to bakunin mode. the legions of derivative zombie twits have already colonized and infected the pnw, sf, and are now firmly entrenched in brooklyn. endgame of all this? the life-drained neighborhoods of detachment like park slope… thanks for starting to drain what was worthwhile out of nyc! jeez…

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