Friday, July 25, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

UPDATED: A heartbreaking work of newspaper genius -- at $16 a pop

UPDATED: A heartbreaking work of newspaper genius -- at $16 a pop

My favorite Steve Martin riff from the era when comedy was something you bought on 33 1/3 RPM vinyl records was his tips on how you, too, can become a millionaire and never pay taxes!*...."First, get a million dollars..." Well, Dave Eggers (top) got a wad of cash for writing a best seller memoir called "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," but he's actually paying it back, in part, by trying things that we mere working-stiff non-millionaire mortals can't. He threw his proceeds back into his love for writing, founding the cutting-edge literary journal McSweeney's. So what's his latest cutting edge project?

A newspaper.

Not just any newspaper -- but one with the kind of long articles you used to get a generation ago, with literary journalism by the likes of Stephen King and even some bona fide investigative reporting by former Philadelphia Inquirer ace Bob Porterfield (UPDATE: co-authored by Patricia Decker -- sorry for the earlier omission). Is there a catch? The San Francisco Panorama will only publish one time, ever. Its cover price? $16.

"The Panorama is a perfect partner," says Michael Stoll, a former reporter and editor at the Examiner and Philadelphia Inquirer who is now the Public Press' project director and has been a key liaison on the Bay Bridge piece. "They share the same love of the medium but haven't joined the stampede that has given up print for dead."

The Porterfield investigation will encompass more than 10,000 words and half a dozen graphic elements, split between a main piece and several sidebars. It's the kind of thing, Eggers notes, that is hard to do online. This, in turn, suggests a multi-platform approach, in which Twitter or Web updates are used for breaking news and print becomes an outlet for analysis and commentary. "The only thing that doesn't work," Stoll says, "is a single-media strategy."

I have to give Eggers a lot of credit for thinking outside the honor box -- while one-time-only, $16 editions aren't a strategy for saving newspapers, maybe some people in the business will pick this up and get inspired again about great journalism, about what might work in the more traditional print format, and what doesn't. On the other hand, my fear is that Eggers' extravaganza won't help journalism at all -- but offer us a sad, expensive reminder of what used to be and what could have been.

* Garbled joke re-telling fixed from original version, thanks to interestingly named commenter "Masswhole."

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