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Friday, February 12, 2010

Panorama Writers Aren't Retiring on Their Paychecks

Posted By on Fri, Feb 12, 2010 at 12:59 PM

Smooth paper, bright colors. Mmmmm.  
​There's been a lot of speculation about exactly how little Panorama writers got paid for their contributions to Dave Eggers' much-lauded, let's-prove-print-can-be-saved newspaper. The paper had 218 contributors who produced a total of 350,000 words. Yet the total budget for contributors, according to the newspaper, was only about $40,000. At the very most, that's a rough breakdown of 11 cents per word.

As a result, many people assumed Dave Eggers' business model for the next-generation newspaper was something like, "I'm so cool, people will write for my paper for free!" Not so -- it wasn't for free.

Eggers, Panorama publisher Oscar Villalon and managing editor Jesse Nathan were at the Berkeley School of Journalism last night to talk about Panorama as "the McSweeney's Road Show." We caught up with Villalon afterward and asked him the money question. "Most people weren't working for free," Villalon told SF Weekly. (Excepting, of course, the interns.)  

He said writers typically made between $500 and $1,000 for their stories. Some writers made less, in the $200 to $250 range. Villalon, former book editor at the Chronicle, said this compared favorably with the Chronicle's freelancer rate, which he said could be as low as $50 or $100 per article.  

And, yes, the cachet of taking part in a super-duper cool happening definitely helped. Stephen King, for instance, wrote an entire eight-page section on the 2009 World Series. What did they pay him? "Believe me, it was not over $1,000," Villalon said.

In contrast, writers at San Francisco-based magazine Mother Jones, which also publishes long-form narrative journalism, make between $1 and $2 per word, according to managing editor  Elizabeth Gettelman.* That translates, even at the lower end, to between $700 and $12,000 per article -- potentially 10 times as much as Panorama. We'll update you when we get a similar figure from SF Magazine.

Much of the conversation at last night's panel discussion at Berkeley focused on the economics of journalism.The McSweeney's crew said they had pretty much broken even so far. Since they had another run of 20,000 papers planned, Both Eggers and Villalon argued hard for the financial viability of print.

"If you get 10,000 daily readers paying a buck or two bucks ... you don't have to be a non-profit," Eggers said. He was recapitulating the math included in the "Print Runs and Costs" section of Panorama, which reads as follows:

The point we were trying to prove was that if a group of newspaper-lovers--say a group of journalists laid off from a daily paper--wished to start their own daily, they might be able to do so without a huge capital outlay. We produced this paper with about $235,000 in direct capital....if you assumed, say, a 48-page paper, at 30,000 copies per day, your unit cost would only be 65 cents or so. If you sold ads, and sold copies of that paper for $1 each, you would be able to make a go of it. That is, of course, provided that your overhead remains low, and that you aren't owned by a multinational that expects returns on investment of over 12 percent or so. But within a rational expectation of profit, one can still make a newspaper work. Right?

Nobody in the audience pushed back on Eggers' belief in the financial viability of print. "It's impossible" that Gourmet magazine wasn't profitable, Eggers said, referring to the popular magazine Conde Nast shut down last year.  "It's impossible that you have a million subscribers paying 50 bucks a year and it can't work."

In response, the panel moderator, J-school teacher Deirdre English, gently suggested that Manhattan salaries, and Conde Nast expense accounts, might be rather larger than Eggers  was assuming. Panorama was run on a pretty tight overhead, and that wasn't typical, she noted. 

She said Panorama was more an "homage to newspapers" than a "slap in the face," to mainstream print media, which is what she had been expecting.  

Throughout the discussion, Eggers advocated what sounded like a print-only or print- mostly model of news. Villalon, in contrast, thought a good model would be a news Web site with general-assignment reporting updated daily, paired with a Sunday print paper filled with the work of feature writers and investigative reporters.  

One audience member asked Eggers whether he was worried that the investigative stories in Panorama wouldn't have very much impact, since they weren't on the Web. Weren't they shooting their own reporters in the foot? In response, Eggers said that one story would be going up on the Web soon -- an article about a lawyer working with home foreclosures -- since the author of the story wanted it to be accessible to other lawyers.

Otherwise, though, the articles will be staying off-line, he said, at least until the publishers have made their money from the print version. "We're cavemen," Eggers said. They might put, say, 800 words of the long articles online, but if people wanted to read more, they would have to pay. "The newspaper industry is really hurting for having put everything up for free," he said. "There has to be some exchange."  

Nathan, the managing editor, said he hoped that struggling daily newspapers and new start-ups would "pillagePanorama for ideas. The McSweeney's crew will not be reprising their newspaper efforts, although, Eggers said, "It was tempting for a little bit ... it was such a blast to be in the thick of it."

Bay Area News Project founder Warren Hellman "hasn't come to us," Eggers said. While he's looking forward to seeing what Hellman's team produces, he said, "I wish it were on paper."

"I still think it's the most viable model, at least for the time being."  

*See comments section for clarification.

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