The New York Times profiles Harper’s Magazine publisher John R. MacArthur, specifically focusing on his sclerotic approach to publishing. It’s 2014 and Harper’s is eschewing anything resembling a robust web presence, placing all its energy on the print magazine. We’re given the usual cliches about how the web is ruining deep thinking, encouraging the piracy of high quality content, and leading to the overall degradation of society:
His thesis is built on three pillars. The web is bad for writers, he said, who are too exhausted by the pace of an endless news cycle to write poised, reflective stories and who are paid peanuts if they do. It’s bad for publishers, who have lost advertising revenue to Google and Facebook and will never make enough from a free model to sustain great writing. And it’s bad for readers, who cannot absorb information well on devices that buzz, flash and generally distract.
He does not want to explore many of the new revenue streams favored by other publishers — like Monocle, which has stores and a radio station. He will not let advertisers sponsor a section of the magazine, let alone place native ads, for fear that it will look as if they own Harper’s. He does not want conferences or to make videos. “A magazine should be a magazine,” he said. “A newspaper should be a newspaper.”
I would ask any proponents of MacArthur’s point of view to answer one question: When was the last time a Harper’s article became the subject of national conversation? The last big story I remember was in 2007, when journalist Silverstein posed as a representative of a brutal dictatorship and then carried out a James O’Keefe-like sting on some of DC’s largest lobbying firms.
That was seven years ago. But when you look at what are considered to be Harper’s main competitors, The Atlantic and The New Yorker, you see publications that regularly publish articles that send ripple effects throughout the punditsphere and the conversations of coffee shop patrons. Whether it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’s case for reparations or Jill Lepore’s takedown of The Innovator’s Dilemma, there’s no doubt that these magazines are performing the most basic yet ambitious of journalistic services by making the public think differently about an issue or injustice. Sure, The New Yorker, until recently, put a good bit of its material behind a paywall, but even then it was savvy about which of its articles would send reverberations through the news cycle and made them freely available on the web. The removal of its paywall and its future pay meter are further signs that it recognizes it needs to be part of this national conversation.