Harper’s boss Rick MacArthur on blogging, paywalls, his editor shakeup and the future of journalism
Rick MacArthur is an acerbic, slightly rumpled born-to-the-manor renegade who remains publisher of Harper's Magazine long after saving it from extinction upon taking it over in 1983 as the storied monthly was suffering seven-figure annual losses.
He's the grandson of the billionaire whose fortune is behind the MacArthur Foundation but who also clashed acrimoniously with his late dad. His great uncle wrote "The Front Page," the enduring slapstick (but also political) play about the newspaper business in Chicago. And he remains an ink-stained wretch at heart, much informed by early years as a reporter or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Washington Star, Bergen (N.J.) Record, Chicago Sun-Times (where we met) and United Press International.
He's especially engrossed in how the press operates and pilloried it as a lapdog tool of Pentagon propaganda in one book, "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War." But that was long before a digital age that's confronted him, like all media operators, with vexing questions amid the demise of print publications. He's active, too, with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, which is named after his late dad and sister, at the Northwestern/Pritzker School of Law in Chicago. It's a civil rights law firm with offices there, New Orleans and Oxford, Mississippi.
Harper's remains very much a print operation, now with a nonprofit corporate structure. It's now got a paid circulation of 135,000 charging $45.99 for an annual subscription. But even if you desire digital only, you've got to take the print version.
It was one of many topics brought up in a conversation where MacArthur offered distinct opinions on the digital world, paywalls, competitors and the state of journalism.
To access your online content, you need a paid subscription to the physical magazine. But one does get a digital archive going back to 1850 and fully indexed by subject and author. You spent $1 million 10 years ago on that. So, all in all, explain your strategy.
My philosophy is that if you want to read a magazine, if you're trying to get people interested, you should try to make the magazine interesting. When Time Inc. was at its peak, they were horribly dependent on premium-sold subscriptions, like subscribing to get an alarm clock or a toy football. Even they knew it would eventually be the death of Time Inc. The whole thing was floated by premium-sold subscriptions.
I always pushed the actual writing over everything else. The theory was if you get people to actually read the magazine, they will be more likely to renew and, in the old days, more likely to look at the advertising. Now with Google and Facebook having taken most of the advertising, it's only about the relationship between the magazine and the reader. It's the only alternative to sell.
The New Yorker has a full-blown alternative magazine that is changing every day on its website. There's big overhead, lots of contributions, lots of bells and whistles. So they're basically running two magazines. My philosophy is to focus on the magazine and be who you are. With all the competition out there, it focuses your attention on what's really good. We don't try to distract people or trick them with other stuff, less good stuff. Clearly stuff on the front of The New Yorker website is of lower quality than what one finds in print, and they pay the writers less.
I do some work for Condé Nast (Vanity Fair, part of same company as The New Yorker). The New Yorker is run by some fabulous folks, like David Remnick. Whether or not one agrees with your assessment, The New Yorker is not ultimately the enemy.
They are not the enemy, but they are the competition. I see them responding to the digital challenge one way. We're responding a different way by focusing on just what we consider the good stuff, the best stuff. We have made some concessions, like a weekly news summary, with 70,000 "subscribers" and are selling some ads off it. But we are not trying an alternative operation on the website.
And I do think blogging is really bad for writers. Ask Andrew Sullivan. He almost had a breakdown. You can see the quality of bloggers' writing decline. We hired Walter Kirn to be our every-other-month columnist. We're sending him to the Republican National Convention but don't want him to blog because we don't want to dilute what he's doing for the print magazine.
What is your assessment right now of the general state of paid digital content? What about the struggle of local daily newspapers to get digital-only subscribers?
I think it's a pipe dream. I always thought it was a pipe dream. They started giving out everything for free, then reversed course. I do think there is something neurological going on, along with what is going on in the market. By giving away free content, you put them in competition with everybody.
Every idiot who could blog, and claim to be covering the local zoning commission, could say he was a journalist competing with the local paper. Readers learned not to differentiate and to see a free blog as same thing as the guy writing for the local paper. "And the paper doesn't think it's worth any money and is not charging me." Then, the paper, having trained people to want information for free, diseducated people about the difference between a real reported story and something off the top of the head.
In addition, there is social science that backs this up. A Norwegian social scientist I know studies high school students and finds that Norwegian students absorb more off the paper than e-readers. Paper forces you to concentrate more. Maybe it's something about the screen itself that devalues the type. I can't bear to read a news story interrupted by ads, promotional announcements and links to other things. On paper, you read in a linear way and are not interrupted. I'm not sure how put the genie back in the bottle, but I'm banking on print. The Toronto Star is doing cutting-edge work with the paper.
I have a friend who runs the weekly New York Times supplement they sell to foreign newspapers, and it's doing well. People see the enhanced value of paper.
Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, just unceremoniously exited as head of its parent organization after a much-touted career there. One issue was paywalls. What's your take on him?
I saw him as a crazy ideologue. I thought he was nuts. He was the most aggressive promoter of free content not because he thought it a better way to reach readers, or to sell advertising, but just saying information wants to be free, like food. He was out of his mind. Not a newspaperman, an ideologue. He accomplished things, like taking the feed, or document dump, from Edward Snowden. But I think his head should be on a pike on the London Bridge. By promoting this crazy ideology of free content, he did more damage than anybody. It wasn't a mistake, it was a political commitment. Whether The Guardian can pull itself together and persuade people to pay for it, I don't know.
I first encountered a Guardian editor in a news conference near Bordeaux, France and said they were proud of getting rid of their last press. I thought the guy was nuts. But how do you turn it around? How do you persuade people to pay? Well, very gradually. Not until the Justice Department acts against Google. We have our work cut out for us....MORE