Sunday, November 17, 2013

Too important not to read.

We're all too busy to read. This is not snack-sized. But it's too important to disregard.

P U B L I S H E R ’ S L E T T E R
By John R. MacArthur

W hen I began my tenure as publisher
of Harper’s Magazine  nearly thirty
years ago, my biggest challenge—or
so I thought at the time—was to get
advertising agencies to pay more attention
to the celebrated journal of
American ideas and literature entrusted
to my care. Harper’s  had tens of
thousands of loyal readers but not
many loyal advertisers, so my task
seemed clear. Fawning over salesmen
rubbed against my political grain, but
those days were dominated by the
free-market dogma of the Reagan Administration,
and I fell prey to some of
the president’s most simpleminded
thinking. If advertisers didn’t sufficiently
admire serious readers of the
Harper’s  variety, then it was my job to
persuade Madison Avenue and its clients
that I was serious about their
concerns—about selling their products
to my readers.
And oh how we sold! For twenty
years, editor Lewis Lapham and I crisscrossed
the country in pursuit of what
everyone else in our business was after:
glossy, high-pro_le consumer and corporate
advertising. Armed with our
good name—Harper’s,  after all, was
deeply enmeshed in America’s cultural
and historical fabric—we maneuvered
our way into company dining rooms
from Wall Street to Rockefeller Center,
from Louisville to St. Louis, from
Boise to Palo Alto. We engaged our
hosts in discussions of the political and
literary issues of the day, but to better
impress them we also invoked our af-
_nity with the advertising world, presenting
as evidence the brief stint on
the Harper’s  board of the legendary adman
William J. Bernbach, as well as
our own very slick house ad produced
by the renowned firm of Scali,
McCabe, Sloves. It didn’t hurt our
cause that my late father, Roderick,
was something of an advertising genius.
I spoke the language of the advertising
trade because, along with
journalism and politics, I’d absorbed it
nearly every day of my childhood at
the kitchen table. It also didn’t hurt
that Lewis Lapham and I were
spawned by the very business establishment
we criticized in nearly every
issue of America’s oldest continuously
published monthly.
Current readers may be surprised
to learn that we were largely successful
in our efforts: many corporations
encouraged their ad agencies
to take a fresh look at Harper’s Magazine,
 and the ads began to roll in.
For my part, I was astonished that
most of the CEOs we met, though
nearly all Republicans, were barely
ideological and almost never objected
to the subversive, sometimes
overtly anticapitalist articles that
appeared in our pages. As our advertising
revenue grew, I rarely worried
about reprisals for anything we published.
Indeed, one of the most
stinging critiques I ever heard of
George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion
of Iraq came from the chairman
of a major American oil company
over lunch at his headquarters in
Houston. For many of these men,
and for their more liberal-minded
advisers, Harper’s  and its brand of
open-minded, freewheeling discourse
were automatically worthy of
their backing.
But as the magazine’s bottom line
improved through the dot-com boom
that ended in 2000 and the anti-Bush
boom that ended in 2009, something
crucial seemed to be missing from
our “marketing equation.” In all my
scurrying back and forth between
Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and
New York, I never considered a fundamental
question: Why did a magazine
of ideas, criticism, and reporting
need to serve as a sales medium between
advertisers and readers; why
should advertising be our principal
means of support? Not that I didn’t
want advertising or have respect for
our advertisers, some of whom were
genuinely civic-minded. But wasn’t
the truly important compact—really
the only relationship that mattered—
between reader and writer or, to some
extent, reader, writer, and editor?
Harper’s  is published _rst and foremost
to be read. If the magazine
functions as an intermediary, it is between
the creative imagination of the
_ction writer or essayist and the creative
spirit of the sensitive reader; between
the inquiring mind of the
journalist and the engaged mind of
the alert, occasionally outraged citizen.
This compact now needs to be
stated forcefully and in unmistakable
terms. A s it happens, recent technology
has brutally pressed my question
about the appropriate connection
between reader, writer, and
advertiser on every publisher in our
increasingly wired-up world. I was
immediately suspicious of the Internet
being touted, in the late 1990s,
as a miraculously ef_cient publishing
platform because of the Web’s
capacity for massive copyright violation.
But what disturbed me more as
a publisher and a writer was the
ugly commodification of writing
itself—the renaming of prose and
poetry as something called “content.”
Suddenly, my colleagues and
competitors were reducing wellwrought
sentences and stories to the
level of screws and bolts. Not only
was “content” an empty and offensive
word, but my fellow publishers
also proposed to give it away free in
the quest for more advertising. Instead
of honoring the reader, writer,
and editor, this new approach to the
publishing business insulted them,
both by devaluing their work and by
feeding it—with little or no
remuneration—to search engines,
which in turn feed information to
advertising agencies (and, as it turns
out, the government).
The result, as anyone with even a
passing interest can observe, has
been catastrophic: massive layoffs of
editorial employees; the collapse of
major publications; the impoverishment
of writers; the alarming decline
of editorial standards for accuracy,
grammar, and coherent thought;
and the dumbing down of journalism
across the board. Great American
publishing institutions such as the
Washington Post and the Boston
Globe have been placed on the auction
block for a fraction of their
former value. Meanwhile, the advertisers
themselves have _ed traditional
publications for the allegedly
greener pastures of social media and
Google. Paradoxically, the more
advertisers demanded eyeballs and
clicks, the more writing the publishers
gave away, and the less advertisers
advertised. We know what
happens to lemmings—thanks to
YouTube you can watch it in graphic
detail any time of the day or
night—so I decided early on I
wouldn’t join in the frenzy of free
content. From the launching of our
website in 2003, we at Harper’s insisted
that subscribers continue to
pay to read our well-written, factchecked,
scrupulously edited, and
extremely entertaining paragraphs.
When the magazine became fully
accessible online, our paywall remained
_rm. We are pleased to be
able to offer the magazine in a digital
format, but what we won’t do is
give in to the free-content “logic” of
so many publications. Tellingly, very
few subscribers have complained,
and we are still in business, having
conceded nothing in the quality of
our character or, dare I
say, our content. Paywalls are now being erected everywhere.
Even the champion blogger
Andrew Sullivan is asking his readers
to pay twenty dollars a year for unlimited
access to his work. But as with
global warming, so much damage has
already been done to the literary and
journalistic atmosphere that I’m
afraid we’re approaching a point of no
return. I can’t quite believe my ears at
the nonsense still being peddled by
the advocates of free content. Who
needs fact-checkers when we have
crowdsourcing to correct the record?
Why doesn’t Harper’s give away a particularly
good investigative piece
(such as Ted Conover’s powerful undercover
report in May on an industrial
slaughterhouse) so that more
people will read it?
Because good publishing, good editing,
and good writing cost money,
and publishers, editors, and writers
have to earn a living. We are proud
that we can send a photographer to
Iran for a couple of weeks and then
deliver the resulting images to readers
in our September issue through the
mail on good paper and over the Internet
in high resolution for computer
screens and tablets. This photographer,
who requested anonymity,
risked arrest and prison to take excellent
pictures—as do other photographers
such as Samuel James—for the
bene_t of Harper’s and you. The censors
in Tehran are surely upset.
Shouldn’t Anonymous be paid for
this courage and skill? Shouldn’t
Harper’s be compensated for sending
Anonymous into the _eld? All told,
the photo essay cost us about $25,000,
including printing, paper, and mailing.
It is unreasonable to expect that
an advertiser would directly sponsor
such daring photography. It is wishful
thinking to believe that parasitic
Google, now bloated with billions of
dollars’ worth of what I consider pirated
property, will ever willingly pay
Harper’s, or Anonymous, anything at
all for the right to distribute Anonymous’s
pictures (although it’s worth
noting that the German government
is _ghting Google on behalf of German
publishers and writers over this
very point). We cannot even count
on America’s enlightened public libraries
to help foot the bill for Anonymous.
I recently found myself in the
Lenox, Massachusetts, public library,
where Harper’s Magazine is currently
unavailable. When our circulation director
complained that the magazine
that published Edith Wharton’s short
stories, many written just down the
road at the Mount, deserved pride of
place in the library’s periodicals section,
she was told that budget cuts
had made it impossible for the library
to pay for a subscription.
We, however, _nd it logical to trust
that 150,000 discriminating Harper’s
subscribers, tens of thousands of
newsstand buyers, and thousands of
on-screen readers will _nd it in their
interest to pay substantially more for
a magazine that publishes such outstanding
material. This seems as evident
to me today as my conceptually
flawed advertising model did thirty
years ago. And I’m beginning to sense
a turning of the tide, in the quantity
of new subscribers—many of them
signing up through our website—and
in the supportive emails and letters we
receive every day that praise the careful
editing and lively writing
that go into every issue. It has been a trying decade for publishers
and writers all over the world,
and our challenges can sometimes
seem overwhelming. In the United
States, unfortunately, the bankrupting
of journalists and authors has
been matched by an impoverished debate
about how to sustain a high standard
of publishing and writing. Until
recently, the rush to appear modern,
the peer pressure to accept the inevitability
of print’s demise, and the supposed
virtues of writing for free have
dominated what passes for a discussion.
“Is there a living to be made
when editors expect to get quality, ontime
copy for zero cents a word?”
asked Mark Kingwell two months ago
in these pages. Certainly not, unless
we lower our standards and rede_ne
the meaning of “good writing.”
Some voices of sanity, though,
have been heard in Europe, in England
most notably that of Tyler
Brûlé, editor in chief of Monocle and
Fast Lane columnist for the largely
paywalled and still pro_table Financial
Times. More compelling still has
been the experience of the French
publisher Laurent Beccaria, founder
of the book-publishing company Les
Arènes and a quarterly generalinterest
magazine called XXI (“Vingt
et un”). Together with his editor, Patrick
de Saint-Exupéry, Beccaria has
defied the conventional wisdom
about the free-content model and
turned XXI into the most dynamic,
and perhaps the most pro_table, new
magazine on the European scene.
Although it does have a website, you
cannot read XXI on a computer—
you must buy the print edition for
the equivalent of about twenty dollars
a copy at a bookstore or get it
through the mail. The quality of
XXI is guaranteed not by _ckle marketers
suffering from short attention
spans but by faithful readers whose
powers of concentration—whose appreciation
for the elegant sentence
and the hard-earned insight—have
survived the onslaught of the Web’s
unedited mediocrity.
This January, Beccaria and
Saint-Exupéry published a manifesto
in XXI that sought to reclaim the
journalistic territory conceded too
easily to online, unpaid, snippet journalism.
We’ve published an excerpt in
this month’s Readings section that I
believe speaks for itself; I urge you to
read it. Beccaria and Saint-Exupéry
offer many smart observations, but
this one seems paramount for my purposes
and for the continued health of
Harper’s Magazine:
Pompous phrases about the need “to
re invent the press’s economic model”
mask the reality: what has to be restored
is the exchange value between
news publications and their readers.
How many of us would agree to spend
two or three dollars for an espresso
downed in five minutes but would
balk at forking over the same for a
daily or weekly news organ as these
are currently conceived? To be useful,
desirable, and necessary—that’s the
only economic model worth considering.
It’s as old as the world, as old
as commerce.
Thus shall we proceed—in partnership
with advertisers who recognize
the pro_t in being associated with a
magazine of the highest editorial standards
and with our extraordinary,
paying readers. We are investing heavily
in reporting and photojournalism,
consistently running more pages than
we have in decades. Along the way
I’ve learned that to be “useful, desirable,
and necessary” is to serve the
reader and the writer, not the Internet,
or the consumer, or the lords of
merchandising. Harper’s Magazine is
not a cutting board for sausages sold at
a certain cost per thousand. It is,
among other things, what the late
New York senator Daniel Patrick
Moynihan called “the fulcrum of
American letters and public comment.”
It is a storehouse of the American
experience dating back 163 years,
including much of the country’s greatest
belles-lettres, journalism, and, increasingly,
art and photography. At our
best, we provoke that “zig-zag streak of
lightning through the brain” (a phrase
of Edward Grey’s quoted by Lord Asquith
to describe Winston Churchill)
when a reader’s mind is pierced by an
understanding or a realization that was
previously inaccessible.
But Harper’s is also an agreement
between reader, writer, and publisher
to reject spoon-fed, tailored solutions—
and that goes for the Internet publishing
model as much as it goes for invading
Iraq, democratizing Afghanistan,
and protecting the American population
from terrorists by warrantless
spying on every last one of us. With
your support, we’ll do better than just
survive; we’ll help bring the national
conversation back to a level of intelligence,
comprehension, and authenticity
that will make our readers and
contributors proud. A literary and political
conversation, I hope, in the
spirit of the great editor Maxwell Perkins,
who, feeling pressured to make
Ernest Hemingway conform to the
short-term exigencies and whims of the
marketplace, wrote to the author in
1935: “All You have to do is to follow
your own judgment, or instinct, + disregard
what is said, + convey the absolute
bottom quality of each person,
situation + thing. . . . I can get pretty
depressed but even at worst I still
believe—+ its written in all the past—
that the utterly real thing in writing is
the only thing that counts, + the whole
racket melts down before it.” n

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