Publisher’s Letter — From the October 2013 issue

Publisher’s Letter

When 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-profile 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 affinity 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 first and foremost to be read. If the magazine functions as an intermediary, it is between the creative imagination of the fiction 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.

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  • yohocoma

    I agree with most of John MacArthur’s views here. I couldn’t help thinking as I finished this piece in my print edition today, however, that the readership is being marinated and seasoned for a substantial price increase.

  • Tim

    I also agree with much of this, and would gladly pay more for this great magazine, if it reciprocated the idealism by publishing more women.


    If you were willing to go where amoral advertisers are, why not be willing to go where potential subscribers are? Is your hatred of the Internet so strong you are unwilling to lead people away from it?

    The Readings section, presumably with pieces that did not require $250,000 to produce, is just begging to be have excerpts in, say, The Awl.

    You can’t get away from advertising by just raising prices. How close to death are your subscribers? You need new ones, and they are on the Internet.

    • StickyGeranium

      “I also agree with much of this, and would gladly pay more for this great magazine, if it reciprocated the idealism by publishing more women.”


      There are fantastic female writers and journalists in the world, too many of them providing unpaid writing on the internet. Why isn’t Harpers spending its quality editing and publishing resources working with them? Why are male writers so much more likely to be paid for their work? (

  • Elroy

    Leading the Nation since 1850. My link to sanity. Bravo!

  • herwitz

    This letter convinced me to purchase a two-year subscription renewal. Well played. Also, Ironically, it really should be freely available to everyone.

    • john b.

      Most libraries have a periodicals section. I’m guessing it’s pretty easy to steal a magazine, considering it’s size, too.

      • herwitz

        Haha, the most elegant of solutions!

  • Acacia

    I’ll gladly pay for quality. When it comes to words, you get what you pay for on the Internet.

  • Matt Chew

    Speaking of ironies, arguing ‘you get what you pay for’ on one page and advertising for unpaid interns a few pages later seems inconsistent at best. As a member of an exploited class (adjunct university faculty) I suggest that you pay your interns a reasonable wage for the value they provide. After all, if they’re doing it for college credit, they’re paying tuition for the privilege of carrying your cappucino.

    • George J.

      Indeed. As Mr. MacArthur himself said, “Because good publishing, good editing, and good writing cost money, and publishers, editors, and writers have to earn a living.”

      Making this point repeatedly in a publisher’s letter and then refusing to pay interns is wilful hypocrisy.

  • JR

    My issue with this Publisher’s Letter is that it fails to address the class issue when all news goes behind paywalls. I have paid subscriptions to several monthly or weekly magazines, for a total yearly cost of less than $200. I used to browse dozens of daily newspapers and other sources. Now that paywalls are everywhere it would cost me $1000s for the same privilege. Who can afford this? The question is not meant to be rhetorical. The problem is just more nuanced than the letter makes it out to be.

  • Clay Banners

    @Harpers Usage of BITCOINS can civilly further diversify business and political machinations enabling better public control of the quality of political candidates.

    UJseage of Bitcoins CAN ESSENTIALLY DIVERSIFY AND ATTENUATE the ravenous monopolizatiolon of money that can be broken with more popularization and usage of Bitcoins that better diversifies and more fairly attenuates business and marketing controls, enabling more overdue and balancing compeiveness -even monetarily- and enabling the public to better regulate who gets in office by supporting more publicly congenial truly egalitarian candidates rather then just Wall Street Corporate back street ‘choirboys’.

  • Clay Banners

    The public spends more on mythical flying reindeer, bunny baskets and egg coloring and costumes than on real life emergencies such as assisting distraught homeless persons,

    more healthy foods and better emergency preparations 5that are not solely dependent on after the fact government emergency dole-outs. The billions siphoned from the public for holidays and the seasonally comic mascots being awed and lauded only during holidays keeps the public dependent upon political and corporate ‘apron strings’.

    Such billions could be better invested for longer termed benefits, such as reduced insurance rates, bankng interest, media content etc from acquiring actual ownership.


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