Publisher’s Letter — From the October 2013 issue

Publisher’s Letter

( 2 of 4 )

As 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 efficient 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 well-wrought 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 fled 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, fact-checked, scrupulously edited, and extremely entertaining paragraphs. When the magazine became fully accessible online, our paywall remained firm. 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.

More from John R. MacArthur:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • 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.


November 2014

Stop Hillary!

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How the Islamic State was Won

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cage Wars

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Everyday Grace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content