Publisher’s Letter — From the October 2013 issue

Publisher’s Letter

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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.

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