Publisher’s Letter — From the October 2013 issue

Publisher’s Letter

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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 benefit 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 field? 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 fighting 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, find it logical to trust that 150,000 discriminating Harper’s subscribers, tens of thousands of newsstand buyers, and thousands of on-screen readers will find 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.

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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.


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