Publisher’s Letter — From the October 2013 issue
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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.
More from John R. MacArthur:
Conversation — September 20, 2016, 1:59 pm