Harper’s publisher makes case against Web publishing

Providence Journal | The Atlantic
Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur gave a lecture at Columbia University in February, but its text seems to have evaded widespread Internet attention till Monday afternoon (the speech is available as an audio file). He will return to Columbia in May to deliver an address for “Class Day.”

This is MacArthur’s first Internet-bashing piece in more than a year; “I Won’t Hug This File — I Won’t Even Call It My Friend” in Dec. 2010 seeded many of the themes he develops in the speech, among them:

  • The Internet is a “gigantic, unthinking Xerox machine” that’s ruining writers’ lives.

    “Photocopying had long been the enemy of periodicals – why buy a copy or pay for permission to reprint when you can copy one article or photo cheaper on a machine multiple times? – so I had good reason to beware.”

  • Printed matter is far more likely to make a lasting impression on readers.

    “…my ad agency contacts tell me that their proprietary research shows that print advertising is remembered longer and more clearly for the simple reason that readers spend more time with a printed article in a magazine than with pieces posted on Web sites. For a genuine apples-to-apples comparison, you would need a controlled test of people spending equal amounts of time on each medium, reading the same or equivalent articles and ads, but I’m unaware of any such study having been done.

    The lack of good research might be because the Internet salesmen know that Web sites would lose in a fair test..

  • Internet “radicalism,” personified by New York University professor Jay Rosen, is a terrible business model.

    I have been radicalized, as both a publisher and a writer, and have instituted a “protectionist” policy in regard to the Internet and its free-content salesmen. In the long run, I think I’ll be vindicated, since clearly the advertising “model” has failed and readers are going to have to pay (in opposition to Google’s bias against paid sites) if they want to see anything more complex than a blog, a classified ad or a sex act.

MacArthur concludes: “Put up paywalls on blogs, if you must blog, for pennies if that’s all the market will bear. But at least hold fast to the principle that writing is work, that writing has value, and that writers should be paid.”

Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic, responds directly to that point:

“I do respect one thing about MacArthur’s op-ed: he does truly value writers and their writing. We agree there. But it is *precisely* because I value my writing that I want it to be online and free. I don’t write merely to rub two pennies together; I write because I want to have an impact in the world. I want to work with my community to break stories and tell jokes, to highlight injustice and find better ways of solving problems. That means reaching readers where they are. People’s lives aren’t divided into “offline life” and “online life,” even if we’d like to pretend that’s the case. People on Capitol Hill use the Internet. People on Main Street use the Internet. People on Wall Street use the Internet. The Internet is where the action is: it’s where all the elegant, dirty, pretty, lowbrow, brilliant ideas come together to commingle and evolve.”

You knew MacArthur’s piece would pop on Twitter!

Klein links to this quote: “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

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  • http://twitter.com/girishmahadevan Girish Mahadevan

    As you have pointed out that I do writing because I want to. That is one point. The other point is, coming online after having been in print, isn’t that big a deal for a established print publisher (keep aside the revenue jazz). Content doesn’t make money most of the times, the engagement that the content generates is what makes a publisher money online.  All in all, I enjoyed every bit of McArthur’s article…but I don’t see a reason why should a publisher take one side…why does *web* have to bad for *print* to be good?

  • http://twitter.com/medialawguy Randy L. Dryer

    Harper’s Magazine, one of the great American publications, was founded in 1850.  I know that MacArthur couldn’t really be that old, but his laments on the realities of the internet reflect a crabbed and feckless yearning for the good old days.  Harpers and its writers seem to have adapted quite well to the new web 2.0 world even though its publisher apparently doesn’t like it.  And MacArthur totally ignores a major benefit of the internet…electronic access to every past issue of Harper’s back to June of 1850!  That beats a trip to the Library of Congress, apparently by horse and buggy if MacArthur had his druthers.

  • Anonymous

    This isn’t a scientific truth, though.

    It’s a sea change, and sea changes can be good or bad. Usually it is something of a mix. Whether this will be a net societal good or a net societal bad remains to be determined.

    In this case, I agree with him, it has been devastating to professional journalists and writers. Yes, we want our work to be seen. But if you can’t make a living doing it (unless you are independently wealthy), you will soon stop producing this work.

    And we see this with the torrent of professional journalists who have left the business, or been forced out.