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."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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