Rick MacArthur is an acerbic, slightly rumpled born-to-the-manor renegade who remains publisher of Harper’s Magazine long after saving it from extinction upon taking it over in 1983 as the storied monthly was suffering seven-figure annual losses.
He’s the grandson of the billionaire whose fortune is behind the MacArthur Foundation but who also clashed acrimoniously with his late dad. His great uncle wrote “The Front Page,” the enduring slapstick (but also political) play about the newspaper business in Chicago. And he remains an ink-stained wretch at heart, much informed by early years as a reporter or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Washington Star, Bergen (N.J.) Record, Chicago Sun-Times (where we met) and United Press International.
He’s especially engrossed in how the press operates and pilloried it as a lapdog tool of Pentagon propaganda in one book, “Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War.” But that was long before a digital age that’s confronted him, like all media operators, with vexing questions amid the demise of print publications. He’s active, too, with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, which is named after his late dad and sister, at the Northwestern/Pritzker School of Law in Chicago. It’s a civil rights law firm with offices there, New Orleans and Oxford, Mississippi.
Harper’s remains very much a print operation, now with a nonprofit corporate structure. It’s now got a paid circulation of 135,000 charging $45.99 for an annual subscription. But even if you desire digital only, you’ve got to take the print version.
It was one of many topics brought up in a conversation where MacArthur offered distinct opinions on the digital world, paywalls, competitors and the state of journalism.
To access your online content, you need a paid subscription to the physical magazine. But one does get a digital archive going back to 1850 and fully indexed by subject and author. You spent $1 million 10 years ago on that. So, all in all, explain your strategy.
My philosophy is that if you want to read a magazine, if you’re trying to get people interested, you should try to make the magazine interesting. When Time Inc. was at its peak, they were horribly dependent on premium-sold subscriptions, like subscribing to get an alarm clock or a toy football. Even they knew it would eventually be the death of Time Inc. The whole thing was floated by premium-sold subscriptions.
I always pushed the actual writing over everything else. The theory was if you get people to actually read the magazine, they will be more likely to renew and, in the old days, more likely to look at the advertising. Now with Google and Facebook having taken most of the advertising, it’s only about the relationship between the magazine and the reader. It’s the only alternative to sell.
The New Yorker has a full-blown alternative magazine that is changing every day on its website. There’s big overhead, lots of contributions, lots of bells and whistles. So they’re basically running two magazines. My philosophy is to focus on the magazine and be who you are. With all the competition out there, it focuses your attention on what’s really good. We don’t try to distract people or trick them with other stuff, less good stuff. Clearly stuff on the front of The New Yorker website is of lower quality than what one finds in print, and they pay the writers less.
I do some work for Condé Nast (Vanity Fair, part of same company as The New Yorker). The New Yorker is run by some fabulous folks, like David Remnick. Whether or not one agrees with your assessment, The New Yorker is not ultimately the enemy.
They are not the enemy, but they are the competition. I see them responding to the digital challenge one way. We’re responding a different way by focusing on just what we consider the good stuff, the best stuff. We have made some concessions, like a weekly news summary, with 70,000 “subscribers” and are selling some ads off it. But we are not trying an alternative operation on the website.
And I do think blogging is really bad for writers. Ask Andrew Sullivan. He almost had a breakdown. You can see the quality of bloggers’ writing decline. We hired Walter Kirn to be our every-other-month columnist. We’re sending him to the Republican National Convention but don’t want him to blog because we don’t want to dilute what he’s doing for the print magazine.
What is your assessment right now of the general state of paid digital content? What about the struggle of local daily newspapers to get digital-only subscribers?
I think it’s a pipe dream. I always thought it was a pipe dream. They started giving out everything for free, then reversed course. I do think there is something neurological going on, along with what is going on in the market. By giving away free content, you put them in competition with everybody.
Every idiot who could blog, and claim to be covering the local zoning commission, could say he was a journalist competing with the local paper. Readers learned not to differentiate and to see a free blog as same thing as the guy writing for the local paper. “And the paper doesn’t think it’s worth any money and is not charging me.” Then, the paper, having trained people to want information for free, diseducated people about the difference between a real reported story and something off the top of the head.
In addition, there is social science that backs this up. A Norwegian social scientist I know studies high school students and finds that Norwegian students absorb more off the paper than e-readers. Paper forces you to concentrate more. Maybe it’s something about the screen itself that devalues the type. I can’t bear to read a news story interrupted by ads, promotional announcements and links to other things. On paper, you read in a linear way and are not interrupted. I’m not sure how put the genie back in the bottle, but I’m banking on print. The Toronto Star is doing cutting-edge work with the paper.
I have a friend who runs the weekly New York Times supplement they sell to foreign newspapers, and it’s doing well. People see the enhanced value of paper.
Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, just unceremoniously exited as head of its parent organization after a much-touted career there. One issue was paywalls. What’s your take on him?
I saw him as a crazy ideologue. I thought he was nuts. He was the most aggressive promoter of free content not because he thought it a better way to reach readers, or to sell advertising, but just saying information wants to be free, like food. He was out of his mind. Not a newspaperman, an ideologue. He accomplished things, like taking the feed, or document dump, from Edward Snowden. But I think his head should be on a pike on the London Bridge. By promoting this crazy ideology of free content, he did more damage than anybody. It wasn’t a mistake, it was a political commitment. Whether The Guardian can pull itself together and persuade people to pay for it, I don’t know.
I first encountered a Guardian editor in a news conference near Bordeaux, France and said they were proud of getting rid of their last press. I thought the guy was nuts. But how do you turn it around? How do you persuade people to pay? Well, very gradually. Not until the Justice Department acts against Google. We have our work cut out for us.
You just wrote about the dismissal of the No. 2 editor at a French news magazine. You wrote, “At the same time, what troubles me even more about Aude Lancelin’s dismissal is the rise of a journalistic orthodoxy at L’Obs similar to what I see more or less everywhere in Western journalism.” Explain that “orthodoxy.”
It’s, “we can manage the company into profitability by doing certain kinds of stories in certain categories.” It was always a publisher’s dream in the old days. If ad salesmen had their own way, everything in paper would be about a product, or touching a category he wants to sell. It’s a reporter’s and editor’s job to fight that. There is also the randomness of journalism. You happen upon stuff that is interesting. You can’t calculate every morning what will work financially. You’d have a dull paper if you did that and left nothing to chance.
It’s why you should work in an office, and not just in remote locations to save money and not promote creative thinking and creative ideas. I meet these people all the time who say, “If we just get our editors to think more digitally, or more about consumer category X, Y and Z, we will be successful.” It doesn’t work that way and is very boring. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be disciplined and have budgets and think of a business-like approach. But it has become a fetish that we must manage our way to profitability by setting very specific editorial goals and anything outside verboten.
OK. So what would you say about journalism, generally, these days? And does the current presidential campaign inform your views in any ways?
It’s terrible in the sense that on TV they let Trump be the reporter. Why would you get somebody on who knows something about the subjects he talks about when you can get Trump to shoot off his mouth and your ratings go up? CNN and MSNBC may be less stupid (than others) but will still have P.R. people, representatives of the campaign or the candidate himself rather than people who know what they’re talking about.
Take a look at the (Eugene) McCarthy-(Robert) Kennedy debate (before the California Democratic presidential primary) in 1968 before Kennedy was shot. It was moderated by three serious political journalists (moderator Frank Reynolds and panelists Robert Clark and William Lawrence, all of ABC News). Now, instead, you have one (person) who is sort of an actor, like Anderson Cooper or Rachel Maddow, organizing a conversation among insiders, many of them not journalists.
Newspapers are not as far-gone. Fortunately, you still see some mediation going on among candidates and readers. But a lot of this started when I wrote my book on the Persian Gulf War, and (Commanding Gen. H. Norman) Schwarzkopf (Jr.) was a genius who corralled the media. They were completely dependent on Schwarzkopf. So instead of press conferences, he did straight P.R. into the TV camera, over the head of journalists. And it was Schwarzkopf, or whoever advised him, who started it. Speaking over the reporters. He didn’t even have reporters in the room. At least in the Saudi Arabia press center, the reporters assembled and, after he read his press statement into the camera, a few were allowed to ask a question.
What’s your take on the young people whom you interview for jobs?
When we got into the business, we thought newspapers were cool. It was partly a result of the Vietnam War, Watergate and other, romantic notions. Now I don’t get the same sense of romantic or political engagement. But they are more serious than we were and way better educated than we were. I don’t know which is better.
I thought it was more fun when I came into the business. They seem more frightened, with everybody telling them journalism is done for, and they’re lucky to get a job at BuzzFeed, not working for much money. I see excessive caution, and tremendous and admirable seriousness since they want to distinguish themselves by how smart they are. We have interns who speak three languages and are summa cum laude. They are desperate to get into journalism. But I am worried because they are so frightened and cautious. For us, if it didn’t work out at one place, there were 30 others papers to go work for. All those options of making a living, hither and yon, are not in the cards anymore. Plus, if do get a job at a paper, you may wind up drowned with blogging.
You had a parting of the ways with an editor in chief after three months. What the hell was that about?
I can’t say too much. I fired him. I could say broadly speaking there was a generation gap between him and me. He’s a very bright guy, a good editor as a No. 3 (we had three people at same level). But I don’t think he was in journalism for the same reason I am. He was in it for a discrete career. My great uncle was Charles MacArthur. It’s in my blood, and I have a sense of romance about it. “The Front Page” is a very political play, with a strong political point of view. That, plus the Vietnam War, got me crazy about being in journalism. I don’t think he (the former editor) had that. It was more mechanical, career-oriented, less romantic.
What would you think that Harper’s has to offer that others do not? How do you exist in a universe with seemingly better-resourced, higher-profile competitors, like The New Yorker and The Atlantic?
I think we are giving you stuff you can’t get elsewhere. Sometimes we have oddball takes on things. For the new issue, Tom Bissell went on a bus tour of Israel with a right-wing talk show host and 450 Christian, pro-Israel evangelicals. It’s a wild piece that I don’t think could appear in The New Yorker or New York Times Magazine. It’s too off-the-wall, too weird. It’s the cover piece in the July issue. And when we do investigative reporting, we usually hit an area that hasn’t been touched much. My favorite piece in recent years was by Jess Bruder on exploitation of elderly people who work for Amazon, these people in their 70s and 80s who would have been retired in the old days and now with no pensions. So they travel around the country in RV’s, hook them up as close to an Amazon warehouse as they can and knock themselves out during for selling season, then move on to the next Amazon warehouse. People in their 70s and 80s who shouldn’t be working. I don’t see that much reporting of that.
You are very active with a family-founded nonprofit that’s involved with criminal justice matters. It just celebrated a big anniversary. What’s the state of criminal justice journalism?
It’s terrible now. It used to be very good when there were more newspapers. Two stars were Maury Possley (then at the Chicago Tribune, now the National Registry of Exonerations in California) and Jim Dwyer when he was at Newsday (now at The New York Times). But there were other people, too. All over the country, local papers were doing big investigative pieces on wrongful convictions and judicial malpractice. Now most of the reporters have been wiped out. So I would say the state of enterprise reporting on travesties of justice — the classic pieces — is very poor. And there’s no replacement.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Harper’s news summary subscriber count is 20,000. In fact, it is 70,000. We apologize for the error.