Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What Happened to Harper's?

I've subscribed to Harper's Magazine for at least 20 years, since I got out of college. I also subscribed to The Atlantic then, but I always liked Harper's better (all the fiction in The Atlantic, we used to joke, had to have priests, Irish people, or boats in it, if not all three) and then The Atlantic stopped publishing fiction, except for once a year, so I stopped reading it. Harper's stayed good, even great; the fiction was wild and unpredictable (even publishing a whacked-out novel in serial by some crazy guy) and the non-fiction always surprising and smart. I even enjoyed Lewis Lapham's loopy rants. If the mag seemed to be less totally wonderful lately, I chalked it up to the natural cycles of publishing: everyone has their ups and downs.

But could Harper's be... over? You probably heard about the trouble they've been having with their publisher, who is laying off several editors. What it looks like from the outside -- and I certainly have no inside knowledge -- is that the magazine doesn't want to make the compromises it has to make if it wants to survive in the same world as Huffington Post and Gawker and Talking Points Memo and all those other constantly updating, endlessly interesting, free sources of news and journalism and culturey stuff. Their publisher has publicly ranted against the Internet. But is it even possible to be a print-only, general interest magazine anymore?

Well, The Atlantic seems to be doing okay. It has a real, busy, packed-with-news website, lots of bloggers, and it's spiffed up its journalism -- lots of attention getting articles like Caitlin Flanagan's anti-school-gardens screed. That knee-jerk nay-saying stuff is annoying as heck, but it gives people something to argue about. Anyway, The Atlantic feels alive.

Should Harper's take a leaf from The Atlantic's pages? Should they modernize and hyperactivate? Or go down screaming?


Nick said...

Sad news. Lately, they've been publishing some really good fiction and, as always, very provocative articles. Yet they are intent on resisiting all attempts to modernize or develop a real web presence. You've probably seen this article by their publisher, John R. MacArtur:


Contrast Harper's with The Atlantic, which has embraced the web, developed new revenue streams, and is actually making a PROFIT:


I get the reasons why MacArthur doesn't like the internet, but if he sits tight without trying to re-develop, his ship, sadly, is going down.

5 Red Pandas said...

I think it's very telling that while I will go to the Atlantic website at least once a week to see what's going on, anytime I remember that Harper's even has a website I never ever stay to read anything. The site is not user friendly and when it comes to the Internet things like useability really, really, really matter. I mean, that matters in other arenas, but how you get people to keep clicking on a website is important, especially when there are any number of other sites immediately available.

When you're reading a print mag you might slog through a bad layout because you might not have another magazine at hand, but with the Internet, everything else is at hand.

I really don't understand the publisher's resistance to the Internet. I don't think it's rational or noble to think that a good website with great content will harm the magazine. I read somewhere yesterday that Mother Jones is able to do good work by fund raising millions of dollars. That seems like an option that Harper's could try, but the publisher seems resistant to any money other than his own. What if his vision sucks? Just because it comes from one independent source that doesn't mean it can't corrupt the quality of the magazine. His narrow mindedness seems to be doing just that.

Kathleen said...

Thanks for this comparison. Likewise, I used to read both and tended to prefer Harper's, in part because of the lists of neat stuff, and all info gathering seems perfect for the Internet.... Hmmm.

Ginger said...

Harper's also appears to review 2+ books written by men for every one written by a woman: The Count 2010 (VIDA: Women in Literary Arts)

I've only glanced at this, but I suspect there's a similar disparity in my personal reading habits. Unfortunately I'm a long way from understanding why that's the case.

Nick said...

Ginger, don't just single out Harper's for its gender bias. Sadly, just about every other (all?) pub on the Vida list have bad numbers.