Harper's Publisher Turns Down $50,000 in Donations

The gruelling labor saga at Harper's Magazine continues.  When we last left them, the staff had just succeeded in organizing into a union, and was preparing to negotiate with Rick McArthur, the owner of the magazine.  Ugly layoffs hung over the head of the staff (some of whom have already been severed).  It was a sad time for one of the oldest, and most storied, publications in the United States.

When I first blogged the story, I asked what the staffers were hoping to get out of this.  As it happens, I was able to speak to two of the staffers, including a rather senior member.  Understandably, they requested that their names be kept confidential.  But they painted a picture of a magazine continually sapped by attrition, increasingly reliant on younger, cheaper staff who lacked experience or institutional memory.  Ross details some of this in his post:

Life at a publication such as Harper's is far from easy. The pay is bad, chances for advancement are almost nonexistent (during my tenure at the magazine, only two people on the editorial staff received a promotion due to merit rather than attrition; I was one them), and with each day, the sense that the magazine and the nation's readers hold less and less in common only seems to increase. Americans still care about politics, culture, and literature, despite the temptations of new media, television, and whatever myriad distractions presently on offer. Unfortunately, those concerns don't seem to require Harper's as an arbiter of what's valuable, a critic of what's wrong, an exemplar of comedic savagery, or (to borrow from another endangered colleague) an opportunity for middlebrow intellectual self-congratulation.

This hardly seems the forum to go into why that change has taken place. I will say that Harper's problems are hardly original among its publishing peers: the challenges it faces are structural, others stem from poor luck and an inability to plan; most, however, are clearly self-inflicted.

Interestingly, they spoke most passionately not about getting higher pay for themselves--they seemed rather grimly resigned to living on a pittance--but of somehow forcing McArthur to make the place more successful.  They wanted him to open the books, so that they could try to find ways to reduce expenses.  They wanted him to start trying to raise outside funds.

The demand didn't seem unreasonable--there's a limit to the cost-control you can do at a magazine like Harper's, where a certain level of quality is expected.  Eventually, if you cut too deep, you destroy your brand--mistakes creep in because of inadequate fact-checking, inexperienced editors run up your kill fees by commissioning unworkable pieces, and the quality of the pieces you do commission goes down, because the editors don't have enough time to work on them.  If they can't run on the existing budget, it seems sensible to seek outside funds.

But it didn't seem super-likely to me.  The rich men who pour millions into magazines are buying control.  (And, in the case of our illustrious owner, eventual profitability).  As a non-profit there's nothing stopping Harpers' from raising funds . . . except that it's embarassing for McArthur to go begging for alms, and doing so would eventually create demands that he share some power with the people giving donations.  It will not do Harper's any good to raise a few hundred thousand from outside sources, and lose McArthur's millions as ownership becomes less rewarding.

And indeed I see today that the staff has apparently sought outside contributions, and that McArthur has refused them:

Last night, the following message was posted on the "Save Harper's Magazine" Facebook page:
This afternoon, your generous pledges of more than $50,000 were rejected by lawyers representing our publisher, John R. "Rick" MacArthur. Sadly, he will give no ground on the layoffs, which he intends to see happen before contract negotiations can proceed. Having offered -- last week, and again today -- numerous other ways to reduce costs and avoid cutting experienced staff, we are deeply disappointed in this outcome, but we are truly touched that so many of you (more than 800!) pledged so much in just a few short days.

I emailed a spokeswoman for Harper's to ask why MacArthur declined to take the money but haven't heard back. MacArthur indicated he was leaning that way on Friday, when he told me, "Our readers know that our financial independence results in uncompromised, quality journalism and writing. I don't want to take money from people of modest incomes, and I certainly don't want to accept corporate or foundation money that, too often, comes with strings attached."

According to a source close to the situation, MacArthur felt that the union's expectation that the money it raised be used to pay the salary of an employee who would otherwise be laid off -- literary editor Ben Metcalf -- constituted a string. MacArthur's refusal to open up the Harper's Magazine Foundation to any donations other than his own is a point of contention between him and the union.

I hope that Harpers can find a way forward out of this mess. The recession has hit the whole profession hard, but it would be a particular shame to see it rain further blows on a venerable stalwart like Harper's.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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