Tough Times at Harpers

There's something both puzzling and tragic about the labor disputes at Harper's.  I had been aware of their struggles with circulation--indeed, I'm part of them.  Given how high the price is, and how rarely I felt like I was finding surprising, challenging articles, eventually, regretfully, I stopped taking the magazine.  Apparently, a lot of other people agreed, a problem that was compounded by the recession.

The budget deficit has led the owner to make changes; the changes has led to resistance from the staff.  And since this is Harper's, naturally, the staff has unionized.

We tend to think about labor disputes as attempts to divide the spoils of success:  unions form when there are excess profits that they can divert to workers.  But this is not always the case.  Unions also form when there is no longer enough to go around, and workers are trying to hold onto more of their former share.

It's hard to see what the point is.  MacArthur, the owner, wrote the typically self-serving missives that management issues during unionization disputes, but the bits that New York Magazine excerpts are basically right: a union is not going to give the staff the power to choose the editor in chief of a money-losing magazine that depends for its continued existence on the sufferance of a wealthy heir who is currently pouring about four million dollars a year into the thing.  Nor can it prevent layoffs when losses of that magnitude are on the line.  Does the union think that it can somehow force MacArthur to keep running the place to their satisfaction?

Given where I work, I suppose I can't let an interesting side-point pass unremarked:  MacArthur apparently thinks of us as his rivals; and he simply flatly refused to believe that we were profitable.

In the months following Hodge's ouster, the staff became alarmed when MacArthur's name began appearing on top of the masthead (previously it had been underneath the editors' names, along with the business staff). Senior editors Bill Wasik, Luke Mitchell, and Jen Szalai departed, along with web editor Paul Ford. To fill Hodge's position, MacArthur appointed Ellen Rosenbush, Harper's' longtime managing editor, as acting editor. The move struck many staffers as a way to have a more pliant editor in charge: Rosenbush helped edit MacArthur's monthly column in the Providence Journal and his book You Can't Be President.. Staffers also complained that MacArthur's business plan was doomed to fail. He seemed to show little interest in the web in general or the iPad in particular, at a moment when The Atlantic, its longtime thought-leader rival, had invested heavily online and had reaped benefits both in prestige and in financial viability. "He said no one will ever make money on the web," one staffer told me on condition of anonymity.

A couple of months after Hodge's firing, senior editor Donovon Hohn helped to convene a meeting about publishing Harper's on the iPad. MacArthur didn't attend. But shortly thereafter, staffers began receiving xeroxed articles from MacArthur in their mailboxes that trashed the iPad and Kindle. One article from the Spectator had a hand-typed line at the top: 

To: Hoipolloi
From: Rick

Last month, MacArthur wrote a column for the Providence Journal, subsequently posted on Harper's' website, that bashed the Internet. "I never found e-mail exciting," he wrote. "My skepticism stemmed from the suspicion that the World Wide Web wasn't, in essence, much more than a gigantic, unthinking Xerox machine ..."

When one staffer brought MacArthur's attention to a recent New York Times article that stated The Atlantic was profitable this year because of its heavy investments in the web, MacArthur responded: "They're lying. They're a private company and they can say whatever they want."

At least in this corner of The Atlantic, we wish our brother journalists at Harper's nothing but success; any feelings of rivalry have waned to nothingness since those rambunctious days of the 1880s.

I hope that you will take it from me, then, that we aren't lying; we really are profitable.  I spent most of last fall being repeatedly sworn to silence on our progress towards corporate goals.  These profits were achieved, not so that we could show the fellows at other publications, but simply because everyone--owner and staff--is happier with a profitable publication.

As you can see from the Harpers experience.  When there's not enough money to go around, people fight over the scraps.  Of course, getting to profitability is insanely difficult, which is why not many publications have managed the feat recently.  Given what Harper's has gone through, I can see why MacArthur would find it hard to believe in a profitable magazine.