What Went Wrong at Harper's?

What has the storied 160-year-old magazine done to deserve its current crisis? The answer may be nothing.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The New York Times reports Monday on a "crisis" at Harper's magazine. Last week, the publisher fired the magazine's top editor and Harper's readers, sales and relevance have been dwindling for years. So, what has the storied and respected 160-year-old publication done to deserve its current problems? The answer may be nothing.

Harper's publisher John R. MacArthur outlined the magazine's problems at a staff meeting last week, according to The Times:

[R]eadership was down 35,000, newsstand sales were plummeting, the only direct-mail piece that seemed to work was 20 years old. Worse, Harper's seemed irrelevant -- "the mainstream media is ignoring it to death," he said -- according to people who were at the meeting.

Those problems, some have argued, stem from its institutional resistance to change. Felix Salmon, for one, says a failure to make content available for free online has "doomed" the magazine:

A magazine's website can and should be a force multiplier, extending the reach of the magazine from its historical place in subscribers' homes. No one has ever subscribed to Harper's because of something they read on its website, and as public discourse moves increasingly online, any public-interest magazine with a high paywall will be doomed to irrelevance.

Harper's has lagged behind its competitors The Atlantic and The New Yorker in number of newsstand copies sold, The Times reports, and both The Atlantic and New Yorker offer at least some content for free online. One recent and notable exception to Harper's paywall-only model was the magazine's controversial March cover story on inconsistencies surrounding three Guantanamo prisoner suicides, which Harper's released for free online in mid-January. Still, the story was not initially widely reported on and, when it was, the reception was somewhat critical.

The magazine isn't only stuck in the past when it comes to publishing online. One employee described a different kind of time warp to The Times' reporter: "The business side is run like it's Esquire in 1968, and the edit side is run like it's Amnesty International in 1987." Yet its non-profit business model is in vogue as a proposed solution to the media crisis. Thus Harper's struggles, as Matt Welch at non-profit libertarian Reason magazine observes, should be a "cautionary tale for those who see the nonprofit business model as the panacea for print journalism's continuing crisis."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.