A response to Harper's publisher John MacArthur's lengthy screed against the enterprise of online journalism


This is the Internet, basically, according to Harper's publisher. flickr/wheatfields.

Long before I wrote stories for magazines, I read a magazine called Harper's. It was smart and weird and I felt like I found things there that I couldn't find elsewhere. Wonderful editors worked for Harper's like Clara Jeffery and Bill Wasik and Paul Ford. They brought thinkers like the now-famous David Graeber to my attention years before anybody else.

Dining in fluorescent-lit discomfort with my scrappy friends, we wondered why such a wonderful place refused to be a part of what we knew to be the flourishing intellectual domain known as The Internet. Now, thanks to a curmudgeonly op-ed from Harper's publisher John MacArthur, we know why: one time, when he and Lewis Lapham were dining in San Francisco near the height of the Internet bubble, someone used a word (platform) to describe something he didn't understand, and he's been deadset against such "Internet con men" ever since.

So, Jeffery left to run Mother Jones, which has used digital savvy to put itself back near the heart of the nation's political conversations, and Wasik now works for Wired. Paul Ford makes things on the Internet and writes beautiful pieces about technology. And Harper's, well, they steadfastly refused to put their stories on the Internet, despite the "young people" who tried in vain to change their publisher's heart. "The Internet, I told them, wasn't much more than a gigantic Xerox machine," he brags. (The Xerox machine, I would tell him, wasn't much more than a fast printing press.)
Amidst all the nostalgia and rambling, I think his objections to the Internet come down to money, or more precisely, his inability to make any online. The whole Internet publishing enterprise will be a parenthesis, MacArthur thinks, before people come back to their senses and realize that LL Bean catalogs were the apotheosis of the at-home shopping experience. Let me quote him extensively:

In any event, my ad agency contacts tell me that their proprietary research shows that print advertising is remembered longer and more clearly for the simple reason that readers spend more time with a printed article in a magazine than with pieces posted on Web sites. For a genuine apples-to-apples comparison, you would need a controlled test of people spending equal amounts of time on each medium, reading the same or equivalent articles and ads, but I'm unaware of any such study having been done.

The lack of good research might be because the Internet salesmen know that Web sites would lose in a fair test.

You know, there is some research on this. A 2008 review by Louisa Ha in the Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising endeavored to give a "substantive review of online advertising research published since 1996 in all major refereed advertising journals." In this article, we find the subhed, "Comparison Between Print and Web Advertising." This is what Ha says:

Many compare the effectiveness of print advertising versus Web advertising (e.g. Sundar and Kim). They all show the superiority of Web advertising over print advertising in achieving positive brand evaluation. [emphasis mine]

That's not to say that there aren't all kinds of problems with web advertising. Or that there is no role for print. Of course there is! That's the whole point. Advertisers want to buy across platforms (OH MY GOD! THAT WORD!) and they do. Why do advertisers buy across platforms? Because that's how people read now. More visibility for a website means more visibility for a magazine and vice versa. People flip back and forth between Vulture and NY Mag, from Mother Jones' infographics to Mother Jones' great speedup package, from Jeff Goldberg's interview on TheAtlantic.com with President Obama to Jim Fallows' Atlantic cover story dissecting the same man. Ideas don't exist because of print magazines. (Though they often find a beautiful, comfortable home inside them.)

I do respect one thing about MacArthur's op-ed: he does truly value writers and their writing. We agree there. But it is *precisely* because I value my writing that I want it to be online and free. I don't write merely to rub two pennies together; I write because I want to have an impact in the world. I want to work with my community to break stories and tell jokes, to highlight injustice and find better ways of solving problems. That means reaching readers where they are. People's lives aren't divided into "offline life" and "online life," even if we'd like to pretend that's the case. People on Capitol Hill use the Internet. People on Main Street use the Internet. People on Wall Street use the Internet. The Internet is where the action is: it's where all the elegant, dirty, pretty, lowbrow, brilliant ideas come together to commingle and evolve.

Is the structure of the industry changing? Anecdotally, MacArthur's preferred evidentiary mode, the answer is yes. It's harder to be a magazine freelancer, but there are lots and lots of full-time jobs writing for good websites. Less time and thinking space, more health care and exposure to ideas. Is it all good? Of course not, but why is that the standard against which to measure change?

And one more thing, Mr. MacArthur. If you're going to call out my magazine as a bunch of liars, at least have the courage to name us.

One of my major magazine competitors is peddling the falsehood that it is now profitable thanks to a boom in online-advertising revenue. You have to know the economics of direct mail and the cost of mailing magazines to know how preposterous this contention really is.

I think you've missed what is actually preposterous. I happen to know a thing or two about our financials, so let me set you straight. It is a fact that there has been a boom in online advertising revenue; it is also a fact that we get equal amounts of our advertising revenue from the web and print; and our magazine is doing just fine, thank you. But you'd have to know the economics of having a real website to know how preposterous your contentions really are.

Oh, and if you'd ever like to debate the future of media with me, I have a white glove right here and I would happily slap you with it anytime you please.

Correction: Initially, I spelled Clara Jeffery's name incorrectly. I hope she forgives me, as I've known her for a long time.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.