Op-ed laments are not the answer

I subscribe to a lot of magazines – almost 20, by a recent count. There is always a stack of things to read around here.

One of the regulars is Harper’s, a venerable literary magazine whose mix of prose, poetry and analysis (not to mention Harper’s Index) highlights writers and stories that don’t always make it to mainstream media.

Literary and thought-leadership magazines in America are not an easy sell, and Harper’s has been struggling financially for some time. Since 1980, it has been supported in part by a foundation whose initial endowment was contributed by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, what was then the Atlantic Richfield Company and Robert Anderson, Arco’s founder.

We recently renewed our subscription for $22.97, not a bad price for a monthly, but a thin one for a publication that includes only a handful of ads. I’d pay more if they asked, but I don’t know how many people would say that.

Some other literary magazines seem to be making a bit of a splash these days. The oft-cited example is The Atlantic, though publishing insiders are also eager to see what former Facebooker Chris Hughes does with The New Republic, which he recently acquired. Both titles have embraced a multi-platform approach to their published content.

Earlier this month, Harper’s publisher John MacArthur wrote a column for The Providence Journal that was picked up the next day on Harper’s site. In it, he laments – no, he decries – “Google’s media barons” and their “parasitic search engine”. It’s a stirring read.

Last week, author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford posted a response – “The sound dinosaurs make” – that tempted me to just post the two links and write “You decide”.

But I like Harper’s. It’s a good magazine on what is probably a bad path. If MacArthur’s complaints are any indication, it has resisted digital innovation with a belief that doing so preserves its heritage as a literary publication.

It is possible for a magazine to remain primarily print based and succeed, but the margin for error is slight. A publisher would have to make the print version compelling in ways that fostered loyalty to a physical form. It would want to use a design that was memorable, iconic, even unique.

That’s not Harper’s.

It’s okay to be simple in your presentation, even minimalist. That approach is unlikely to sustain print alone. MacArthur can blame Google, but Harper’sweaknesses are not imposed upon them. Google is a search reality. The question MacArthur should ask is, “What are we going to do to succeed?”

Op-ed laments are not the answer.

I may differ with Nathan Bransford on one count. I’m not sure MacArthur is a dinosaur. In criticizing Google for both “stealing” content (there’s an easy solution that blocks indexing, Mr. MacArthur) and failing to deliver an audience to his doorstep, the Harper’s publisher shows himself less a Ludditeand more the entitled.

There may have been a day when media leaders could have their cake and eat it too. That day is gone. Harper’s has been living on borrowed time for 32 years. That’s long enough to figure out how to succeed.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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