Editorial Shake-Up as Harper's Tries to Stabilize in a Downturn
Just before noon last Wednesday, John R. MacArthur, the president, publisher and chief benefactor of Harper's Magazine, joined his editorial staff after its monthly meeting.
"We are going through a crisis," Mr. MacArthur, who goes by Rick, told them in a crowded conference room, where the business employees had joined them. Bound volumes dating from 1850 reminded everyone of Harper's
pedigree and prominence.
By Stephanie Clifford
Published: January 31, 2010
In a rambling 40-minute monologue that left many attendees perplexed, Mr. MacArthur, 53, talked about the problems facing Harper's: readership 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.
What he did not address was the chief concern on everyone's mind: two days earlier, without warning, he had fired the magazine's well-liked editor, Roger D. Hodge, in a five-minute conversation as Mr. Hodge was finishing his breakfast croissant. The episode has sent ripples through the placid magazine, which has long been an outlier in the fast-paced New York publishing world.
Harper's is a nonprofit that relies on the support of Mr. MacArthur's foundation. As advertising revenue in publishing has declined, many organizations have considered that foundation model — combining traditional revenue with donations — to finance quality journalism. But as the Harper's situation shows, no publishing model is immune to change — especially when one influential person runs the place.
The foundation model does not entirely protect a publication from a sputtering economy. Mr. MacArthur's foundation has donated more than $3 million a year to Harper's from 2004 to 2008, according to the most recent filings available. But the foundation's assets have declined precipitously — to $12.1 million in 2008, from $34.3 million in 2001. He personally gave $4 million in 2008 to the foundation, double what he gave two years before.
"There aren't that many places that want long-form reporting or essays, so those of us who do that kind of thing are really dependent on it," said Barbara Ehrenreich, a contributing editor. "It makes me pretty anxious."
Mr. Hodge told his staff on Monday that Mr. MacArthur had asked him to resign but that he had refused, and then Mr. MacArthur fired him. On Tuesday, Mr. MacArthur told The New York Times that his leaving was Mr. Hodge's decision. Later, he acknowledged that he had misspoken, but he declined to confirm that Mr. Hodge had been fired.