Jacob Heilbrunn

Harper's versus the Atlantic

Rare is the magazine that has not suffered upheaval in the past few years. Newsweek was dumped by the Washington Post. The National Journal has reinvented itself, shedding numerous writers and editors. Now Harper's, the proud bastion of traditional liberalism, is cracking up.

In a piquantly illuminating piece in New York magazine, Gabriel Sherman, who cut his journalistic teeth at the New Republic, discloses that Harper's, whose staffers view it as ceding too much ground to the Atlantic, confronts a homegrown revolt in the form of a union, a development that publisher Rick MacArthur, who has poured millions into keeping the enterprise going, apparently views with horror. MacArthur, as Sherman is not slow to point out, is hoist on his own petard, having entered the lists previously to bemoan the decline of "middle-class unionism."

According to Sherman,

The Harper's union has been locked in a bitter dispute with MacArthur since July. And now he's trying to lay off Harper’s' literary editor, Ben Metcalf, who’s worked at the magazine since the mid-nineties and who played a key role in the union drive—a move the union says is pure retaliation.

The current crisis began a year ago, when MacArthur fired the magazine's editor-in-chief, Roger Hodge. The two men had once been close, but their relationship had frayed as the red ink mounted: Newsstand sales dropped, MacArthur's appetite for losses waned, and Hodge tried to defend the staff from cuts. According to Harper’s'most recent tax filing in 2009, MacArthur invested $4.4 million into the magazine. (In 2006, his losses were only $2.9 million.)

Obviously, it's tempting to paint MacArthur as a hypocrite. But there is a reason that he's right to recoil at his staff's manuevering. Essentially, MacArthur is running a philanthropic enterprise. He's not out to make money. He's trying to prevent his magazine from going under. Magazines such as Harper's resemble racehorses or yachts—they're the playthings of wealthy owners who run them as they please. The latent tensions in such an arrangement, of course, are exposed in a time of economic crisis, when the owner, eager to stanch the fiscal bleeding, starts lopping off staffers, which is apparently what MacArthur, who already terminated editor Roger Hodge, the author of a new book called The Mendacity of Hope that excoriates President Obama for straying from the true faith.

Now the Harper's staff is making the same charge about MacArthur, lamenting that, unlike the Atlantic, he's been far too tardy in embracing web innovations such as the iPad. But he's committed to hiring topnotch writers Tom Frank and Zadie Smith. It could be that MacArthur keeps Harper's afloat to maintain the critique of capitalism by himself resorting to free market principles—outsourcing. With outside contributors and a minimal staff, he might be able to keep Harper's alive, if not thriving. The surprising thing may not be that MacArthur is trying to save Harper's, but that he has kept it going as long as he has. For that alone he deserves more credit than he is receiving.