MacArthur's Defense of Print and Paywall is a Bad Excuse

Shutterstock: Disclaimer. I am about to review and critique a New York Times profile of Harper’s Magazine publisher John R. MacArthur. I make no claim to being able to adequately do so. But as one of the “youths” “blowing off steam” on my blog (who still calls this a weblog?), I at least have some personal experience in the matter.

“‘I’ve got nothing against people getting on their weblogs, on the Internet and blowing off steam,’ he [John R. MacArthur] said. ‘If they want to do that, that’s fine. But it doesn’t pass, in my opinion, for writing and journalism.’” - Harper’s Publisher Standing Firm in His Defense of Print and Paywall

Not to point out the obvious, but this is a very strong statement. MacArthur goes beyond the blogging versus journalism debate – he straight up tells you your blogging doesn’t even pass as good writing. And, Ravi Somaiya, the writer of the profile, seems in my opinion to set the speakers on loud for MacArthur’s voice and perspective in this piece. Clara Jeffery, described as one of the “young people” MacArthur seems to criticize, provides an alternative viewpoint in the piece that barely reaches beyond an expression of confusion, unfortunately. So much more could have been said here for the “good” and the “why” of online writing.

“’He does truly believe that technology is in opposition to good writing, financially, stylistically and journalistically,’ said Clara Jeffery, a former Harper’s editor and one of the ‘young people’ who clashed with him over the issue. She is now one of the two co-editors of Mother Jones magazine. ‘I don’t understand. Nothing is all good or all bad.’” – Harper’s Publisher Standing Firm in His Defense of Print and Paywall

I also can’t help but notice that Jeffery is a single counter female voice in a piece that otherwise seems to scream “elite male.”

This is not just about paywalls and the pressure of a 24-hour news cycle. Sure, pressures on journalism and journalists to provide free content around the clock online are real. But this profile reaches deep and wrenches the vulnerable heart out of the online journalism space without even using words to do so. An act of omission.

The author quotes Mr. MacArthur as saying “I just want people to pay” – I assume he means for good journalism. But if this were the only objective, Harper’s Magazine (by golly, there’s a website!) could be exploring 101 other ways to get people to pay for good (online) journalism. There are plenty of innovative tech-savvy people working to preserve journalistic standards and produce well edited, enjoyable, informative and provocative journalism in digital spaces.

No, in my opinion, this is a cop-out. It’s a cop-out for exploring the future of good journalism. It’s a cop-out for expanding the limited voices in the traditional journalism MacArthur so boldly defends. It’s a cop-out for handing journalism over to future generations. Yes, I know Mr. MacArthur, journalists in your day walked uphill both ways and never stopped until they got the story.

“A number of publishers have indeed been drawn back to glossy pages and the smell of ink. ‘It is the joy of being at an intimate, nice dinner, where the table is well set, and six or seven people are having an informed and elegant conversation, instead of being in a gym with 10,000 people yelling,’ said Tyler Brûlé, the publisher of the international culture magazine Monocle, which makes about 70 percent of its money from print.” – Harper’s Publisher Standing Firm in His Defense of Print and Paywall

Except at this dinner party, only the elite get to talk. Everyone else just has to listen. The journalist gets to dictate the story to a mass of passive readers. And if they don’t agree with the story, tough luck. “You get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit.” You can write a letter to the editor. Which, by the way, will be carefully selected by a “gatekeeper” in the traditional sense and edited to fit the magazine’s tone and agenda.

“Mr. MacArthur is unmoved. His writers are ‘aggressively discouraged,’ in his words, from publishing about their work elsewhere on the Internet.”– Harper’s Publisher Standing Firm in His Defense of Print and Paywall

I’m sure Harper’s Magazine is winning at journalism, to use the self-reflecting words of New York Times. But that journalism will increasingly leave behind the newer generations, the alternative voices, the critical commentary, the citizen knowledge and the two-way engagement being explored by innovative journalism ventures online. This isn’t about not having a glossy print magazine when you want one. It’s about telling the voices online that they don’t even matter.

“His thesis is built on three pillars. The web is bad for writers, he said, who are too exhausted by the pace of an endless news cycle to write poised, reflective stories and who are paid peanuts if they do. It’s bad for publishers, who have lost advertising revenue to Google and Facebook and will never make enough from a free model to sustain great writing. And it’s bad for readers, who cannot absorb information well on devices that buzz, flash and generally distract.”– Harper’s Publisher Standing Firm in His Defense of Print and Paywall

The web is not bad for writers – news organizations that seek to maximize their efficiency and minimize their autonomy are. Readers can absorb information on mobile devices – they are regularly absorbing 30-minute and longer reads via these same devices. Just check out the rise of digital longform. And the endless news cycle isn’t unique to the Internet.

As a blogger, I can choose to write terse posts every day, or one poised, reflective, in-depth story once a week or even once a month. Plenty of amazing bloggers are choosing the later. And some of these bloggers are doing some of the best science journalism that exists in our “chaotic” news ecosystem today. They are men and they are women, they are young and they are old, they often represent under-represented groups. They come from all different backgrounds, and they offer a color of voices science print magazines of yore never achieved.

And I’m reading them, Mr. MacArthur. I’m reading them.