The Atlantic’s Rise, Harper’s Fall, and the Bookish Gutenbourgeois

From Paul Ford of ftrain:

I sometimes chat with people in the book- and magazine-publishing industries. They complain to me about the web. They worry about what is being lost. They can sound like this bookseller in Buffalo, New York:

Books are not product. Books are creative endeavors as individual and singular as any work of art. They cannot be tweaked as if they are idling wrong. They can’t have leaves pulled off as they rot like a cabbage or lettuce.

I call the people who say such things the Gutenbourgeois. They believe in the cultural primacy of writers and editors and they feel good—even a bit superior—about working in publishing. They believe it is their job to drive culture forward. The web, they are a little proud to admit, confuses them.

I’d like to say he’s exaggerating, but he’s not. Here’s John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s, which has fallen ever so far of late.

I have been radicalized, both as a publisher and a writer, and have instituted a “protectionist” policy in regard to the Internet and its free-content salesmen. In the long run, I think I’ll be vindicated, since clearly the advertising “model” has failed and readers are going to have to pay (in opposition to Google’s bias against paid sites) if they want to see anything more complex than a blog, a classified ad or a sex act.

I am even more offended, however, by the online sensibility and its anti-democratic, anti-emotional affect. Partisans of the Internet like to say that the Web is a bottom-up phenomenon that wondrously bypasses the traditional gatekeepers in publishing and politics who allegedly snuff out true debate. But most of what I see is unedited, incoherent babble indicative of a herd mentality, not a true desire for self-government or fairness.

Is it cruel to point out that MacArthur posted that free on the web? I can only guess he freed it from the paywall so more people could read it, because he felt it especially important.

Harper’s, which used to be one of my favorite magazines and a real player in the world of ideas, has fallen like a stone in every sense over the last 3 to 5 years. The Atlantic, meanwhile, has embraced the web, become more idea-rich (and ad-rich), and is turning a profit because of it.

Someone’s not paying attention.

Disclosure of interests: I’ve published (and been paid to) at the Atlantic, but not at Harper’s. This situation may have arisen at least partly because the Atlantic actually returned my emails, generating a conversation about my ideas, while Harper’s — to which I pitched perhaps the most important story I ever wrote — did not. Perhaps that’s because MacArthur, as he notes, has “never found e-mail exciting.”

HT Nieman Journalism Lab

UPDATE: Matthew Battles wrote about Ford’s post as well; an interesting take, in which I learn, among other things, that Paul Ford (aka ftrain) used to be an editor at Harper’s. Ouch. HT araqueltrubek.

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