In general, I’m not inclined to blog about the recent goings-on at Harper’s, where our editor, Roger Hodge, was recently fired. But I do want to comment on Felix Salmon’s post opining that our magazine has been “doomed by its paywall.”
When it comes to the finances of highbrow magazines, it’s simply impossible to say that the publications with paywalls have done worse than the ones without. For example, one can certainly applaud the dramatic moves that The Atlantic has been making online, but no one over there is pretending that the site comes close to making money right now, or even that it’s helping out the print side in this terrible economy. The New York Review of Books is an intellectual magazine with a paywall somewhat like ours — i.e., nothing becomes available until it’s off the newsstand — and as far as I hear they’re humming along just fine. Meanwhile, The New Yorker still seems to be doing relatively well financially, but that has little to do with the Web and everything to do with structural changes the magazine made starting roughly ten years ago, before it had much of a website. (Even today, their site still reserves perhaps a third of the magazine’s content for subscribers only.)
And yet Salmon is clearly right that articles that aren’t online are not getting talked about. As I wrote in my Times op-ed a while back, the Internet has become the de facto heart of the culture, the place where the important conversations are happening. I’d venture to say that almost every print editor today is getting his or her news primarily online. Speaking for myself, at least, if it’s not online, I’m unlikely to read it.
So the reality about the “health” of magazines is complicated. As I see it, there’s an increasing disconnect between online models that are working financially for publications and ones that are working for getting attention. The model for getting attention is easy: give it all away. But the attention online isn’t reliably translating into subscribers or newsstand buyers. (Neither is it clearly deterring them, I should add, which is why, on balance, I’d prefer to kill the paywall at Harper’s. As an editor, though, of course I’d say that.)
The fact is that the online conversation, for all its centrality, has much less reach than we want to think. Most readers, even of highbrow magazines, aren’t a part of it, and so all the online buzz in the world can’t send over enough new subscribers to make our magazines profitable in this economy. It just can’t. Right now, among print publications, the play for attention is online — in fact, it’s almost the only game in town — but the play for money is far less clear.