It’s been awhile since we had a truly backward-looking editorial about the threat of the internet from a major print publisher — the most we have seen are behind-the-scenes attempts by Irish publishers to charge for links to their content. But now Harper’s magazine publisher John MacArthur has come up with an essay on the evils of Google and the ad-supported digital media business that would not have looked out of place a decade ago.
In his editorial note, MacArthur — whose family supports Harper’s through a non-profit foundation — rails against what he calls Google’s “systematic campaign to steal everything that isn’t welded to the floor by copyright,” and the company’s “logistical support for pirating and repackaging everything that we writers, editors, and publishers hold dear.” When it comes to content, search engines like Google are just parasites, MacArthur says:
“This for-profit theft is committed in the pious guise of universal access to ‘free information,’ as if Google were just a bigger version of your neighborhood public library. Acceptance of such a fairy tale lets parasitic search engines assert that they are ‘web neutral,’ just disinterested parties whose glorious mission is to educate and uplift.”
In fact, of course, Google’s mission isn’t to educate — it’s to index all the world’s knowledge and make it searchable, so that people can find things, including content that is published by magazines like Harper’s. But MacArthur claims that Google isn’t even helpful in that area, because when you search phrases like “magazines that publish essays” or “magazines that publish short stories,” you don’t find Harper’s magazine listed.
Like it not, the media business has changed
As more than one person has pointed out in a response to the editorial, these are phrases that only a tiny fraction of the internet-using public would likely ever type. But if Harper’s were to try and adapt its content model to the internet — as publishers like The Atlantic have (albeit with occasional hiccups like the recent sponsored content brouhaha) — MacArthur might think differently about the utility of Google.
Musician Neil Young said of piracy that “it’s how music gets around now,”. The same could be said of what MacArthur chooses to see as theft or parasitical behavior by search engines. Is Google getting some benefit from indexing that content? Undoubtedly. But so are the publishers whose content is being “stolen.” Even Rupert Murdoch, who once railed against Google for stealing his newspaper articles, seems to have come around.
Search and socially-driven discovery are simply how content is discovered now. That’s not antithetical to the kind of business that MacArthur seems to want to run — Harper’s publisher would be far better off trying to learn how to adapt to disruption rather than railing against it from the sidelines.