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Harper’s publisher doesn’t understand how the internet works, blames Google

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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.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / James Steidl

14 Responses to “Harper’s publisher doesn’t understand how the internet works, blames Google”

  1. The New York Times uses a subscription model with a variant: you have to pay only if you start reading more than a tot number of articles/month (I don’t remember now the exact number).

    That seems to be a good idea and I’m surprised that not more magazine publishers and newspapers are exploring it…

    In any case, thanks for the excellent article. Very informative.

  2. Tor Cummings

    Magazine publishers are trying to impose the same model on their web business as they did with print–subscriptions. The great thing about the internet is that you can search thousands upon thousands of articles, but if you can only read the ones that are in the sites you subscribe to, what good is it. For those magazines that yu wnat to read from cover to cover (metaphorically, since this is epublishing), subscriptions still are useful. But a better model is inexpensive article by article charges or some coupon system share throughout the magazine business so that the reader can choose to read whatever articles he or she wishes to from as larger a variety of sites as they want. The internet makes it possible for us, the public, to better inform ourselves if we use it and if we are not block from access to the information.

  3. teresameek

    As Peter Hobday said, the print business model is dead.

    But the online model doesn’t really work yet either.

    Sure, everybody wants to get content for free. But producing quality content requires time and know-how. Someone’s got to pay the ” content producers”–writers and editors–for their time and work.

    Print publishers can’t do it anymore, and you might think that online ads would fill the gap. But online advertising has so far failed to provide online publishers with anything like the revenue that print publishers used to get.

    Will online ad revenue improve over time? Who knows? With ad-blocking software freely available, the entire advertising business model may itself need to change. And the only other model we have is subscription.

    Perhaps that will be the model for the future. The Wall St. Journal does it, and now many other news sites are starting to charge for mobile content delivery, if not for desktop at this point.

    In the meantime, it’s tough for content producers. The online model has also fostered a bidding system, with a preponderance of low bidders who undoubtedly provide low-quality work. But some website owners don’t care–they just want content the search engines will find.

    It’s a chaotic publishing world now, and sometimes I can’t help but long for the good old days of print, when we used to get together and complain about the editors. Hah! If we only knew.

  4. Sadly, this is the continuing trend in publishing…content is king, only if, you know how to reach your audience.

    Tech companies are putting mobile devices in consumer’s hands that aims to enhance their daily functions. Be it reading a book, magazine, listen to music, play games, cooking, etc. Whatever we are used to see and interact with in traditional forms are simply changing fast.

    A few publishers are making an effort to lead and to reach those audience where ever they may be. Most just follows blindly and hope they don’t fall too far behind the magic eight ball. Sadly, I work for the latter group and is watching this unfolding slowly with most people around me simply are glad to still have a job.

    Majority of publishing Instead of trying to innovate, we only follow and then complaint why the future isn’t here yet… it is here already, we are just too blind to see it clearly and understand it wholeheartedly.

  5. Vasken Hauri

    I remember reading an article in Harper’s about how intellectual piracy has existed for thousands of years and has helped build many legitimate publishing empires as a result of increased exposure of material to the public, etc. As a subscriber to Harper’s, I have access to the online version of the story, but when I wanted to share it with a friend (who might’ve consequently bought a print or online subscription as a result of being exposed to the magazine’s site), I discovered the only way to view a single article online is to purchase a year’s subscription to Harper’s. All this for a story extolling the virtues, ubiquity, and timelessness of intellectual piracy.

    The only way I can even come close to summing up my feelings on this is to quote the namesake character of the brilliant animated sitcom Archer: “Ironic? Ironic?!? That’s like Alanis Morissette and O. Henry had a baby and they named it ‘What happened just now'”

  6. Peter Hobday

    Publishing, like music and movies, must adapt, but quickly or its decline will continue. Otherwise does anyone not believe magazine publishing is a dying industry?

    Publishers have delegated distribution to newstrade and subscription agencies. They will fail because, unfortunately, publishers do not control their distribution – it’s a critical part of their business model.

    Their business model is broken.

  7. John C Abell

    I wonder if occurs to MacArthur that his publication’s lack of prominence (for the sake of argument) on Google is because of its irrelevance, as computed agnostically by Google, which prioritizes in a way which reflects how impactful a site is based on how many independent links there are too it.

    By having let us call a poor web strategy — one that doesn’t leverage the crowd by encouraging sharing — his conclusion may be correct, and self-fulfilling.

  8. Nobody searches for “magazines that publish essays”. People search for topics – and if Harpers essays dont appear, then they are (a) not being indexed, or (b) written on bland uninteresting topics that nobobdy wants to read. The “essay” magazine publishing model hasn’t changed since the 19th century – it is a about a “brand” which people buy in order to read things which confirm their existing predudices. That model is now dead.

    • That model was never dead. You and the Internet advertising companies want it dead so they can be the conduits through which all of the world’s information passes through and so that you and these companies can collect your tax – toll tax that is – from the passersby. This model is unreal, monopolistic and most importantly is not free access as claimed. A change in technology does not equal forcible change in ethics of business.

  9. Graeme Caldwell

    Spot on.

    It’s heartening to see that MacArthur’s self-serving screed is getting the trouncing it deserves in the comments. Clear evidence that Harper’s readers and its publisher are far apart in their understanding of the relationship between the web and content, which, sadly, doesn’t bode well for the future of what is a great magazine.