Monday, January 24, 2011

Do I Look Like Ann Landers?

There's a major-league cat fight going on over at Harper's Magazine.

According to Wikipedia, Harper's is "the second-oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the U.S." after Scientific American. It was founded in June, 1850. Contributors have included Horatio Alger, Noam Chomsky, Winston Churchill, Theodore Dreiser, Robert Frost, Seymour Hersh, Henry James, Jack London, Norman Mailer, Thomas Nast, Sylvia Plath, Jane Smiley, John Steinbeck, Hunter S. Thompson, Mark Twain, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, E.B. White, Woodrow Wilson and Tom Wolfe.

In 1980, the magazine came close to dying when it was announced the August issue would be its last. In July, John R. MacArthur, grandson of billionaire philanthropist John D. MacArthur, rescued Harper's by establishing the Harper's Magazine Foundation, which now publishes the magazine. MacArthur became president and publisher of Harper's in 1983 at age 27. He is now 54.

New York Magazine called Harper's: "one of the last bastions of old-line liberalism and a lonely defender of a certain idea of what literary culture should be."

That's why the current controversy seems so ironic.

As New York describes the contretemps, it sounds like two issues that have been simmering on the back burner finally came to boil.

First, of course, is the problem all newspapers and magazines face today: how to be profitable in an Internet world. New York says Harper's 2009 tax return indicated "MacArthur invested $4.4 million into the magazine" while his 2006 losses "were only $2.9 million."

In the December Providence Journal, MacArthur made his opinion of the Internet clear in a column reproduced in Harper's here:

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.


It probably comes as no surprise to you (reading this on the Internet) that MacArthur's position on the Internet has been a trifle worrisome to the staff at Harper's. That concern--among others--led to the second issue. The staff began thinking about unionizing, and Ben Metcalf, the literary editor, was instrumental in transforming thought to action.

Last July, Metcalf and a small group of staff informed MacArthur that they were unionizing. The publisher was furious. New York described it:

MacArthur contested the entire staff's right to unionize, arguing that editors and assistant editors who make up about half of the editorial team were management and thus did not qualify.

Despite MacArthur's opposition, last October Harper's did form a union, joining UAW Local 2110.

Last Tuesday, New York reported here that:

MacArthur "is trying to lay off Harper’s' literary editor, Ben Metcalf, who’s worked at the magazine since the mid-nineties and who played a key role in the union drive — a move the union says is pure retaliation."

And, over the weekend, battle lines were drawn as New York reported here that "84 writers and former Harper's editors" wrote an open letter to MacArthur. The letter here said in part:

We ... object to the actions you've taken in response to the union formed there, by legal vote, on October 14th of last year. We are greatly concerned to learn of your plan to lay off union members so closely on the heels of the election and without first negotiating a contract. We ask that you reconsider these layoffs and negotiate with this union in good faith, as the law requires.

... we further ask that you explore fund-raising options adopted by other not-for-profit publications and open the magazine's foundation to monies other than your own.

I was conflicted as I read New York's excellent coverage (I really encourage you to read the two articles). John MacArthur deserves enormous credit for many things, not the least of which is rescuing Harper's during its time of need when he himself was just 24 years old. The guy could have spent his time ... and the family money ... on lots of other things.

I also feel a lot of sympathy for him. I'm ambivalent about the "herd mentality" of the Internet myself. There are so many calls on our time today that I am reluctant to do any more than I am currently doing on the Internet. I've poked my toe out on the Twitter branch, but I've steadfastly resisted diving into the FaceBook pool.

Bottom line, I've decided I can best understand Mr. MacArthur's situation if I liken it to adopting a child. Nobody forced you to do it. It was a laudable decision on your part. However, once you decided to cross that line, you assumed certain responsibilities. And those responsibilities go far beyond just feeding and clothing the kid.

You're also stuck with figuring out how to handle the graceless, ungrateful and often obnoxious teenager--whether you want to or not. Maybe you don't agree with his decision to dye his hair pink and only answer to the name Laser Moonbeam, but he's your kid. You have to do what's in his best interests.

And that includes letting him grow up and assume responsibility for his life.

It's way better if you do so with grace and understanding. After all, if you keep peace in the family, one day you get to hold the grandkids and take some credit for everyone's happiness.

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