When I began my tenure as publisher of Harper’s Magazine nearly thirty years ago, my biggest challenge — or so I thought at the time — was to get advertising agencies to pay more attention to the celebrated journal of American ideas and literature entrusted to my care. Harper’s had tens of thousands of loyal readers but not many loyal advertisers, so my task seemed clear. Fawning over salesmen rubbed against my political grain, but those days were dominated by the free-market dogma of the Reagan Administration, and I fell prey to some of the president’s most simpleminded thinking. If advertisers didn’t sufficiently admire serious readers of the Harper’s variety, then it was my job to persuade Madison Avenue and its clients that I was serious about their concerns — about selling their products to my readers.
And oh how we sold! For twenty years, editor Lewis Lapham and I crisscrossed the country in pursuit of what everyone else in our business was after: glossy, high-profile consumer and corporate advertising. Armed with our good name — Harper’s, after all, was deeply enmeshed in America’s cultural and historical fabric — we maneuvered our way into company dining rooms from Wall Street to Rockefeller Center, from Louisville to St. Louis, from Boise to Palo Alto. We engaged our hosts in discussions of the political and literary issues of the day, but to better impress them we also invoked our affinity with the advertising world, presenting as evidence the brief stint on the Harper’s board of the legendary adman William J. Bernbach, as well as our own very slick house ad produced by the renowned firm of Scali, McCabe, Sloves. It didn’t hurt our cause that my late father, Roderick, was something of an advertising genius. I spoke the language of the advertising trade because, along with journalism and politics, I’d absorbed it nearly every day of my childhood at the kitchen table. It also didn’t hurt that Lewis Lapham and I were spawned by the very business establishment we criticized in nearly every issue of America’s oldest continuously published monthly.
Current readers may be surprised to learn that we were largely successful in our efforts: many corporations encouraged their ad agencies to take a fresh look at Harper’s Magazine, and the ads began to roll in. For my part, I was astonished that most of the CEOs we met, though nearly all Republicans, were barely ideological and almost never objected to the subversive, sometimes overtly anticapitalist articles that appeared in our pages. As our advertising revenue grew, I rarely worried about reprisals for anything we published. Indeed, one of the most stinging critiques I ever heard of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq came from the chairman of a major American oil company over lunch at his headquarters in Houston. For many of these men, and for their more liberal-minded advisers, Harper’s and its brand of open-minded, freewheeling discourse were automatically worthy of their backing.
But as the magazine’s bottom line improved through the dot-com boom that ended in 2000 and the anti-Bush boom that ended in 2009, something crucial seemed to be missing from our “marketing equation.” In all my scurrying back and forth between Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, I never considered a fundamental question: Why did a magazine of ideas, criticism, and reporting need to serve as a sales medium between advertisers and readers; why should advertising be our principal means of support? Not that I didn’t want advertising or have respect for our advertisers, some of whom were genuinely civic-minded. But wasn’t the truly important compact — really the only relationship that mattered — between reader and writer or, to some extent, reader, writer, and editor? Harper’s is published first and foremost to be read. If the magazine functions as an intermediary, it is between the creative imagination of the fiction writer or essayist and the creative spirit of the sensitive reader; between the inquiring mind of the journalist and the engaged mind of the alert, occasionally outraged citizen. This compact now needs to be stated forcefully and in unmistakable terms. (continued extensively…click on the above link to read further.)