On a bright winter morning last January, John R. “Rick” MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, walked into editor Roger D. Hodge’s office and fired him. It was so unexpected that when Mr. Hodge told the magazine’s literary editor, Ben Metcalf, what had happened, his colleague laughed in disbelief.
Three Fridays ago, in the offices of Levy Ratner, the law firm of the United Auto Workers Local 2110, two lawyers representing Harper’s management laid off Mr. Metcalf, a 17-year veteran whom other staffers described as the “soul and conscience of Harper’s.” Another pair of lawyers present, representing the staff’s union, objected that the termination was illegal, as Harper’s vice president, Lynn Carlson, watched in silence.
It was a painful year in the life of a magazine that has appeared continuously since 1850, never missing a month. In the wake of Mr. Hodge’s firing, several senior staffers decamped, and the staff unionized, with Mr. Metcalf as union leader. An increasingly bitter dispute has ensued between labor and management in an office where all parties come to work with uncommon passion.
A document drawn up by a lawyer for Harper’s management three months earlier displays the ironies of the scenario. The aim was to prove that editors of Mr. Metcalf’s rank are management, not labor, but the document more vividly serves as an argument for Mr. Metcalf’s indispensability. Ellen Rosenbush, who succeeded Mr. Hodge as editor, testified to the National Labor Relations Board that she and the employees regarded Mr. Metcalf as her second-in-command, and that he had “enormous editorial influence.” The document reports on Mr. Metcalf and other editors’ authoritative taste and trustworthy hiring recommendations. Of Ms. Rosenbush, Mr. MacArthur’s lawyer writes, “She is, in effect, a rubber stamp.”
Mr. MacArthur believes that the unionization arose from bitterness about personnel changes. After he fired Mr. Hodge, he believes Mr. Metcalf wanted the job. Unionization was, in his eyes, a power play.
“It’s clear that some people on staff are still upset that Ben Metcalf wasn’t made editor,” Mr. MacArthur told The Observer.
“Since the motives behind a union are, as a matter of law, irrelevant,” Mr. Metcalf told The Observer in an email, “not even the ludicrously false ones imputed to me can excuse the treatment I and my fellow editors have lately received from the management at Harper’s Magazine.”
Mr. MacArthur cited financial concerns and claimed that Mr. Metcalf’s work could most easily be absorbed by other staffers.
“We have filed unfair labor practices charges against Harper’s Magazine for their failure to bargain in good faith about this layoff,” said Maida Rosenstein, the union’s UAW representative.
Mr. Metcalf’s layoff became effective immediately. He was at the time in the middle of editing a cover story about Mark Twain by Lewis H. Lapham, a short story by Alice Munro and Thomas Frank’s column. When he went to the Harper’s office to sort through years of galleys and correspondence, he found his belongings had already been packed into boxes.
Mr. MacArthur fell in love with Harper’s as an undergraduate at Columbia in 1977, when he covered a speech by then editor Mr. Lapham for Columbia Spectator. He became a devoted reader and invited Mr. Lapham to address the college journalists at their annual banquet.
“I had no contact with Lewis between the Blue Pencil Dinner and the day I called him, more than four years later, to tell him we were trying to organize the rescue,” Mr. MacArthur told The Observer. In those four years, Harper’s had suffered near-fatal mismanagement under the Minneapolis Star & Tribune Company. In June of 1980, the company announced it would cease publication of the magazine.
Though only 23 years old at the time, Mr. MacArthur was well placed to save Harper’s. His grandfather was the insurance billionaire who founded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, famous for its “genius grants.” His father, J. Roderick MacArthur, was disinherited but quickly made his own fortune through the collectible-plate emporium Bradford Exchange and the gadget catalog Hammacher Schlemmer. (Harper’s employees receive the catalogs in their mailboxes and are eligible for discounts.) J. Roderick still sat on the board of the MacArthur Foundation. His son convinced him and the board to buy the magazine.
“I think the romance of saving something so historically important appealed to him, and he trusted my judgment,” Mr. MacArthur said. With Harper’s safe, Mr. MacArthur returned to his career as a reporter, with stints at the Chicago Sun-Times and United Press International. In 1981, the Harper’s Foundation fired Mr. Lapham and replaced him with Michael Kinsley, then of The New Republic. Mr. MacArthur left his day job and wrested control of the Harper’s board. By 1984, he was publisher, and he reinstated Mr. Lapham as editor.
“It was the thing I wanted to do from the time I was 20 years old. I came to New York to work at Harper’s,” said Mr. Hodge.
Many Harper’s staffers have only ever worked at Harper’s. Most begin as interns, then work their way up as fact-checkers or copy editors. Careers are made when editors find unknown writers and champion their often idiosyncratic work. Whereas most publications, even The New Yorker, demand adherence to a house style, “when writers want to pull something off in their own voices on the page, they have to come to Harper’s,” said one former staffer. Any piece that reaches print is a claim to a small stake in alegacy inherited from Mark Twain, Norman Mailer and David Foster Wallace.
“Despite being pretentious, young, overeducated pains in the ass–and that’s somewhat problematic, too–no one was ever instructed to make the magazine sell. They were dedicated to making it as high-quality as possible,” said Theodore Ross, who handled the Index, annotations and features and was laid off along with Mr. Metcalf. (Both are working on books.)
But aesthetic privileges have their price. The salaries at Harper’s are lean, even by nonprofit standards.
“Editors at Harper’s believe it’s a multigenerational American project. They have a powerful sense of history and mission both political and literary,” said Mr. Hodge, “and they see it as being under attack, as being endangered. They love Harper’s. They don’t want to see it collapse because of stodgy, unimaginative management and outdated business practices.”
These include the magazine’s minimalist Web presence; there was long no line for the Web site in its budget. Mr. MacArthur is the author of a now notorious column for the Providence Journal airing his unironic disdain for the Internet: “The energy devoted to the Net is an astonishing waste.”
“Whatever my personal feelings are about content on the Internet, Harper’s Magazine will continue to be made available to readers in the formats they demand,” Mr. MacArthur told The Observer. Harper’s recently began publishing an iPad edition.
“It was an easier job to sell ad pages in previous decades when the general-interest sector was more robust. Those days are over,” said Mr. Hodge.
It was the Internet’s vastness, in combination with its narrow links, that split the general-interest sector. That’s not to say the Internet killed high-quality writing in print. For proof, one needn’t look further than Mr. Lapham. Since his departure in 2006, he founded Lapham’s Quarterly, a history journal with a small but devoted audience.
“Our Web site was not set up to be a replica of the journal. It was set up to be something of its own with its own movement,” Mr. Lapham told The Observer. Also a nonprofit foundation, Lapham’s Quarterly fund-raises and accepts donations.
“Harper’s is a general-interest magazine and non-ideological. The idea of literary and journalistic excellence is much more amorphous and harder to fund-raise for. I’m not going to do project fund-raising for log rollers. Harper’s should be able to stand on its own,” Mr. MacArthur said.
But of course Harper’s does not stand on its own; Mr. MacArthur’s largesse, too ($4.4 million in 2009), comes with strings attached. As the board of the Harper’s Foundationremains silent through the layoffs (two members contacted by The Observer declined to comment) and the details of the union negotiations emerge, the strings start to look like chains.
“Harper’s doesn’t have to be run at such a terrible loss. The fight is over whether Rick MacArthur is going to continue to be the sole owner or whether Harper’s is owned by American history, you could say. Whether it’s something bigger than him or not. Harper’s is bigger than that, and the American public will keep it alive if it is allowed to do so. Rick believes that only he can save the magazine,” said Mr. Hodge.
The editors clearly believe differently, but as a colleague once told Mr. Ross after an office disappointment, “Harper’s will never love you as much as you love Harper’s.”
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