Harper’s Publisher Rick MacArthur Quits Columbia Spectator Board Because the Internet

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Photo: DANIEL BARRY/Bloomberg News via Getty

Harper's publisher John "Rick" MacArthur hates the internet. This we know. But seriously, this guy really hates the internet, rejecting the Columbia University student paper's plan to go "web-first" by cutting its print edition to once a week, and resigning his seat on the board in protest. (The proposal was nonetheless approved 7 to 4 on Sunday.) But in his final salvo, MacArthur repeated the anti-technology/death-of-journalism bullet points he's been firing off for years.

"To reiterate, killing the daily paper is a foolish mistake from both a financial and philosophical standpoint," he wrote in an email to trustees. "Youth must be served, but not indulged, coddled, and condescended to. I didn't get the sense that the two Spectator people present were even interested in actual journalism, that is, telling people something they don't know, rocking the boat, and confronting the powerful on behalf of the less powerful."

"More images moving around on the screen won't make Spectator a better newspaper," he added. There's much more.

"Steven Waldman's digital evangelism/salesmanship was emblematic of the group think on display — he still can't come up with a better example than BuzzFeed to illustrate the alleged success of the digital publishing mode," MacArthur all but spit of a fellow trustee in his email. "To be sure, Steven, we should all strive to emulate BuzzFeed, a paragon of journalistic excellence (which has evidently opened its books to you, though not to the public)."

MacArthur. Photo: Mitchmar/Wikimedia

"The example I gave at the meeting was the Christian Science Monitor, not BuzzFeed (which I do not recall mentioning)," said Waldman in a follow-up. "This may be the first time in history the two have been confused."

Wendy Brandes, the chair of the board, accepted MacArthur's resignation. "[I]nternal and external reaction to this kind of move is the same across industries: first resistance, then acceptance, and, finally, enthusiasm," she wrote, signing off, "Best of luck with Harper's."

In an interview with Intelligencer, Brandes, a Spectator board member since 2001, said, "I'm surprised that he would embarrass himself that way." However, she added, "He was a very inactive board member and very rarely attended any meetings. It's funny to see what it took to arouse a sleeping giant. This is the most I've ever heard from him."

MacArthur, in a phone call with Intelligencer, countered, "I was so inactive that I donated $5,000 to the digital archive project. I came to as many meetings as I could come to." He said the managing group attempted to "railroad" the web-first proposal through, and that he demanded debate. "To just throw out 137 years of taradition on a speculative proposition..." he said. "Absolutely I'm disowning the institution. I don't want to have anything to do with it. I don't hope they succeed at doing better interactive graphics. I think that's bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit. I don't support it."

The trustees have mostly been supportive of the proposed digital shift, said Brandes and current Spectator editor Abby Abrams, even those who voted against the move. "Rick MacArthur always has his point of view on print and online," Abrams said. "We respect him a lot and are really thankful for his service on the board, but the reality is that this is where journalism is going."

"I had my own reasons for opposing it," said Morris Dickstein (Columbia, '61), another trustee who voted against the plan. "In their eagerness to create a stronger online publication, I think they didn't fully understand that they were the custodians of a very long tradition." MacArthur, he said, has "always been very strongly against free content on the web ... A lot of it is generational. My generation is much more attuned to the print culture and theirs to getting information online."

"I think it's an unfortunate decision that may have been inevitable in the long run, but shouldn't have been done with this kind of haste," Dickstein added.

But one board member was so confident in the change that she proposed a bet, "to be decided on April 27th, 2016. At that point, we look back at two years of the new Spec, and see if the students have followed through on their promises to use the new format to improve the journalism," wrote veteran journalist and professor Beth Knobel. "If they have, you write a check to Spec. If not, I'll write a check to the Harper's Magazine Foundation.  Will you take me up on it?"

"I think she'll lose," MacArthur told Intelligencer, "but I won't take the bet."

Here's his full email, as first mentioned by The Wall Street Journal:

Dear Trustees,

Thanks to Morris Dickstein, Chase Behringer, and Sara Just for voting no, along with me, on the resolution to approve Spectator's plan to go weekly.  As Morris said last night, this is likely just a weigh station before elimination of the print publication.  To reiterate, killing the daily paper is a foolish mistake from both a financial and philosophical standpoint. Advertising revenue will plummet and the loss will not be offset by on-line income. I cringed at the marketing speak expressed by the managing editor, publisher and some other trustees in favor of a "greater digital focus," since they certainly are aware that "greater digital focus" has lost many billions of dollars for newspapers and magazines over the last ten years, and will continue to bleed them as they pour more resources into a bottomless pit.  Steven Waldman's digital evangelism/salesmanship was emblematic of the group think on display -- he still can't come up with a better example than BuzzFeed to illustrate the alleged success of the digital publishing model.  To be sure, Steven, we should all strive to emulate BuzzFeed, a paragon of journalistic excellence (which has evidently opened its books to you, though not to the public). Wendy Brandes' analogies with the so-called revolutions in luxury goods marketing and investment banking bordered on the absurd.

Lost in all this (although I tried to raise the issue yesterday) is the issue of what journalism means. Saying that "really cool interactive graphics" constitutes serious journalism at an Ivy League newspaper is a sad commentary on an already impoverished landscape. Youth must be served, but not indulged, coddled, and condescended to.  I didn't get the sense that the two Spectator people present were even interested in actual journalism, that is, telling people something they don't know, rocking the boat, and confronting the powerful on behalf of the less powerful. Finley Peter Dunne said that "The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" and Spectator, under Eric Rieder and Dave Smith, is where I started to learn this approach to the trade. We tried to continue along those lines with our own managing board in 1977-78, and I'd like to think that Richard Hart, Dan Janison, and I have maintained such a commitment to this day. More images moving around on the screen won't make Spectator a better newspaper.

At any rate, I want to distance myself from this project and am therefore resigning from the board.  7-4 isn't too bad a result, given the original plan to railroad this thing through, but I don't want to be associated with the disappearance of Spectator into digital oblivion.  One thing I did appreciate in this debate was the importance of newspaper competition.  In its coverage of the Spectator argument, the Wall Street Journal, unlike the New York Times, was able to find a student reader of the print edition, who was I was able to cite in our board meeting yesterday.  Let's hope that the new Spectator attracts better competition than Bwog, although some of the comments on their site (below) are pertinent.

Very sincerely yours,

Rick MacArthur
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This post has been updated with direct quotes from MacArthur and Dickstein.