The Iconoclast  

Upstairs 

 

Harper's Rick MacArthur 
By Dore Carroll  


MacArthur's willingness to take on all comers is often in conflict with Harper's bottom line. 

 

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As publisher, Rick MacArthur works to bring as much advertising as he can to the pages of Harper’s magazine. But, as a journalist and author, he gets a rush by stirring up the kind of controversy that he thinks is good for readers. The kind of trouble that often upsets advertisers. Therein lies his conflict.

As MacArthur sees it, having an impact and sparking debate is more rewarding than turning a profit. And he seems to act on his beliefs. Once, in the spring of 1996, Harper’s was poised to land a $100,000 advertising schedule from Pfizer, Inc. that would have filled almost a fourth of the magazine’s average annual operating loss of between $300,000 and $400,000. MacArthur nevertheless encouraged the magazine’s editor, Lewis H. Lapham, to run a story on the sleazy marketing of anti-depressants by Pfizer, among other pharmaceutical companies.

The piece, MacArthur tells me conspiratorially, probably sparked an FTC probe of Pfizer’s business practices, but it definitely cost Harper’s the $100,000. "I called up the head of P.R. and advertising, and he says, ‘Not only did we kick you off the schedule, but William Steere, the chairman of the board, personally knocked you off,’" MacArthur says, chuckling. "He was so angry." And the publisher’s reaction to the loss? "There goes another schedule." So the drug companies don’t like Harper’s now, he says with a shrug, sitting at a square table in the conference room in Harper’s suite of offices on lower Broadway. "It just makes my job harder. It makes the magazine better, more credible to the readers, but it costs."

MacArthur is also a maverick in his willingness to take on his publishing peers. Thus he shows little regard for the côterie of the New York magazine industry that he is a part of, regularly criticizing his competitors. His first book roundly attacked the mainstream media’s lackadaisical approach to covering the Gulf War and its acceptance of the government’s stranglehold censorship during the conflict. Later, when Tina Brown took the helm at The New Yorker, MacArthur complained loudly about the damage she would do there. "It was terribly depressing, and I thought, ‘Somebody’s got to say something.’"

To an extent, MacArthur’s family wealth gives him the freedom to make such public critiques. He knows he doesn’t need an assignment from Tina Brown; he doesn’t have to rely on work from The New Yorker or anybody else, so he can deliver the tongue-lashings that he does to the industry. While MacArthur now says David Remnick, The New Yorker’s current editor, is doing a solid job of rebuilding the magazine’s quality and prestige, he still claims its intellectual authority has been diminished. Of course, in MacArthur’s eyes, Harper’s has filled that gap. When I asked Remnick what he thought about it, he said, "[Rick MacArthur] never seems to overlook a moment to say something rather nasty about The New Yorker or The Atlantic. But I’m not going to say anything back. That’s his business." Remnick paused. "It’s just not interesting, do you know what I mean, this kind of gossip-page back and forth. It’s just nonsense, and I’m not interested."

Harper’s editor, Lewis Lapham, who has worked beside MacArthur since 1983 (when they orchestrated a takeover of the board established to oversee the magazine) explains that MacArthur’s contradictions are rooted in his idealism, his faith in journalism and his commitment to the magazine. "He has this sense of stopping the presses," Lapham said, between slow drags on a Parliament in his office. MacArthur is one of the few publishers in New York who would welcome a lawsuit. "He’s fearless," Lapham said. "If you get sued, he thinks you must be doing something right."

As it turns out, Lapham and MacArthur make a comfortable fit. Lapham told me there is no journalistic move he can’t make, nothing he can’t say in his monthly essay, "Notebook." Together, Lapham and MacArthur believe Harper’s plays an important role in stirring national debate. Absently fingering the blue ceramic tumbler of an ashtray on his desk, Lapham told me he doesn’t believe in a strict division of the magazine’s business and editorial sides. "Rick tries to help me with ideas for good journalism, and I’m willing to help him produce more revenue." And while Lapham appreciates the fact that MacArthur never lets his concern with the next advertising dollar affect what’s in the magazine, he probably wouldn’t mind a few more of those advertising dollars to pay his writers more.

MacArthur never intended to become a full-time publisher. He was 23 years old and an ambitious reporter at the Chicago Sun Times in 1980 when he heard that the Minneapolis Star & Tribune Company had decided to fold its 130-year-old literary magazine. He was horrified. MacArthur had become a devoted Harper’s reader a few years earlier after hearing Lapham speak at Barnard College, and he sensed then that Harper’s was the highbrow version of what he wanted to do at a daily newspaper after graduating from Columbia University. Lapham’s success at making Harper’s confrontational, iconoclastic and literary appealed to the young college journalist, and he couldn’t bear the demise of the venerable journal that had first published such authors as Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Willa Cather and Aldous Huxley. MacArthur thought his late billionaire grandfather’s charitable foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, could step in and save the magazine. So, he talked his father Roderick into convincing the other board members to buy Harper’s — which they proceeded to do, for $250,000. To sway the final votes on the board of directors, Lapham told me he asked around to find out who certain members considered to be "God." Thus, when he learned that board member Ed Levi, the Attorney General under Nixon, revered Henry Kissinger, Lapham tracked Kissinger down on his plane and had him call Levi. (This, by the way, is the same Kissinger whom Lapham and MacArthur recently allowed Christopher Hitchens to accuse of war crimes in 40,000 words over two issues this spring.) Eventually, the Atlantic Richfield Corp. Foundation also got involved, and the magazine was left with $3 million for its future operations. MacArthur remembers having a beer after work at Danny’s Radio Grill in Chicago when he heard Walter Cronkite announce the bail-out. "No one imagined I would take over the magazine," he said.

Take over he did. But only after years of turmoil for the beleaguered magazine. In 1971, hard-drinking editor Willie Morris, who was rumored to edit the magazine from his table at Elaine’s bar and restaurant where he held nightly court, had been fired. And then, in 1976, after an uneventful five-year term for Robert Schnayerson, Lapham — who was resented by those who quit in protest for staying on after Morris was fired — became editor. By 1980, Harper’s was losing $1.5 million a year, and the Minnesota Star & Tribune Co. decided to close it. The following year, the new board of directors installed by the MacArthur Foundation fired Lapham (to MacArthur’s dismay) over a disagreement about the magazine’s future and a row over an essay he had written attacking the American literary establishment, and made Michael Kinsley, who was then senior editor of The New Republic, editor of Harper’s.

At this point, the plot thickens. Kinsley lasted 20 months until he was fired, ostensibly for accepting a freebie trip to Lebanon, and he returned to The New Republic. In fact, MacArthur had been determined to restore Lapham to the masthead from the moment he decided to leave the UPI cables desk, where he had taken a job after a brief stint as a police reporter at the Washington Star and three years at the Chicago Sun Times. Lapham had agreed to return only on MacArthur’s promise of complete editorial control and command of a major redesign. Together, meeting in Lapham’s office in the old Pan Am building, the two plotted the coup. MacArthur enlisted the support of board member George Ball, a former member of the Kennedy Administration who had been opposed to the Vietnam War, and began a stealthy political campaign to replace unsupportive board members and oust Kinsley. When Kinsley made his ill-advised trip to the Middle East, the deed was done.

In those years, Harper’s was in desperate financial shape. To keep the magazine afloat, to succeed at selling advertising and to put Harper’s on a sound business basis, MacArthur quickly learned he would have to suspend his skepticism about making sales calls and ingratiate himself with corporate executives. Neither activity was altogether natural to him.

But since Harper’s is now run by a non-profit foundation, its publisher is not confronted with the burden of shareholders demanding large profit margins. Moreover, a stock portfolio left by MacArthur’s father, John Roderick MacArthur, upon his death in 1984, has been covering the magazine’s losses each year. The value of the stock had reached $40 million in the past market surge, but by mutual agreement, MacArthur and his brother and sister spend only five percent annually to support the magazine plus the MacArthur Justice Center in Chicago, the Death Penalty Information Center and the Vietnam Veterans Foundation, among others. In 2000, the year of a lavish 150th anniversary celebration, Harper’s lost a half million dollars, and the foundation came through with a $2.5 million grant, converting some of its stock into cash before the market tumbled. In 17 years under MacArthur’s leadership, Harper’s has broken even only twice.

With a paid circulation base of 205,000 and an estimated pass-along readership of 600,000, Harper’s is not the top choice of most consumer advertisers. Thus, rather than rely on the agencies that place ads in magazines and on television for major corporations, MacArthur opts to go directly to advertisers, such as Saab and American Express. "Harper’s is a very hard sell. The ad agency would obviously rather buy Superbowl slots than pages in Harper’s," MacArthur says. "So it takes extra work that most people don’t want to do."

When the state-owned Swedish alcohol company decided to pull its colorful Absolut Vodka ads from Harper’s, MacArthur flew to Stockholm to try to convince the head of state it was a bad idea. It doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to advertise in Harper’s, MacArthur told them, and the circulation is pure, meaning it’s not inflated by such things as telephone-bank subscriptions. "More importantly, we’re reaching the people who matter in the country," MacArthur says, the nation’s thought leaders. The magazine’s associate publisher, Peter Kendall, who got his start in publishing as an ad salesman at the "old" New Yorker, said MacArthur loves to be in on the kill. "He never takes no for an answer," said Kendall, who has been at Harper’s for seven years now. So, when the Swedes refused to commit to a new ad schedule, MacArthur insisted on trying to draw up a package they couldn’t resist. On the day I visited MacArthur in late March, three months after his visit to Stockholm, his assistant, Diane Kraft, was tracking the whereabouts of a Federal Express package from Harper’s offices that had apparently been mislaid in a Swedish government mailroom. They had yet to say yes to the ad campaign.

As exciting as all that Swedish selling is, and as cheerfully as he accompanies Kendall on sales calls to companies such as Mercedes Benz, Apple Computer and others on their hit list, MacArthur has a problem. As much as he loves the magazine and feels he must remain in control of the business so that it survives without compromising its editorial mission, his heart seems to be on the editorial side.
MacArthur was a sophomore at Columbia University in 1976 when he first began upsetting people in positions of authority. He and a band of aggressive young reporters at the Columbia Spectator all wanted to be investigative reporters, and they fomented campus anger any chance they could. When MacArthur was assigned to cover a speech given by Fred Feretti, The New York Times’s City Hall editor, he dutifully reported Feretti’s scathing criticism of The Times’s own editorials on New York City’s fiscal crisis. "The editorials were garbage, the guy who wrote them lived in Providence, Rhode Island," MacArthur quoted Feretti as saying. Of course, the Spec ran a banner headline the next day, and Feretti went crazy. "It’s all a pack of fucking lies," Feretti seethed. But that’s what he said, says MacArthur, who ate it up. "Boy, this is fun," he says he thought. Dan Jannussen, Newsday’s City Hall bureau chief who was part of that Spectator crew, told me MacArthur was indispensable. "He isn’t happy if he’s letting the status quo rest," Jannussen said. "He takes very seriously the role of the journalist. He’s very full of purpose."

Shortly past 10 a.m. on the day I spent at Harper’s, and minutes after a business meeting was scheduled to begin, MacArthur stepped off the elevator on the 11th floor clutching a waxy, white pastry bag and paper cup of coffee. He had walked the three blocks from his home at Central Park West and 75th Street and, as usual, caught the B train down to the Village. Within about ten minutes, he and the magazine’s managers were gathered around a conference table, plotting promotions and speakers for an education forum at the University of Mississippi in September that will complement a special fall education issue. Should John Grisham, the Oxford, Mississippi-based author, deliver the luncheon speech? How about First Lady Laura Bush for the keynote address, or perhaps Stephen Ambrose of the Eisenhower Foundation? When the associate publisher, Peter Kendall, suggested corporate sponsorship of cocktail receptions and other events around the main panel discussions, Lapham said okay, but don’t let the sponsoring companies put any signs up. He joked that MacArthur would like to make the whole thing commercial. Then talk turned to a top-secret advertising push for the September issue — something about video screens in airports — and the competitive businessman in MacArthur paused and asked me, the grad student reporter (or possibly a mole for The Atlantic Monthly?), to wait outside for a few minutes. When I returned, I caught the tail end of a discussion about buying extra space on newsstands.

Later, as Lapham’s secretary, Ann Gollin, who arrived with him in 1983, was explaining how much they all love the magazine, MacArthur stuck his head into her office to sum up his reason for continuing as publisher: "because freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

After a year of huge losses and with the specter of a recession already felt by advertisers, one would think the publisher might be focused on trying to cut costs, downsize and expand the advertising hit list. When I asked MacArthur what was on his mind, a smile came over his face and, with great animation, he told me of his latest project. It seems that the magazine wholesalers, the companies that deliver Harper’s and every other magazine to newsstands and airports across the nation, have gained too much clout as a result of recent consolidation and they’re threatening to charge small publications exorbitant fees, or cease distributing them altogether. "They’ve conspired to drive out competition," MacArthur said. "They’re engaging in monopolistic practices. It’s terrible."

So, MacArthur asks, what do you think they will do if we sue them?