publisher, Rick MacArthur works to bring as much advertising as he can
to the pages of Harpers 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, Harpers was poised to land a $100,000 advertising
schedule from Pfizer, Inc. that would have filled almost a fourth of the
magazines average annual operating loss of between $300,000 and
$400,000. MacArthur nevertheless encouraged the magazines 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 Pfizers business practices, but it definitely cost Harpers
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 publishers
reaction to the loss? "There goes another schedule." So the
drug companies dont like Harpers now, he says with a shrug,
sitting at a square table in the conference room in Harpers 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 medias lackadaisical
approach to covering the Gulf War and its acceptance of the governments
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, Somebodys
got to say something."
To an extent, MacArthurs family wealth gives him the freedom to
make such public critiques. He knows he doesnt need an assignment
from Tina Brown; he doesnt 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 Yorkers
current editor, is doing a solid job of rebuilding the magazines
quality and prestige, he still claims its intellectual authority has been
diminished. Of course, in MacArthurs eyes, Harpers 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 Im not going to say anything
back. Thats his business." Remnick paused. "Its
just not interesting, do you know what I mean, this kind of gossip-page
back and forth. Its just nonsense, and Im not interested."
Harpers 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 MacArthurs 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. "Hes fearless,"
Lapham said. "If you get sued, he thinks you must be doing something
As it turns out, Lapham and MacArthur make a comfortable fit. Lapham told
me there is no journalistic move he cant make, nothing he cant
say in his monthly essay, "Notebook." Together, Lapham and MacArthur
believe Harpers plays an important role in stirring national debate.
Absently fingering the blue ceramic tumbler of an ashtray on his desk,
Lapham told me he doesnt believe in a strict division of the magazines
business and editorial sides. "Rick tries to help me with ideas for
good journalism, and Im 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 whats in the magazine, he
probably wouldnt 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 Harpers reader a few years earlier after hearing Lapham
speak at Barnard College, and he sensed then that Harpers was the
highbrow version of what he wanted to do at a daily newspaper after graduating
from Columbia University. Laphams success at making Harpers
confrontational, iconoclastic and literary appealed to the young college
journalist, and he couldnt 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
grandfathers 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 Harpers
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 Dannys Radio Grill in Chicago when he heard Walter Cronkite
announce the bail-out. "No one imagined I would take over the magazine,"
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 Elaines 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, Harpers 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 MacArthurs dismay) over a disagreement
about the magazines 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 Harpers.
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 MacArthurs promise of complete editorial
control and command of a major redesign. Together, meeting in Laphams
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, Harpers was in desperate financial shape. To keep
the magazine afloat, to succeed at selling advertising and to put Harpers
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
But since Harpers 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 MacArthurs father,
John Roderick MacArthur, upon his death in 1984, has been covering the
magazines 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, Harpers
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 MacArthurs leadership, Harpers
has broken even only twice.
With a paid circulation base of 205,000 and an estimated pass-along readership
of 600,000, Harpers 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. "Harpers is
a very hard sell. The ad agency would obviously rather buy Superbowl slots
than pages in Harpers," MacArthur says. "So it takes extra
work that most people dont want to do."
When the state-owned Swedish alcohol company decided to pull its colorful
Absolut Vodka ads from Harpers, MacArthur flew to Stockholm to try
to convince the head of state it was a bad idea. It doesnt cost
an arm and a leg to advertise in Harpers, MacArthur told them, and
the circulation is pure, meaning its not inflated by such things
as telephone-bank subscriptions. "More importantly, were reaching
the people who matter in the country," MacArthur says, the nations
thought leaders. The magazines 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 Harpers
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 couldnt
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 Harpers 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 Timess City Hall editor, he dutifully reported Ferettis
scathing criticism of The Timess own editorials on New York Citys
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. "Its all a pack of fucking lies," Feretti seethed.
But thats what he said, says MacArthur, who ate it up. "Boy,
this is fun," he says he thought. Dan Jannussen, Newsdays City
Hall bureau chief who was part of that Spectator crew, told me MacArthur
was indispensable. "He isnt happy if hes letting the
status quo rest," Jannussen said. "He takes very seriously the
role of the journalist. Hes very full of purpose."
Shortly past 10 a.m. on the day I spent at Harpers, 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 magazines 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 dont 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 Laphams 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
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 Harpers and
every other magazine to newsstands and airports across the nation, have
gained too much clout as a result of recent consolidation and theyre
threatening to charge small publications exorbitant fees, or cease distributing
them altogether. "Theyve conspired to drive out competition,"
MacArthur said. "Theyre engaging in monopolistic practices.
So, MacArthur asks, what do you think they will do if we sue them?