ARUN RATH, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
Coming up, the chilling effect of NSA surveillance, stories that never get written. But first...
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RATH: It wasn't that long ago that bookstores were everywhere you could find shops. And in front, the mighty magazine stand.
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RATH: But you know the story. The Internet came and everything changed. Bookstores folded. The vast majority of magazines put their content up online because the conventional wisdom at the time said that you had to plant your flag on the Web. Build it, and they will come. And they did come in huge numbers. The problem was they didn't pay anything. That may be changing, and that's our cover story today: Who pays for your contact?
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RATH: John R. MacArthur is the president and publisher of Harper's, a magazine that's been around since 1850. And since the beginning of the Internet age, Harper's has protected its writing behind a pay wall, despite MacArthur's many colleagues considering him a bit of a dinosaur.
In a publisher's letter last month in Harper's, MacArthur lambasted the industry for trashing what he calls the compact between writer and reader.
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: My quarrel is with the publishers and the advertising agencies who have turned writing into what they unfortunately refer to as content. And there's been a systematic degradation of the craft of writing, not just of payment for writing. And I am trying to restore a certain amount of respect for writers and writing.
RATH: Why did everyone just start putting up content - sorry to use that word - for free?
MACARTHUR: Well, the publishers, most of whom are ex-ad salesmen or currently ad salesmen, are mainly interested in what they call total audience and cost per thousand. And they imagined that since the Web reached potentially billions of English-reading consumers, their audience was, in theory, almost infinite. And the cost per thousand for reaching those people, if they gave away the information, gave away the articles, would drop to levels that would excite ad agencies.
And, of course, the opposite has occurred. The ad agencies got excited about social media and about Google, which they think, at least at this point, are much more efficient ways to advertise.
RATH: Why at the time didn't Harper's jump on that free-content bandwagon?
MACARTHUR: I realized when I first got into this that if you didn't have committed readers willing to pay for writing, you didn't really have much of a future. You didn't have really much of a magazine. That made a better subscriber for advertisers, and it made a better reader for writers, in my opinion.
So I said to the young people on my staff who were clamoring for free, free, free, let's be like everybody else, I said, forget it. I said, if we can't convince our readers that we're producing something of value that they should pay for, we're finished.
RATH: If the readers are getting to the material, though, you know, whether it's through a digital portal or behind a pay wall or not, what does it matter?
MACARTHUR: Well, they won't get to - the material will stop being produced. If nobody can make a living writing, which is where we're getting, writing or writers, as we know them, are going to disappear. I cite one example in Harper's. We published a series of photographs from Iran that were taken by an anonymous photographer who risked their liberty and cost us a lot of money - I think all told $25,000 - to send them to Iran to take pictures that the government doesn't want us to see.
Now, why shouldn't that person be compensated for what they did, for the risk they take? Why shouldn't we be compensated for it? Why should it be free? And Google, they just want to aggregate it, as they say, and relay it across their network and then sell advertising adjacent to it. They don't want to compensate the photographer or us. So we take all the risk, we do all the work, and we don't get any of the benefit. That's not a healthy equation. And it's going to wind up deeply, deeply - it's already damaged American democracy in my opinion.
RATH: Is Harper's making money?
MACARTHUR: Well, we don't know how this year's going to turn out. Last year, we lost a little, but I'm cautiously optimistic. Now, that being said, it's a crisis right now. The odds against us are heavy when you take into consideration the immense propaganda now that has been pushed forward on the free-content model.
And unless people come to their senses - and I see them coming to their senses now at The New York Times - and they never lost their senses at the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal - unless people come to their senses and realize that the advertising's not coming back and we have to charge the subscribers more or the newsstand buyers more, we are going to be out of business. And it's going to be catastrophic for American culture.
RATH: John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper's Magazine.
Now, Harper's has it easier than most. They've got 160 years of heritage to attract paying customers. The other companies that make pay walls work, like the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times, also tend to have established reputations and existing readers. Uzoamaka Maduka does not. She and her partner started the American Reader just one year ago.
Didn't people say, what are you thinking trying to launch a magazine right now?
UZOAMAKA MADUKA: Yes. And especially said, what are you thinking trying to launch a print magazine right now?
RATH: The American Reader is a monthly publication of new fiction, poetry and criticism. For Maduka, setting up a pay wall just isn't feasible.
MADUKA: Because we're just starting out, we are more inclined to give more of our writing basically away for free because we want people to get to know what we're doing. But certainly, I think for those people who've been around longer, I do agree with Mr. MacArthur. I think it is a very disastrous road to go down.
RATH: Maduka is in her mid-20s. She's right in the middle of the millennial generation that publishers think had abandoned the printed page. Well, think again.
MADUKA: You know, it's been my experience that our generation, when it comes to technology, we're ambidextrous. We like to have choices between print or digital. And I don't think it really profits anyone to be led by the nose by that sort of hysterical reaction.
RATH: What's the kind of hysteria like? What's the kind of sky is falling things that you're hearing?
MADUKA: Well, the idea that print is dead, that, you know, no one is going to be reading in that form anymore, that because people have short - diminished attention spans, first of all, the fact that that would be the case. Secondly, that this would mean that all the content, as people call it, would have to be shorter, more accessible - accessible being a buzzword for dumbing things down.
We felt that the opposite was the case. Among our generation, we felt people were hungry for more sophisticated writing, for deeper engagement with the topics of the day. These are things that people have been shying away from in the past 10 years because of the bad advice that they have been getting because of the sort of histrionic attitudes that have been going on throughout the industry. And the readers have really suffered. And I think it's up to discerning editors right now to bring us back to where we need to be.
RATH: Uzoamaka Maduka says The American Reader has just over 1,100 paid subscribers for the print edition of the magazine. That might have market a failure 20 years ago. But today, with cheaper printing runs and fewer middlemen, smaller print runs are feasible.
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RATH: So what does the future hold? Can your local paper, for instance, start protecting its reporting behind a pay wall as well? According to Trish Hagood of the database MediaFinder that won't work.
TRISH HAGOOD: Well, because news is ubiquitous. For something to be special - I mean, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, like Money - the data has to be proprietary or essential. If you have a unique product, then you can maintain a pay wall. If you have a product that anybody can get anywhere, like the news, you're in trouble.
RATH: Hagood says fewer magazines started up this year but fewer folded as well. In the meantime, more pay walls are going up.
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