If We Spend $25K On A Photo Essay, Readers Should Pay to See It, Says Harper’s Publisher

Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur wrote a letter for the October issue of the magazine in which he took a strong stand against publishing free writing and photography on the web. He tackles the question of how journalism should be funded and distributed today, arguing that publishers, readers and journalists should reject the idea that good journalism should be given away for free in hopes of gaining page views. When he talks about good journalism, he includes good photography. (We’ve noted previously that Harper’s has become a great publisher of photography, winning National Magazine awards and other accolades.)

MacArthur says he has been distressed in recent years as publishers give away the work done by journalists and editors “in the quest for more advertising. Instead of honoring the reader, writer, and editor, this new approach to the publishing business instead insulted them,” MacArthur writes, “both by devaluing their work and by feeding it—with little or no remuneration—to search engines, which in turn feed information to advertising agencies (and, as it turns out, the government.)”

MacArthur says advocates of free content are peddling “nonsense.” “Who needs fact-checkers when we have crowdsourcing to correct the record? Why doesn’t Harper’s give away a particularly good investigative piece… so more people will read it?”

He also has the temerity to suggest that publishers, journalists and editors “have to earn a living.” He singles out a recent photo essay by an anonymous photographer, who risked arrest and imprisonment to report from inside Iran. The assignment cost the magazine $25,000, MacArthur says. “Shouldn’t Anonymous be paid for this courage and skill?” MacArthur asks. “Shouldn’t Harper’s be compensated for sending Anonymous into the field?”

“It is unreasonable to expect that an advertiser would directly sponsor such daring photography,” MacArthur writes. “It is wishful thinking to believe that parasitic Google, now bloated with billions of dollars’ worth of what I consider pirated property, will ever willingly pay Harper’s, or Anonymous, anything at all for the right to distribute Anonymous’s pictures…”

MacArthur will hopefully forgive us for quoting him at length on our blog, which is not behind a paywall. Those who want to read the rest of his statement, and see Michael Christopher Brown‘s fantastic photographs from Libya, or Misty Keasler‘s touching images accompanying a report about a controversial Montana orphanage for Russian children, will have to pick up the magazine on the newsstand, or subscribe for $20, about twice what I will probably spend on lunch today.

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7 Responses to “If We Spend $25K On A Photo Essay, Readers Should Pay to See It, Says Harper’s Publisher”

  1. Batshoot Says:

    First: one doesn’t need to subscribe to get one magazine.
    Two: you should eat better.

  2. Neil Burgess Says:

    I’m a Guardian reading liberal in the UK but quite like the sometimes rabid, right wing Telegraph newspaper; both of which I read on-line. A few months ago, my reading of the Telegraph was curtailed when I hit a maximum of 20 articles that I was allowed to read that month. The only way to keep on reading was to pay a pound a week subscription.Peanuts. So I paid. So now I pay to read the Telegraph but not my favoured paper the Guardian.

    Given the costs of daily broadsheet newspapers in the UK about 8 pounds a week; and the fact that 70% of the cost of your newspaper is the cost of the paper printing and distribution, a sliding scale of prices depending on how much you read the paper online might be the answer to the business model we’ve all been waiting to emerge, which will begin to fund journalism again.

    NB

  3. Ed Endicott Says:

    As a photographer, I applaud this….loudly…while standing. Having had images published in various papers and magazines receiving very little in return only to have bloggers and other papers pirate the images without compensating me (and me not being able to do anything about it despite copyright registration) – I absolutely agree with this position. The editorial market from a writer or photographer’s perspective has collapsed and continues to fall. I’m glad someone is standing up for us – perhaps this will spark conversation and people will realize that it is the writer and the photographer of these papers and magazines that is recording history and in 5-10 years, these same images and reports will be used to teach our children history. Mr. MacArthur deserved to be saluted for bringing this to the forefront.

  4. mark Dunn Says:

    Neil, if you open a private browser window the Telegraph can’t count your visits.

  5. Carol Vanselow Says:

    Standing ovation to Mr Mc Arthur. I’m willing to subscribe as a way of saying thank you.

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