Jan 18, 2011

Remember unions? Harper's writers do.

John Arthur, liberal businessman and owner of Harper's magazine, is "locked in a bitter contract dispute" with his recently unionized staff, reports New York magazine. At least one editor, Ben Metcalf, has accused Arthur of retaliation and top staff have since left the publication.

The New York magazine story plays up the irony of a liberal boss fighting his liberal staff over a liberal cause: unionization. But the real trouble stem from vanity and a failure adapt to the changing times. From the sorry:
The current crisis began a year ago, when MacArthur fired the magazine's editor-in-chief, Roger Hodge. The two men had once been close, but their relationship had frayed as the red ink mounted: Newsstand sales dropped, MacArthur's appetite for losses waned, and Hodge tried to defend the staff from cuts. According to Harper’s' most recent tax filing in 2009, MacArthur invested $4.4 million into the magazine. (In 2006, his losses were only $2.9 million.)

In the months following Hodge’s ouster, the staff became alarmed when MacArthur’s name began appearing on top of the masthead (previously it had been underneath the editors' names, along with the business staff). Senior editors Bill Wasik, Luke Mitchell, and Jen Szalai departed, along with web editor Paul Ford. To fill Hodge's position, MacArthur appointed Ellen Rosenbush, Harper’s' longtime copy chief, as acting editor. The move struck many staffers as a way to have a more pliant editor in charge: Rosenbush helped edit MacArthur's monthly column in the Providence Journal and his book You Can't Be President. Staffers also complained that MacArthur’s business plan was doomed to fail. He seemed to show little interest in the web in general or the iPad in particular, at a moment when The Atlantic, its longtime thought-leader rival, had invested heavily online and had reaped benefits both in prestige and in financial viability. “He said no one will ever make money on the web,” one staffer told me on condition of anonymity. 

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