More Details On Harper’s Shake-up Emerge

Last week, Harper’s Magazine announced an editorial shift. The 160-year-old magazine announced that its editor, Roger D. Hodge, was stepping down, to be replaced (at least for the time being) by longtime managing editor Ellen Rosenbush.

But, it didn’t take long for the media to catch a whiff of sometimes smelling off. That same afternoon, The New York Times reported that some Harper’s staffers were saying Hodge hadn’t left on his own; he had been “dismissed.”

Today, the Times has a more in-depth piece about the shift at Harper’s, opening with a description of a meeting led by the magazine’s president and publisher, John R. MacArthur last week:

“In a rambling 40-minute monologue that left many attendees perplexed, Mr. MacArthur, 53, talked about the problems facing Harper’s: readership was down 35,000, newsstand sales were plummeting, the only direct-mail piece that seemed to work was 20 years old. Worse, Harper’s seemed irrelevant — ‘the mainstream media is ignoring it to death,’ he said — according to people who were at the meeting.”

MacArthur did not talk about Hodge, who the Times now reports definitively, was fired early last week.

While the struggles of Harper’s are nothing new within the industry, its story is unique in that it’s one of the oldest magazines in the country and a nonprofit to boot. Although the nonprofit model has been touted as a possible savior of the industry, Harper’s should serve as a model for the rest. Is it truly independent? How long can it last?

Harper’s gets a bulk of its endowment from MacArthur’s foundation, making him the “chief benefactor” of the magazine, in addition to its publisher. It’s no wonder, then, that the publication is subject to his whims. Explains Stephanie Clifford in the Times today:

“The foundation model does not entirely protect a publication from a sputtering economy. Mr. MacArthur’s foundation has donated more than $3 million a year to Harper’s from 2004 to 2008, according to the most recent filings available. But the foundation’s assets have declined precipitously — to $12.1 million in 2008, from $34.3 million in 2001. He personally gave $4 million in 2008 to the foundation, double what he gave two years before.

Though Mr. MacArthur said the foundation’s assets could be replenished at any time, he has considered looking for other donors — staff members even created an ad this fall seeking donations from readers. Mr. MacArthur now says he is firmly against that plan, saying, ‘We cherish our independence.'”

Despite the recent shake-up it seems like Harper’s is determined to stay just as it is, an old media stalwart that attracts high profile writers. And MacArthur says he has no plans to take a bigger editorial role, despite some of the magazine’s editor’s fears. But can Harper’s sustain during this tough economic time? It’s already made it this far, but there are no guarantees.

Read more: Editorial Shake-Up as Harper’s Tries to Stabilize in a DownturnNew York Times

Previously: Harper’s Magazine‘s Editor Steps Down