Felix Salmon

How Harper’s was doomed by its paywall

By Felix Salmon
February 1, 2010

It would be overly simplistic, but partially accurate, to ascribe the current crisis at Harper’s to the fact that its website is mostly hidden behind a paywall. I can’t even remember when I let my subscription lapse, but the magazine simply isn’t on my radar screen these days: with the exception of its current highly controversial Guantanamo story (which, notably, Harper’s put outside the paywall), pieces from Harper’s simply don’t get talked about.

A magazine’s website can and should be a force multiplier, extending the reach of the magazine from its historical place in subscribers’ homes. No one has ever subscribed to Harper’s because of something they read on its website, and as public discourse moves increasingly online, any public-interest magazine with a high paywall will be doomed to irrelevance.

What’s clear in the case of Harper’s is that its paywall — just like its editor’s decision to remove himself from the office voicemail directory — is a clear sign of how stodgy and old-fashioned it is. Newspapers flirting with the idea of erecting such a wall should remember that, and realize that it’s a big step backwards. You can coast on an existing store of momentum for a while, but eventually and inevitably that momentum will fizzle out. If you want to build a franchise which can thrive over the long term, you need to pick up new readers to replace those who drop out. And in order to do that, you need an exciting and vibrant website.

3 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Giving stuff away is still not much of a business model, Felix. It *may* get you readers, but painful experience shows that it *doesn’t* generate revenue. Being talked about is fine, but being paid is essential.

Posted by Citoyen | Report as abusive

No one has ever subscribed to Harper’s because of something they read on its website…

Hey Felix-
Here I proudly am, the guy who subscribed to Harper’s because of something he read on their website. That something was Scott Horton’s Informed Comment, which I enjoyed so much I decided to pay for the monthly subscription to the print edition. And I’ve enjoyed the magazine, old fashioned and stodgy or not.

Posted by mdsanders | Report as abusive

I’m forced to agree with Felix. Harper’s is an amazing magazine, that is hiding it’s light under a bushel. If I didn’t read it print, I would barely know it existed.

Offering a few more article for free and some real value added content (like The New Yorker or The Economist, both of which seem to be doing alright) would go a long way towards giving them a real boost in awareness. Thus a boost in print subscriptions! Then again make there sight a destination would involve a real investment, but I would tend to think it was worth it.

Posted by Shmoe | Report as abusive

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