How Harper’s was doomed by its paywall

By Felix Salmon
February 1, 2010
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.


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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.

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