A Conversation with Paul Ford, Web Editor of Harper's Magazine


Paul Ford is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine. His duties include the full operation of the website. We requested that he join us for a conversation about the magazine, its website and the site’s paywall choices and goals.

Choire: Hey Paul! Thank you for joining me. At the outset, let me disclaim that we are somewhat friendly, and in fact for one night shared a bedroom in Sag Harbor, though not in any way that calls your heterosexuality into question.
Paul: That was a beautiful weekend.
Choire: Ha, well you just made that sound a lot worse for you, but okay! Innuendo aside, I requested your attendance here because I wanted to know a bit about the Harper’s website, which you designed and schemed up and built (as in coded!).
Paul: I started freelancing for Harper’s in 2003 and then started full-time in 2005. We launched the archive, which goes back to 1850, in 2007. Along the way we’ve added the blogs Washington Babylon by Ken Silverstein and No Comment by Scott Horton (along with Sentences, a blog by Wyatt Mason that ran last year). We also publish a daily Links blog, called Links, and the Weekly Review, a, uh, weekly summary of the news. I write the code, edit some of the web content, and basically do all the things that need doing.
Choire: I love your inventive and descriptive titles! Was that the result of a long meeting, calling the weekly review the Weekly Review?
Paul: That was Roger Hodge’s baby; he also created Findings, which runs in the back of the magazine every month. He’s very deadpan.
Choire: Well, that is why you don’t mess with Texas.
Choire: So. As you may have heard, some people are beginning to discuss how to “make money” on the “Internet”? And one of my questions, I guess, is: what are the goals of the Harper’s website? By which I mean: is it to drive subscriptions? To be self-supporting? To get attention? To be considered cool by the kids? Or some other, heretofore unthought-of idea?
Paul: Okay! Let’s talk about the paywall. People are very curious about paywalls.
Choire: Oh yes. It is an obsession in this time!
Paul: So, for strangers to harpers.org, if you want to read the current issue of the magazine — the one on newsstands — you have to be a subscriber, which costs $16.97 a year.
Choire: That is outrageous.
Choire: I mean, what incentive do people to pay that kind of money! What do they even GET for that! (Annnd… end sarcasm.)
Paul: But…
Paul: But…
Paul: We’re really into the idea of subscribers giving us money in exchange for our product.
Choire: As a “business model.” I think I see.
Paul: I’m NOT SAYING that giving away things on the Internet is bad.
Choire: For those interested, the verified paid circulation was 172,709 subscribers (as reported in the first half of ‘08).
Paul: Yes! And about 25–30% of those at any time are registered for the website. AND here is the key: our site is basically profitable, because it saves us so much in subscriber acquisition.
Paul: I say “profitable” because this is the world of magazines and everything related to money is insane.
Choire: You mean, people come to the website… and subscribe?
Paul: Thousands and thousands! More every day! I have charts.
Choire: Wow, charts?
Paul: I cannot share them but they look like this:
Paul: Feb 01 ######################################(76)
Paul: Does that not whet the appetite?
Paul: And I say, “but we saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in acquisition costs and our product is not expensive!”
Choire: Do you get emails like that?
Paul: Less now. People send more love letters now saying “I LIKE THE ARCHIVE.” But for a long time there was anger and denial. How could we be on the web and not give everything away?
Paul: Also we do give a lot away, just not while it’s on the newsstand, and if we have the digital rights.
Choire: Oh, I was very curious about that, in fact!
Paul: For instance look for “FREE TEXT” here.
Paul: PDFs and page images are always subs only, but that’s about legal compliance more than anything else.
Choire: I’m fascinated with your writer’s contracts that do not include digital distribution rights (something I’ve never experienced ever anywhere else) but I suppose that is not your department. My question is: how does the decision get made to put stuff “outside” the paywall?
Paul: It’s pretty simple. If it’s currently on the newsstand it almost NEVER happens. The Guantanamo Suicides piece was a VERY special exception.
Paul: Once it’s off the newsstand most of the issue is available and I’ve been going through and putting more up, or we repost it if it’s relevant. Sometimes people remind me of pieces they’d like to see on the web and I make a point of posting them. I’ve been pulling more and more out from behind the paywall as we go. But of course what people are most interested in, this being a monthly magazine, is the current issue.
Choire: Sure. We’re all very obsessed with what’s new. Why would we want to read an OLD piece? What blog would care about that?
Paul: And when we have big, controversial pieces, subscription rates often double for a few days as people come to read them. It IS hard to convince media outlets to link to things that require payment.
Paul: So if NPR or PBS does something with a writer, they want us to post something for free access.
Choire: Oh that’s interesting-you get peer pressure from other media outlets to put your wares out there for free?
Paul: Yes, absolutely.
Choire: There’s a term for that, I think.
Paul: Am I supposed to say something clever now? Because I do not know the term. YOU SAID THERE WOULDN’T BE A QUIZ.
Choire: I’m looping back slightly. Rolling Stone’s policy is that they put things up from the “new” issue about two weeks after publication. (Though they do teaser things, like photoshoots and little excerpts and stuff.) So meanwhile, they must fill their website with other things. Obviously, they’re not a nonprofit, so there are differences! How much original “web” “content” do you think you should be doing. More? Less?
Paul: More! Always more! I love putting things on the web. I like the paywall because it helps us pay writers and writers should be paid.
Choire: *blinks*
Paul: But if I had more resources I would love more blogs and more stuff from the archives and more art and so on. THAT SAID we’re probably at the limit of what is possible as a one-person web shop.
Paul: So if we can hum along and sell a goodly number of subscriptions and I can do a few projects like the searchable Harper’s Index, that’s okay too.
Choire: I see. Are your blogs edited by a person who is not the writer of the blog?
Paul: Yes! Scott is edited by Sam Stark and Ken is edited by Ted Ross.
Choire: Nuts!
Paul: I know. We even fact-check things in the blogs if a post contains original reporting.
Choire: I am going to try that some day.
Choire: One thing we have here is that, since there are three of us, the editorial and the business side are close and actually have to work to build distance. You’re at a not much bigger organization. How much involvement does the biz side have with you? Are there things that the business side would like, that you may or may not do?
Paul: I’ve always worked with the business side on the website. Things here are more about what’s possible rather than what people like or don’t like. I mean, advertising would like HUGE TRAFFIC and circ would like MORE SUBS but the only easy way to get more traffic is to give everything away and then we wouldn’t get more subs (well, some people say so, but we’re cautious), so at the end of the day not everyone gets what they want, but such is life.
Choire: Hmm. How do we know or suspect that you wouldn’t get more subs, and sell more ads, if you had no paywall? (I have always been largely anti-paywall, which is why I am talking to you actually!)
Paul: We don’t! Not really. But publications that count on revenue from advertising and hope that larger traffic equals more conversions to subscriptions are not exactly jumping up and down going “THIS IS GREAT.”
Paul: I honestly, HONESTLY do not say that we are doing it the right way, but I don’t believe people know the right way. We are doing it in an INTERESTING way and we are not spending very much to make that happen.
Choire: That’s fair.
Paul: We’ve talked about the [new] Times model-give away a certain amount, then make them pay. But would that scale down to our level? We don’t have anywhere near as many articles as they do. Like a fraction of a percent.
Choire: I would imagine that your data shows your average reader is a deep reader there though.
Paul: Subscribers are; visitors poke around archive content-but that could be my fault! Or the fault of our CMS. Which I wrote, so it’s my fault. Meaning: do we recommend enough articles? Do we make it clear what’s free and what isn’t? Etc. There are all known problems and I am coding away busily in Django to try to solve them. I mean, there is probably a 30 percent traffic boost sitting around in the form of design changes, usability, IA, UX, etc. Plus special features, or community-those are also drivers.
Choire: Sure. I think I tend to come, find a thing, read it and then-like with most websites!-I’m not sure I know where to click next. Also, like, there’s nowhere to comment.
Paul: Exactly, so I want to fix that this year. That’s my big goal. So you have plenty of things to read (because everything is organized by subject), and no doubt as to which article to read next!
Choire: So. Can I Haz Harper’s Comments?
Paul: Hmmmm… Okay, so here are my thoughts there: yes! But not as a one-person web shop. That’s too many late nights. We’d need more blogs, too. What I wish I could do is take our tens of thousands of nice registered subscribers and offer them a Metafilter-style community — something where they could create the content and talk and interact (with editors) and then we could promote the most interesting stuff to the home page.
Paul: I like that idea because I would deeply enjoy being part of that community.
Paul: Our readers are intense and have very many things to say!
Choire: Hoo, I bet. And speaking of engagement! What sort of role in the website did Roger have?
Paul: Roger was truly awesome about the web. Here’s an example: when I started freelancing in 2003 we went out for lunch and I said, “Look, the stuff I’m doing, I don’t have a web interface for it, and it’s all done on the command line,” and I sort of expected that to end the deal, and he said, “Well, if you want, we can set it up on my Mac and you can ssh in.” When he was the Deputy Editor he made a point of learning some Perl and XSLT so we could mess around with XML. And he was also an extraordinarily good editor.
Choire: He WHAT! I’m afraid I had no idea.
Paul: Yes! If Roger wasn’t such a serious editor he would have been a web nerd. We occasionally referred to him as Sysadmin-in-Chief.
Choire: Huh!
Paul: So anyway, he and I used to talk a great deal about databases and JavaScript and JQuery. He was about architecture, not just content, and that was very helpful at the top level. Obviously there’s a lot going on here right now but everyone knows that Roger truly got the web.
Choire: I suspect that’s the kind of literally hands-on experience that does not go on at other magazines. Besides Life & Style, of course.
Paul: But totally. I order the computers and sometimes have to patch phone lines in the back office.
Choire: Oof! Full service. Okay, a final question.
Choire: If you personally had ten million dollars, what would you do with it? And would you quit your job?
Paul: I would finish my sci-fi novel and open a cat refuge. I would have an apartment with doors.
Paul: Wait. There’s more.
Paul: I would probably spend time developing some interesting javascript code and I would become the world’s most dedicated blogger! About technology and historical audio!
Paul: Was that a good answer? Do I get the $10 million? DO I? IS THIS A TEST?
Choire: Wouldn’t that be hilarious if suddenly the ceiling in your office opened up and cash covered you like sweat at a strip club?
Paul: What if I had said, “I would finally be able to treat my mom’s cancer?” WOULD THAT HAVE BEEN A FUNNY ANSWER?
Paul: Luckily my mom doesn’t have cancer.
Paul: Oh wait the phone’s ringing.
Paul: It’s my mom!
Choire: Uh oh?