A Conversation with Paul Ford, the Now-Former Web Editor of Harper's Magazine


Choire Sicha: Dear Paul Ford: Why did you quit Harper’s this week?

Paul Ford: I am leaving to pursue other opportunities. Not a euphemism! I’m working primarily with Activate, which is the amazing new-media/technology convergence consulting micro-megacorporation that sprung fully formed from the heads of Anil Dash and Michael Wolf, and also with Predicate, which is a powerhouse content strategy consultancy operated by Jeffrey MacIntyre. Both are working with me so that I can mention them in the Awl, so now I can invoice.

I’ve been at Harper’s for five years. It’s very weird to be outside. Everyone has MacBooks. People use nouns as verbs. Someone wrote that they were going to f/u with me the other day, which concerned me, and someone else said that they looked forward to calendaring a meeting. Can I learn this strange new bird-language? I don’t know. I’m planning to ride my bike to Newark soon, outside of bedbug range, and hit up the thrift stores so that I can have some emergency suits. Let’s hope someone with size-54 shoulders recently died. Also I want to start my blog up again. The most important thing any person can do in this world is get back to their blog. In my opinion.

Choire: Are rats sinking a deserted ship? [Jennifer Szalai, a senior editor, who handled reviews, also quit this week.] No wait, you know what I mean.

Paul: The rats are smoking a little too much, trying to figure out how why they can’t get the layout to work in InDesign. Some rats are going, most rats are staying. Like everywhere. Here are some fun rat facts: NYC’s vaudeville union was called the White Rats. I once wrote something about ratproofing my apartment: The most common rat name is Slim. Rats can legally vote in Louisiana.

Choire: Are you a rat? Or will you be “consulting” with your former employer?

Paul: You think I don’t see your little insinuating quote marks? I’m still an editor, dammit. You can’t slip things like that past me! I will not be “’consulting’,” I will be CONSULTING.

This has been very amiable and kind of sad for everyone involved, except for the people who have secretly hated me for years. I plan to pop back in before too long and finish up the re-code of the site in Django and make it easier for editors to work on the site through a web interface, and basically make everything go okay. I’ll have a relationship of some kind with the magazine until I’m an old web coot telling young people about how we edited our HTML by hand rather than having our digital sex pony avatars do it for us in our Farmbooks. Which is basically me now talking to anyone younger than 27.

You know what happened, really and without irony? I had an opportunity to be an editor at Harper’s, to edit pieces for the magazine. It was something I expected to really want. I had wonderful editors to learn from. I did a little of it for print and a lot for the web. I wasn’t bad at it, even. Not great, but not bad. I could have been a respected editor instead of a huge nerd. But all the editing in the world can’t compare to building little websites and mangling text and writing things and messing around in spreadsheets and figuring out what’s wrong with comments. I wake up thinking about how all the pieces fit together and I want to do more of it and with lots of people. I plan to be scared and exhausted most of the time. So far that’s working.

Choire: What is your favorite Alex Chilton video, song or tale?

Paul: My favorite tale is from Our Band Could Be Your Life, when he shut down Gibby Haynes’s rampage through the Netherlands:

Moments later a man entered the dressing room and asked if he could borrow a guitar. “BORROW A GUITAR??!!! WELL, WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU???!!! [Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers] screamed, eyes flashing in delirious anticpation of forthcoming violence. But the man was totally unfazed.

“I’m Alex Chilton,” the man answered calmly.

Haynes was flabbergasted. After a long pause, he methodically opened the remaining guitar cases one by one and gestured at them as if to say, “Take anything you want.”