Editing Harper’s in the age of the web
Talking with Roger D. Hodge, its editor-to-be
December 8, 2005
It’s something every summer magazine intern dreams of, usually while standing over a copy machine: doing well enough to some day take over. That dream will become a reality this April at Harper’s when Roger D. Hodge, the magazine’s associate editor, succeeds longtime editor Lewis Lapham. Hodge, who is 38, started as an intern in 1996, fresh out of grad school. Several years later he became the Readings section editor, and in 2003 he helped overhaul the magazine’s web site. Like Willie Morris, a native Mississippian who become Harper’s editor in 1967, Hodge has southern roots. His family owns a ranch in Del Rio, Texas. Hodge takes over at a time when magazines in general are struggling to maintain ad pages, and general interest publications like Harper’s face more and more competition from the internet. Hodge talks with Media Life about blogs, the changes he plans to make, and why newspapers face the biggest threat from the internet.
How viable is a small print title these days with the internet and blogs now competing?
Every time a new medium comes along, everyone predicts the death of the older media. Radio was supposed to be the end of the newspapers and magazines, and so was television. The only thing that the web seems to have done away with is the print zine. Now the people who once published zines write blogs.
The idea that the internet will kill magazines seems to be a meme that no amount of counter-evidence will kill. As far as I can tell there are more print magazines now than ever. And look what happened to Feed and Suck and Word and all those other revolutionary web publications. They never lived up to their hype and now they’re gone, and their writers are working for newspapers and magazines, or writing books.
If the internet threatens any medium, it’s the newspaper, because the web is the perfect medium for breaking news. Even so, there’s no substitute for a real newspaper when you’re having your morning coffee.
And when you want to read a long narrative piece about the war in Iraq, or a short story, or a smart article about China, or election fraud, or a funny piece about driving Hummers through abandoned strip mines, or an intelligent review of the new Mary Gaitskill novel, you’re going to grab a copy of Harper’s and sink into your most comfortable chair.
How can a magazine carry on an intelligent dialogue in the age of blogs, when everyone can comment on everything?
When everyone can comment on everything, the value of well-written, carefully reported, meticulously edited prose just goes up.
Blogs and web publications are great for what they are, but relatively few blogs generate original content. Most of them just point to what other people have done. And the internet audience can be very fickle. The great strength of magazines like Harper’s is that we have a dedicated and loyal readership.
Is there still room in the commercial public realm for a publication that sticks to real issues and doesn’t get bogged down in, for lack of a better word, all the BS that’s out there?
Sure there is. People are hungry for good, thoughtful writing. They get tired of the superficiality of the soundbite culture. That’s why our newsstand sales are so strong.
What changes do you plan to make at Harper’s?
You have to remember that I’ve been at Harper’s for a very long time. I’ve worked on every section of the magazine (Index, Annotation, Readings, etc.), and I’ve done every kind of piece one can do. I created the Weekly Review and wrote it for four years, and I created Findings, a monthly print column.
Of course the magazine will be different in lots of little ways, because the ultimate decision as to what goes in the magazine will be mine, but the basic DNA of the magazine will remain the same.
It will remain an independent, skeptical publication committed to publishing the best writing in the English language. And–this is often overlooked for some reason–the best contemporary artwork in the world.
One big change that we’ve been working on for some time will be a new web site, designed by Paul Ford, the proprietor of Ftrain.com.
You have roots in Texas just like another former Harper’s editor, Willie Morris. What’s your impression of the magazine during his reign? Anything you’d like to steal?
Morris was the editor during a very exciting and turbulent four years of American history. He was very good at what he did, and you can always learn from a good editor. But most of what an editor does goes on behind the scenes, and for that reason it’s an art that is passed down through personal, daily contact. It has been my great good fortune to have worked with Lewis Lapham for nine years. There’s no substitute for that kind of an education.
Who is the Harper’s reader these days? How does he differ from your typical blog reader?
I don’t know who the typical blog reader is. It seems to me that it depends on the blog. Some blogs are dedicated to politics, others are dedicated to Jessica Simpson or vacuum cleaners or the latest developments in Perl programming. Harper’s, on the contrary, is not a specialist publication. Harper’s appeals to what we have in common: politics, culture, society, science, literature, the arts. If there’s a blog that does everything that we do, I haven’t seen it.
Do you read any blogs?
You seem to be very interested in blogs. Well, sure, I read some blogs fairly regularly, though there are few that I read every day. One that I read as often as possible is Talking Points Memo, by Joshua Mica Marshall, who does a lot of original reporting on the site. If you want to stay on top of the Fitzgerald investigation, for example, TPM is the place to go. I also read a lot of newspapers online, and I probably subscribe to too many email lists.
What’s the biggest challenge facing you in your new job?
Moving into my new office.
Which magazine editor do you think has made a smooth transition coming in after a long-entrenched editor?
Well, I can’t say that I’ve paid that much attention to the comings and goings of magazine editors, but two who come to mind are my old colleague Jim Nelson at GQ and David Remnick at the New Yorker.
As the new editor, how do you find the right balance between instituting your ideas but keeping some of the status quo?
You’ll have to ask me that in six months or a year.
Where do you envision Harper’s in 10 years?
I fully expect us to be right here at 666 Broadway.
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