Harper's Site Revamp Boosts Subs, Content

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A redesign completed Dec. 1 to the 7-year-old Web site of Harper's Magazine is paying off, both in editorial presentation and number of subscribers.

Revamped on a shoestring budget, the site at harpers.org now pulls in an average of 700 subscriptions monthly for the magazine. This is up from 300 to 400 a month.

"It's not a replacement for direct mail, and it's unfortunately never going to be, but it's a big help," said John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper's. "Every subscription we sell over the Internet saves us money. It costs us nothing to acquire subs online.

"Some magazines will pay more than $20 to acquire subscriptions because they're so desperate to maintain their ad rate," he said. "But it's expensive. Direct mail is a money loser -- everybody knows that. So everyone's dream is that the Internet, which costs almost nothing, will replace direct mail. But it's just not going to happen."

While new subscribers are almost self-generating, Harper's now looks to mine its archives better. Its subject/author index going back to 1850 was sold to a few universities as a research tool.

Now the effort is on selling that data to the public, perhaps for a full-year access fee or by charging a higher rate to subscribers for the extra privilege.

The new harpers.org is not a mirror image of its magazine sibling. Instead, under Harper's senior editor Roger D. Hodge, the content is indexed by roughly 500 categories.

Hodge's pride is an improved Weekly Review online. The column, which goes up on Tuesdays, summarizes events of the week, linking across categories. Clicking on the link takes visitors to a chronological page going back to compiled, non-Harper's reports on the subject through 2000.

As expected from Harper's, there is a whimsical and satirical component to this. Also, above the Weekly Review is a snapshot of an old engraving from the Harper's archives that fits thematically with a key item in the column. Prior to the makeover, the Weekly Review lacked the extensive cross-linking and referencing.

Hodge said the revision aims to give readers the news as an artifact. Since the news really is a narrative, readers can look at it from a different perspective.

"What we're trying to do with the magazine is make people think," he said. "We're not trying to tell people what to think. We're trying to break people out of their habits of thought, and what we've done with the Web site is create the Harper's reading experience but using the power of the Web to do something different.

"We don't want to put the whole magazine on the Web. To a certain extent, that would be a competing product to the magazine. But by giving people a Harper's reading experience, we hope to lead them to subscribing to the magazine. That's the marketing perspective. The editorial and the marketing objectives, in this case, are perfectly matched."


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