The 2.0 of the Town: Harper’s


When was the print magazine founded?

Vol. 1, Issue 1 was June 1850.

When did the website first launch?
The first incarnation was in 1996. It was designed and built by a
long-defunct company called Small World Software. I know this because
I worked for Small World right out of college and remember spending a
day or two doing maintenance work on—pushing pixels
around. It never occurred to me that I’d end up an editor at the

Who designed it originally?
See above.

Who designed the current incarnation? Was the design done in-house or by an
outside firm, or a combination of the two?

It was just me, pecking away for a year and a half.

When did you do your latest redesign, and what motivated the magazine to go
forward with it?

Everyone thought it would be a good idea to go forward with a new site
that would appeal to our subscribers, and there was demand from
libraries for archive access. So I bought a scanner, found a spare
copy of the archive, and got started.

Do you have a full-time web staff or editor? How did the print magazine
staff, the web staff, and the outside designer/s work together on the
current version?

I’m an associate editor, and I manage the site and edit all the
online-only material. (I edit a little for the magazine as well). My friend Kenji Morrow works on the subscriber-management code (accounts/passwords/renewals), and I maintain all the content management code. For a few months, my girlfriend, Maureen Flaherty, helped me align the scans to the content database. Everyone got along fine.

How long did the latest redesign take?
About eighteen months from brainstorm to launch.

How much focus did you give the magazine’s impressive history and archives
on the website? How much is now reflected in the site?

All of it!

Does the website focus on reaching out to longtime (or older) readers, to
new (or younger) ones, or both? How, specifically?

I’d guess that a site will skew younger than a print magazine, given
the nature of the medium. Right now I’m more concerned about moving us
forward—more web-only features, more blog content, more archive
material opened to the world—than I am about demographics. Working
online for over a decade I’ve learned that the audience will find you
if you work hard enough to give them something worth reading.

What was your web designers’ key mandate?

How much input did editorial and/or business management have in the
site’s design and redesign?

I asked for feedback along the way, but what we were doing was such a
major change for us that there was no way to predict what we’d need
down the road. So I worked away until I had coded up a very basic,
adaptable “Semantic Web” framework that allows for both incremental
and major changes to the structure of the site and for regular
improvements to the design as we gathered data about usability.

Is the Harper’s website creating subscription revenue? Community? Conversation?
What were your original goals for the site’s readers, and what’s surprised
you the most about users’ relationship to or use of it?

Our goals: increase the number of subscriptions and renewals, provide
a service to libraries and academic communities, and generate more
advertising revenue. Again, it has only been a month, and our launch
was fairly “soft”—no major marketing campaigns or anything like
that—but subscriptions are up quite a bit over the same period last
year, library sales are strong, and advertising is picking up.

I was surprised to see how many people (hundreds of thousands) have
used our search tool (all 255,000 pages are indexed for search). Given
the positive response, I plan to spend much of the next year thinking
hard about search and search indexing, and working out ways to improve
the experience.

Has the site been nominated for or won any awards?
No. It’s only been a month. I’m happy nothing is terribly broken.

Are there special challenges faced by the website of a classic, storied
magazine like yours? If so, what are they? What about unique advantages?

Special challenges: sure. Old, fragile materials, the difficulties of
being a (mostly) one-man web shop, and so forth. The advantage that Harper’s has is the enormous wealth of historical materials. We have
something really special to give to our readers; what a privilege it
is to offer our subscribers everything we’ve ever done back to 1850.