The 2.0 of the Town: Harper’s

Posted inDesign Inspiration

by Emily Gordon


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 Harpers.org—pushing pixels around. It never occurred to me that I’d end up an editor at the magazine.

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?LAUNCH THE SITE!

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.