A New Top Editor Takes the Hot Seat at Harper’s Magazine

A New Top Editor Takes the Hot Seat at Harper’s Magazine

Harper’s Magazine has a new editor, effective next Monday: Christopher Beha, a novelist, essayist and the author of a memoir recounting the year he spent reading all 50 volumes of the Harvard Classics series.

Mr. Beha, the executive editor at the august monthly, “first worked at Harper’s as an intern in 2008. The job he will take later this month has been a hot seat in the world of highbrow journalism since Lewis H. Lapham stepped down as editor in 2006, after a 28-year run.

Three editors who have held the post in recent years have left the publication after disagreements with the magazine’s publisher and chief benefactor, John R. MacArthur, who is known as Rick.

One of them, James Marcus, said he was fired over a dispute with Mr. MacArthur over the magazine’s March 2018 cover story, “The Other Whisper Network: How Twitter feminism is bad for women,” by Katie Roiphe, which he said was published over his objections. The magazine’s spokeswoman, Giulia Melucci, said that Mr. Marcus had quit, adding that the article had been a success. A war of words ensued, with Mr. Marcus accusing Mr. MacArthur of wanting a “doormat” for an editor, and Ms. Melucci suggesting that Mr. Marcus didn’t have good story ideas.

Mr. Marcus’s predecessor, Christopher Cox, was fired in 2016 after a three-month tenure. In 2010, Roger D. Hodge was fired after four years on the job, while having a breakfast croissant.

On two occasions, the veteran editor Ellen Rosenbush stepped in as acting editor. Ms. Rosenbush, who is listed on the Harper’s masthead as editorial director, has overseen the magazine since Mr. Marcus’s departure last year and will become editor at large.

Mr. Beha, whose title will be, simply, “editor,” said in an interview that he was mindful of the recent turnover. “Rick and I tried to be very clear about what our expectations for each other are, so there aren’t a lot of surprises,” he said.

“Some of the other editorial ups and downs I watched from up close,” Mr. Beha added, “and maybe I learned some lessons.”

The November issue of the magazine, with the cover line “Manhood in the Age of #MeToo,” includes an article on the men’s movement by the essayist Barrett Swanson and a dispatch on birding in Peru by the novelist Nell Zink.

Print circulation at Harper’s has dwindled, dropping below 100,000 in the first half of the year, compared with more than 117,000 three years ago, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. While the magazine has published recent cover stories on the poor and downtrodden — homesteaders in the American West, migrants at the border between the United States and Mexico — it has also run essays critical of what its writers have seen as an intolerant strain on the left.

Mr. MacArthur defended the magazine’s stance and said Mr. Beha was committed to it. “I’m seeing more and more people refusing to engage the other side, to make an argument, to take a risk,” he said, adding, “Harper’s can’t be Harper’s if it’s not broad-minded and liberal in the grand tradition.”

The magazine has remained somewhat aloof from the web. Its metered paywall, while arguably ahead of its time, is strict, limiting nonsubscribers to one article a month.

“It’s tough these days for a monthly to be breaking news,” Mr. Beha said. “Political commentary is going to be an important part of any general interest magazine. But I would like the first thing people to think of when they think of Harper’s is, the quality of the writing from cover to cover is great.”

Mr. Beha wrote for the magazine’s May issue, arguing in an essay that an obsession with the Trump presidency becomes unhealthy when it gets in the way of “the contemplation of truth” and other “things that make live worth living.”

“If we set them aside until we have made it safely through our present emergency, we will never return to them, because our present emergency will never be through,” he wrote.

Mr. MacArthur said he first noticed that Mr. Beha was “editor material” five years ago, when Mr. Beha helped pull together a forum in Jerusalem with Israelis and Palestinians soon after the kidnapping of three yeshiva students in the West Bank.

“He’s a born diplomat,” Mr. MacArthur said.

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