Harper’s Magazine: The Exit Plan Cometh

January 31st, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  27 Comments

Tomorrow, for the first time in over six years, a new week will begin and I won’t return to my job as an editor of Harper’s Magazine. Layoffs have come to Harper’s, and I was targeted for removal because, to borrow the cheery terminology of my employer, my efforts could easily be “absorbed” by the rest of the staff.

The magazine’s cutbacks have garnered some attention in the media and on a little social media site of some prominence (I work in Old Publishing, but this Facebook thing seems to have some currency among the kids). As such, I see little need to go into the reasons why I lost my job in any great detail. About three weeks ago my union representative informed me that Harper’s management wanted to lay me off. I was told that the union would be willing to fight on my behalf to save my job, but that if I chose, it would instead focus on securing me a severance package. I selected the latter.

Life at a publication such as Harper’s is far from easy. The pay is bad, chances for advancement are almost nonexistent (during my tenure at the magazine, only two people on the editorial staff received a promotion due to merit rather than attrition; I was one them), and with each day, the sense that the magazine and the nation’s readers hold less and less in common only seems to increase. Americans still care about politics, culture, and literature, despite the temptations of new media, television, and whatever myriad distractions presently on offer. Unfortunately, those concerns don’t seem to require Harper’s as an arbiter of what’s valuable, a critic of what’s wrong, an exemplar of comedic savagery, or (to borrow from another endangered colleague) an opportunity for middlebrow intellectual self-congratulation.

This hardly seems the forum to go into why that change has taken place. I will say that Harper’s problems are hardly original among its publishing peers: the challenges it faces are structural, others stem from poor luck and an inability to plan; most, however, are clearly self-inflicted.

All that said, the decision to accept the severance package and leave Harper’s was a painful one. Like everyone on the editorial staff at Harper’s, I stayed for as long as I did for a simple reason: I love the magazine. I always felt lucky to work there. I considered myself truly fortunate to come each day to a place where all—not most, but all—my peers were good at their jobs, took it seriously, and that the project at hand–the only one people cared about–was the creation each month of a careful, well-written, smart, critical, creative, funny, perverse, strong, and necessary work of journalism. I could live without the money and the job titles. I wanted to make the magazine.

I’m 37 years old and out of work in the middle of what, for publishing at least, is a depression. I may never again hold a job of similar prestige and seriousness of purpose. Hopefully, the book I’m working on (tentatively titled Am I a Jew, it is expected in 2012 from Hudson Street Press) will be a success by whatever lights my publisher needs to allow me to write another. That will be my primary focus for the next six months until I start looking for work.

I’m a little unsure how exactly to structure my days now that I don’t have an office and colleagues and boss waiting for me. I’m also concerned about the impression I’m conveying to my children, who now won’t have me as an example (along with their mothers) of what adults do to earn a living and occupy a responsible role in society. My two DadWagon colleagues are also self-employed writers. I’m curious if they’ve ever given this any thought: I knew my father as the sort of person who put on a suit and disappeared to work every day. Work was a place where, when I visited him, people spoke to him with some modicum of respect. His job represented certainly not all but a fair amount of who he was. I knew him (and I still do) as a man who worked. Without thinking about it too much, I’ve always wanted my children to see me in the same way—presentable, respectable, necessary.

I’d like to think that I will have those things on my own, without an employer, and I hope this post doesn’t read as self-pitying. What’s occupying my mind right now is what perspective my children will have on me if I have to define my worth without someone else’s assistance. It’s new, it’s troubling and exhausting, it’s thrilling and maddening, and I’m curious to see how it will turn out.

I’ll keep you posted.


  1. William says:

    January 31st, 2011at 10:25 am(#)

    What a great read. I think you raise many of the questions that “men” in our generation face.

    The point you raise regarding how your children will view you not going to work each day is a wonderful discussion that needs to be had in our changing times. When I left my PR job 6 months ago, I had to fully embrace that I would be becoming a fulltime SAHD. I wonder how my children would view the change. My three kids are 8, 5 and 2.

    It took a few months, but my 8 year old asked me one morning why I was home all the time now. She asked was I sick? Was out on “workers compensation” (learned from Sponge Bob of all places)? Was I not looking for a job?

    Now let me say when we lived in California my daughter would go to work with me on days that we did not have childcare. I would take her into meetings, etc. and have her sit quietly. So she may have been more aware of Dad working thatn the other two.

    I do believe that the SAHD will be more and more common in our world. But a SAHD will not mean that we dont work or earn an outside income.

    I hope you embrace the possibilities of the changes (positive) that will come with being home more. I can share with you that my 8 year old went from an A/B student to straight A’s since I have been home. With me home, her routine is much better and her life reflects it. I often find myself wondering why it took me so long to make this move. I dont even understand how our family handled the stress of two working parents as long as we did.

    I hope that you will continue to share your thoughts and experiences with us as you continue in this life transition. Good luck and have fun.

  2. Jeff Pundyk says:

    January 31st, 2011at 12:34 pm(#)

    your children will continue to have you as an example. so be an example of how to remake yourself using your talents, your wits, your optimism and your guts. you did not rise or fall in their eyes based on your position at work. your values, some of which are clear from this piece, are the things your children will model, not your title or your performance review. This is a great opportunity, both for you professionally and as a parent, to exhibit the qualities you want your children to learn.

  3. Ritemeup says:

    January 31st, 2011at 3:36 pm(#)

    Self-inflicted indeed. MacArthur’s open hostility to web 2.0 has basically sealed Harpers fate. That’s right, don’t just swim against the tide, *rage* against it…flail those arms! That’ll save you.

    I read his piece, btw, on my iPad, via Theodore’s hyperlink. Would never have come across it otherwise. I don’t know how to solve Harpers’ financial problems in this new media landscape, but as an enthusiastic user of social media and lifelong devotee of narrative journalism, I’m still hungry for that long-form content, however publishers can deliver it. I’ll be here waiting whenever they figure it out.

  4. karen says:

    January 31st, 2011at 3:50 pm(#)

    First, I love why you loved working at Harper’s. I’m sorry for your loss.

    I recently read the work of a man who talks about readjusting what we consider “value” in parenting. As more and more men take or are given the “option” to be a stay-at-home parent, the writer (and speaker) challenges us to re-think exactly what it means to provide for our families.

    Quite frankly, providing the money for our families is often “easy” (until it is not, of course and with all due respect to those who are struggling to provide the basics for their families) compared to being there for them, in the every day mundane-ness of children’s lives and the emotional turmoil that can be the growing-up years.

    I personally will argue that convincing one’s self to out of bed and dive into days of ferrying children around, setting up and tearing down art stations, building Lego and confidence with these little critters, finding ways to talk to them about their lives without losing touch with our own is the challenge of any stay-at-home parent. And it is endlessly more challenging than completing a task for a paycheque. Even my hardest jobs were easier than THIS.

    So … I can’t wait to read about your transition from guy with a suit and a job to man in a track suit (or chimos, jeans or whatever) … and to see what writing stuff comes to you in this time of transition. If anything, we all can appreciate that our foremothers have built a world that gives dad’s the room to explore the joys and challenges of raising families in the ways that only women were “allowed” to do previously. Best wishes!

  5. Brandie Weikle says:

    January 31st, 2011at 4:02 pm(#)

    Just a few words of encouragement regarding the impression you’re conveying to the children. I’d like to suggest that you’re modelling bravery about trying new things while also demonstrating a modern reality – work no longer takes only the form of 9-5 at the office.

    Your kids might just think that writing books is pretty impressive and if they’re mall, they’ll likely see their increased access to you as a bonus.

    Best of luck in your new adventure.

  6. Gary Greenberg says:

    January 31st, 2011at 4:26 pm(#)

    Hey, Ted. I’m sorry to see you go; the story we worked on together will always be a highlight.

    Your misfortune seems to have inspired a nice farewell, and it was good, if sad, to read. Please don’t worry about the message you’re conveying to your kids. Mine came home today to find me still in my sweats from last night. (Actually, I’d put on mu insulated coveralls at some point to clear another snow mountain, but that’s a different story.) That’s a common thing in our house. It doesn’t seem to affect him, and it’s probably good for him to see that there are possibilities that don’t involve going to the office, or seeming to do much of anything.

    A writer: someone who stays in his sweats and seems not to do much of anything.

    Good luck with the book.

  7. dadwagon says:

    January 31st, 2011at 6:05 pm(#)

    Gary–thanks! Wild to know that you’re reading this site, and yes, it was a highlight of my time as a fact checker to rummage through those personality disorder tests: I saw much of myself in them. I’m going to buy new sweats tomorrow. –Theodore.

  8. Donovan Hohn says:

    January 31st, 2011at 9:48 pm(#)

    I did it for three years. I may do it again.

    I still want to have that play date to the transit museum with Bruno and JP.



  9. Nicole Hickman says:

    February 1st, 2011at 3:03 am(#)

    I read this piece at just the right time. As a woman who’s been working for the same place for close to 15 years, I come to find that after February, my already reduced hours might not even be there for me. This terrifies and saddens me.

    It hasn’t been a walk in the park to work where I do at a 20% hourly reduction in wages, but I’ve been able to make do, all with the notion that somehow, they’d bring me back to full time. More and more, I’m coming to realize, and yes, perhaps I’m slow to this realization, that this will most likely never happen, or will take so long to happen that I need to question why I remain.

    It terrifies me, because I’m 53, and the job market is so poor right now that I have major stress and concern about whether I’ll be able to find something that suits me as well as my current job does. Saddens me, because of the loss of working at a place that once had such a unique approach to work culture in an industry not known for its pride in the culture of work (advertising) and yet, the bigwigs no longer seem to have it in them to make the place thrive for much longer. It feels like I’m being kicked out of a family, albeit a family that has shrunk to a mere wisp of its former self.

    I stayed much too long, and it feels sad to face the fact that either they’ll have to kick me out or, for my own self-preservation, I’ll need to establish a new family somewhere else. Or reinvent myself in some other way.

    But this piece brought that home to me just a little bit more, and for that, I thank you.

  10. Marlena says:

    February 1st, 2011at 9:40 am(#)

    Sorry to read this. What a shame. My dad worked in the NY publishing/magazine world in the 80s and even then he would talk of its demise – and that only continues. I look forward to reading your book and other writings as they emerge.

  11. Duncan M. says:

    February 1st, 2011at 10:25 am(#)

    I’ve been doing just that — working and writing on my own — for the last 8.5 years. The kids — daughters, 4 and 7 — haven’t known me to do anything else. They think it’s weird when I go off to the university to teach. I’ve been to the elementary school for meetings and events far more often than I expected. That’s been fun. I structure my days by telling myself I _do_ work for someone, me, and that I need to get up and get dressed and go to work. Until I was able to build an office, I rented a little one in town. It’s important to get out every day. Sometimes I even wear a coat and nice pants. (No ties.)

    I work more than I ever did when I reported to someone else’s office. I suspect you’ll have the same experience. My girls see me working, and they imitate me; the oldest pulls out her homework and works in my office, and the youngest pretends to type. I like to think that, though they’re not seeing a dad go off to an office, they _are_ seeing a dad who values books and writing, and who has figured out a way to do what he loves. I think my oldest loves science, which is something she shares with her grandpa, who also worked at what he loved to do.

    Every once in awhile I miss going to an office, but what I miss about it is the socializing and sense of a shared mission. Someday we’ll organize a writers’ co-op in an old house in town, a place for us all to work on our own. Until then I work in libraries when I need to feel people around me.

    I’ve got tons of tips. You know where to e-mail me.


  12. Rachael says:

    February 1st, 2011at 3:29 pm(#)

    So sorry to hear about job loss. Publishing is certainly going through a dark time at the moment.
    Like William, I found the questions about how your children will view you to be a very important discussion. Would love to continue the conversation with you (and other parents) somehow.

  13. Russ says:

    February 2nd, 2011at 10:34 am(#)

    Focus on the thrilling aspect, Theodore. I’m sure your novel will do good numbers too.

  14. Stephen says:

    February 4th, 2011at 5:09 pm(#)

    A few things:

    1. I’m sure your Hudson Street editor blanched when he read that writing will be your “primary focus for the next six months until [you] start looking for work,” because her first thought on hearing of your being laid off was surely, “There goes his platform.” As an editor myself, I would suggest you spend the next six months creating a following for yourself so that when your book hits people will be waiting for it. There’s your basic social media, yes, but given the topic you could find a ready audience in the Jewish book and lecture circuit. I could also see a great website based on the provocative question you’re using as a title? It could have quizzes, commisseration, questions and advice. Will this automatically translate to sales? There’s no guarantee, but it will give the sales people at Hudson Street something to say when they sell your book in. And while your at it, get a job at The Atlantic, which has embraced the web so well they’re now turning a profit.

    2. If being a Jew means suffering, your book just found its opening.

    3. As a father and someone who’s also been laid off, here’s how you handle things around the house: You get up and make your kids breakfast, see them off to school, shower, dress well (no sweats!) and get to work. Five pages before lunch, then five things to build your following before you have to get the kids. Revise morning pages before dinner. Exercise every other day.

  15. john cave osborne says:

    February 4th, 2011at 8:44 pm(#)

    i admire you. your talent is obvious. and while anything i might write would probably come off trite, i have complete faith you’ll end up exactly where you were always meant to be.

    and i bet your book will be fucking fantastic.

    best of luck with the transition.

  16. dadwagon says:

    February 4th, 2011at 9:13 pm(#)

    #stephen–sounds like you’re in the biz, as Matt likes to say. All those thing sound suspiciously like work, something I’m allergic to. Seriously, I was lucky enough to be noticed by some at the NY Times, and they’ve invited me to write for their website, basically a diary of my first month out on my own. Should be interesting. Is it a platform? Maybe just a stool, but it’s a start. –theodore.

  17. dt says:

    February 11th, 2011at 12:35 pm(#)

    Comforting, in a schadenfreude-laden way, to know that life at a big magazine–low pay, no hope for advancement and creeping despair–is like life at a small one.

  18. emily s-b says:

    February 17th, 2011at 8:20 am(#)

    Dear Theodore,

    I am saving this post on my favorites.

    For what it’s worth, I just want to say that there are many people struggling with the same thing – it’s not only a dad thing, or a man thing, or a mid-career thing.

    I just finished my MA degree, and got married, and am now (again) unemployed, having finished a disastrous and discouraging 3 month stint as a “client relations manager” in a company I thought was stupid. (“Stupid” is a deliberate word choice and not a cop-out.) I don’t have children, I am not yet 30 and yet I too struggle with many of the feelings you describe. I am the only one of my friends without a job.

    In the social vacuum that unemployment creates, I alternate between cursing the recession which has left me washed up (at 30!), regretting my literary and artistic interests, dismissing my prestigious liberal arts education as “pointless” (why not “marketing” or “pr” or “dentistry”), fretting over my inability to do math or economics or anything that would have led to a conventional career, and really, deeply and instinctively admiring what writers (such as I might be one day maybe, if I work up the courage) and artists bring to the world …

    I have even, in moments of real, low cowardice, berated my parents for having permitted me, even encouraged me to love unprofitable things (like books), and even to take them seriously.

    There’s something about your experience at Harpers and your subsequent articles in the NY Times that I find encouraging and meaningful. Please continue.


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