All the Facts About the Harper’s Index
By Alex Frankel
Alex Frankel is a San Francisco-based writer.
When Harper's Magazine Editor Lewis Lapham set about redesigning the monthly in 1983, one factor he took into account was the diminished attention span of modern readers.
One of the things that emerged from his handiwork was the now famous and oft-quoted Harper's Index. Recognizing the media's fascination with facts, Lapham sought to make some sense of ever-proliferating statistics, put them in a less intimidating format and cut through the profusion of information that can strangle readers.
In a February 1984 column Lapham said his new creation was designed "to give the reader a concrete sense of the world's complexity, beauty, contradiction and size." Today he describes the Index as a "single page of numbers that measure, in one way or another, the drifting tide of events." Harper's advertising copy goes even further, touting it as "a statistical tapestry, a minefield of unpredictable information."
Judging from the popularity of Lapham's brainchild since its first appearance in 1984, the Index is a hit--not only among readers and editors, but with the magazine's business side as well.
According to Publisher John R. MacArthur, the Index is a substantial money generator for the magazine, grossing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each year. The 33 newspapers that subscribe to the Index in the United States have a combined readership of 6.7 million. Fourteen international newspapers reprint the Index in whole or in part, and it is translated into eight foreign languages.
The Index provides a list of about 40 facts centered in a vertical column on one of Harper's front pages. Adjoining facts complement one another as the list meanders through a variety of subjects, at times creating a narrative. The facts are linked through puns, jokes and contrasts; common topics include government expenditures, welfare costs and political poll results.
Charis Conn, senior editor of Harper's and editor of the Harper's Index, thinks readers find the Index relevant because in most contexts facts tend to sink into the background, failing to invite readers to question their validity and importance. The Index provides what she describes as "a thumbnail sketch of the world at large through numbers."
Conn, who has edited the Index since 1988, cites as an example of one of her favorite pairs: Average number of calories burned during an "extremely passionate" one-minute kiss: 26. Number of calories in a Hershey's Kiss: 25.
Another pair, from the October 1995 Index: Percentage of Americans who say that journalists are more cynical than other professionals: 45. Percentage of journalists who say this: 54.
Staff members are expected to constantly have an eye and ear open to potential Index facts, gleaning them from numerous sources ranging from radio programs to esoteric periodical literature. The facts are placed in a wire bin and each month Conn whittles the pile down to 100 possible contenders. Then the real work begins.
Harper's interns spend up to two weeks each month on the phones, at their computers and in the library to verify Index facts. Facts found in even the most reputable of publications are often rejected in this painstaking process. After all, the Index has a reputation to uphold--over the past 12 years the magazine has printed only a handful of corrections related to the Index.
At the end of the fact-checking process, Conn organizes the surviving facts into a tentative Index. The magazine has no electronic data-base of previous Indexes, so Conn relies upon her own and the staff's institutional memory to determine if a fact has been used before, or if one long filed away can finally be put to use.
According to Harper's staffers, the Index is the magazine's most popular attraction, but some question its value. Clay Felker, founder of New York magazine, sees the proliferation of "factoids" in magazines as detracting from journalistic enterprise. "Facts that are not put in any context, without interpretation, are without meaning," Felker says. "It is not what a magazine of their history and function should be doing."
Nevertheless, the Index has spawned a plethora of imitations. Magazines as diverse as Playboy and Mother Jones, GQ and U.S. News & World Report have appropriated the format. In fact, it was the proliferation of factoids that ultimately led Harper's Publisher MacArthur to register the Index as a trademark of the magazine in 1986.
While imitation may be the highest form of flattery, Conn says that none of the imitations has successfully replicated the Index. As Dobie Gray said in "The In Crowd," "Other guys may imitate us, but the original's still the greatest." ###