HarpWeek pitches U.S. history
to teens—and marketers as well

Some 17 years ago, John Adler, then a successful advertising research executive, saw in The New York Times an advertisement for an entire set of Harper’s Weekly magazines for the years 1857 through 1916. A history buff since his Dartmouth days—"I’m just interested in old stuff," he says—Adler bought the collection.

"I didn’t know what I was going to do with them," he says, "so, like Rip Van Winkle, I just put them to sleep for 20 years."

When the periodicals awakened, they found themselves in the hands of the Internet’s unlikeliest entrepreneur.

John Adler, now 72 and retired from research is the founder and guiding spirit behind HarpWeek, a cross between a company, an obsession and, if his vision proves true, an educational tool of redeeming power.

Adler and his team of technologists, historians, archivists and salespeople have spent the past seven years scanning and collating every story, every advertisement, every illustration and every interstitial bit that appeared in Harper’s Weekly during its life, effectively putting into a multimedia database the history of America during the last half of the last century.

The ancestor of Time and Newsweek, Harper’s Weekly was where the nation turned for information about the last Presidential impeachment—that of Andrew Johnson. It hosted the Thomas Nast cartoons that helped sunder New York’s Boss Tweed, opening the way for a new kind of power politics in the Big Apple. The Civil War that preceded (or perhaps lives on in) today’s "culture wars" is documented in its pages.

"I had public service in mind," Adler told me over a laptop at Bozell, New York, where he’d borrowed an office from his friend, CEO Dave Bell, to demonstrate HarpWeek for me. "I wanted to make this content available to people. This was the most important publication in the country in its day, the shaper of public opinion, and no one had indexed it. There were Winslow Homer paintings, but no one had information about them. So I decided to make it my retirement project."

Adler never could have predicted the millions he would pour into his academic pursuit. Fortunately, he had some money to spare. After research and consulting stints at Gimbel’s and Booz-Allen & Hamilton, he created AdTel, a pioneering TV advertising research company. He later spent years as a successful M&A advisor to the packaged-goods industry. Adler’s marketing successes fueled his pastime.

His good deed rapidly became all-consuming. At times, it seemed as if Adler was hiring as many PhDs as a small university. Their days were spent poring through the magazine and manually indexing each word and image, the better to capture the real meaning of the weekly’s work.

An 1858 story about a New Jersey woman and her pistol got indexed under "women’s rights," for example. His researchers knew to assign pieces about "contrabands" to the category "slavery," the death of which is also recorded in copious detail in the HarpWeek archives. Their work has helped sell HarpWeek, on CD-ROM and now through Web subscriptions, into scores of colleges, which see it as an invaluable historical research tool.

Much of the work, though, is up on the Net gratis. Early advertising history (including, in a spot that would do Bob Dole proud, an endorsement of Grover & Baker sewing machines by none other than Mrs. Jefferson Davis) is at [http://advertising.harpweek.com].

But to continue the expensive task of archiving, Adler is seeking to turn his hobby into a profit-making business. To that end, he is targeting a younger market, high schools, and seeking consumer-products advertisers that might want to sponsors pages, sections, even specialty contests, in return for access to the teens. "What I’d like," Adler told me, "is for us to generate $5 million in ad revenue. Microsoft could do it. Hallmark or Levi’s could do it."

To some, that goal might reek uncomfortably of Channel One and other ventures that have crassly looked on kids as an ad market and have tailored—dare I say "dumbed down" or "tarted up"? —their content accordingly. But as I surfed through HarpWeek and scoured the unexpurgated history of the last American century, much of it annotated and explained by today’s leading scholars, my qualms melted.

It is possible to do well and do good at the same time. Ken Burns’ documentaries (funded in part by General Motors Corp.) are one example; HarpWeek may well be another.

"Our goal," says John Adler, "is to have the Nexis of the 19th Century."

Anyone want to help?  

Reprinted with permission.
John Adler can be reached at jadler@harpweek.com or (203) 622-9069
Randall Rothenberg can be reached at randallf@echonyc.com

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