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Monday Q&A: Mother Jones’ Steve Katz on that 47% video and turning attention into donations

The publisher of Mother Jones talks how the magazine raises money to invest for the future and crafting stories that can inform the work of other journalists.

SteveEditNonprofit news outlets rely on their readers to support their work — preferably not just in likes or retweets, but also in dollars. If you follow the path laid out by Mother Jones, all you need is a bombshell story, a secret video, and a lot of eyeballs. During last fall’s presidential election, the magazine snagged one of the biggest scoops of the campaign, a video of Republican nominee Mitt Romney saying 47 percent of Americans believe they are “victims” and are dependent on the government.

The video and subsequent stories led to a flood of attention to Mother Jones, publisher Steve Katz remembers. Katz says the story is an example in how media companies can try to build a lasting readership off of high traffic stories — and how to convert newfound attention into loyal readership. Since 2011 Mother Jones has seen its traffic rise through scoops, topical explainers, and collaboration with other outlets.

I recently spoke with Katz about how the magazine has expanded its presence on the web, how they’re trying to diversify their funding, and how Mother Jones positions itself within a growing field of political reporting. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: Obviously one of the biggest things for your guys last year was the Romney 47 percent video.
Steve Katz: A small, little thing.
Ellis: Very small. The question a lot of publishers face after something like that is how do you convert that into a consistent audience — how do you get those people to return? What did you guys do in the wake of that to keep people coming back, or to introduce Mother Jones to people who hadn’t read it before?
Katz: We did, not surprisingly, find a traffic bounce on the site after that story went up. The 36 hours after the story dropped in mid-September, the traffic to the site was 10 times the normal daily traffic. Thanks god we had switched to a cloud-based system so the servers didn’t crash. We were wondering what would happen over the longer term, in terms of consistent traffic after the spike. We were really happy to see that post-47-percent, the baseline traffic had increased roughly 20 percent from where it was before.

One of the ways that we tested to see what would happen — we had about 8,000 people who shared their email address with us following that story. Signed up for a newsletter or something like that. We did a fundraising campaign the first quarter of this year — we were curious to see what would happen. I don’t have the exact percentages on it, but a significant number of people contributed. And they behaved in aggregate as our regular users, pre-47 percent-video, did. That was an extremely good piece of news for us. It meant that folks who found us during that story liked what they saw and decided — or a significant number of them decided — to stick with us and fork over some of their hard-earned cash to this news organization.

In terms of cultivation of these guys, we didn’t do anything particularly special to bring them in or welcome them — give them a special track or anything like that. We introduced them to the materials that our other readers and users had access to and invited them in as another member of the community. We were running so hard at the time of the year — it was from September through the election and into the end-of-year cycle — that we didn’t have the bandwidth to create a whole new track for these folks where there wasn’t one before. The story happened very quickly for us. On the editorial side, between the 47 percent story and reporting on the election, we were absolutely flat out.

Ellis: So 8,000 people gave you their emails after the story and a significant number donated. Is it unusual that so many new people would give unprompted like that? I’d usually think you have to get people into a system of giving money.
Katz: These are folks who identified themselves right after the story was published. They had taken an action — either signed up for a newsletter of ours or responded to some prompt from us. Some of them gave a gift right then. These were folks who had already taken an initial step forward. We find that our response rates on digital giving are just a little bit higher from what we understand public radio and public television response rates to be. It’s not an order of magnitude difference.
Ellis: How often do you do coordinated fundraising campaigns?
Katz: We’re doing three or four a year, and we have other fundraising. Our business model is a hybrid. A little more than half of the total revenue of the organization comes from philanthropic support, almost entirely from individuals. One of the really unique characteristics of Mother Jones is we have a fairly broad base of individual donor support. This year, we had just under 39,000 people who made a gift. Within the nonprofit journalism space, that’s really quite unusual.

Just under 50 percent of the revenue comes from subscription revenue from the print magazine, advertising, and a couple other earned revenue sources. That gives us some flexibility in terms of how we can manage the flow of cash and the kinds of tools we have to generate revenue. Online donations are only one tool.

Ellis: How has that mix shifted in recent years? There’s been an increase in nonprofit news. How has your revenue pie changed — do you have goals for changing the formula in terms of how much is coming from philanthropy and donors vs. gifts?
Katz: There are a lot of moving parts to that answer. We think there’s much greater potential than we are currently realizing on the earned revenue side. Like everyone else, we’re dealing with this changing advertising marketplace, but we operate in a niche environment and we haven’t begun to fully realize the value of what we offer to advertisers yet. We think there is more advertising revenue to be gained out there from better marketing to that audience.

At the same time, advertising revenue is completely tied to traffic growth for us — it’s a very traditional model in that sense. We have seen growth in traffic pretty consistently over the last several years without sacrificing the quality of the work. So we’re anticipating continued growth in traffic going forward. That’s actually one of the ways in which our thinking about philanthropy comes into play. There’s two kinds of giving, basically. There’s the regular ongoing operational support — people believe in your mission they’re giving you $50 or $1,000 or whatever it might be. It pays the bills, pays the reporters, keeps it going.

But there’s another use that we’ve seen for philanthropic revenue: front-end investment. That’s how we got ourselves to the place we are today. The backstory to the 47 percent story is, six or seven years ago, we raised some additional philanthropic revenue to make investments in some very key things we needed to do: expanding our Washington, D.C. bureau, a dramatic improvement in our technology capacity and platform, and adding more staff. Basic things, all of which were designed to raise the visibility and quality of the reporting.

The recession notwithstanding, it worked. The consequence was as our traffic grew, because the quality and quantity of our digital reporting grew, the advertising revenue grew as well. That’s the longer-term revenue strategy: use people’s special gifts to pay for the expansion and then focus on earned revenue and regular fundraising to maintain it going forward.

So one of the things that came up after the 47 percent story was it was a great story, a lot of fun to do, and we saw what success at scale looks like in the modern media environment. We’re not a huge organization — today we have 75 staff. Much bigger than we used to be, but not a behemoth by any stretch of the imagination. But in this day and age, you can really leverage your reporting independent of your size if you’re smart about what you’re covering, how you’re promoting it, and, in the case of the 47 percent story, if there’s something else going on in the bigger zeitgeist.

We saw it. We saw one of our pieces have the kind impact we always want our work to have and more. So now the question on the table for us is how can we increase the likelihood that will happen more frequently in the future. That’s really a question of scaling. What are the smart investments we can make now that would get us to the next level up so we have a consistent performance level, approximating what we saw with that one story.

Ellis: Let’s talk about your email newsletters. I know you have a few sponsored products. I’m curious how well they do, and whether you attract a specific type of advertiser. You seem like you have a very identifiable audience.
Katz: They’re very effective. They’re really good. We’re able to offer advertisers a mix of different products they can choose to advertise in. And they’re priced different. The email products we offer to advertisers are by far the best performing, both for us and for advertisers. You’re absolutely right that we’ve seen mission-driven organizations and some kinds of D.C.-oriented, either partisan organizations or political advocacy groups resonate with our readership. Our experience has been it works best for an organization that has — and this will come as no surprise — has an issue that’s current in the larger media ecosystem that people are paying attention to it.
Ellis: You’ve mention scale a few times. How are you planning to grow, and how you think about the other players and sites you are competing with?
Katz: A few years ago. we sat down with a couple friends of ours — L.A. marketing guys, brand guys. Great people and a lot of fun. They just had us walk through a very simple exercise to define you digital competitive set.

Justin, the list never ended. It wasn’t just TPM and Politico, on the one hand, and The Atlantic, Harper’s, and Alternet on the other. It was almost infinite. That’s the digital space — there’s no boundary, right?

How and why readers do choose one source over another? It’s certainly not in my expertise. I don’t understand in aggregate how people make those choices. Our approach is kinda simple: We are a mission-driven organization. We have a values-based point of view on the world that informs the kinds of questions our editors and reporters pose to the world. The expectation is then that they’re going to go out there and do absolutely top-notch quality journalism that will be fact-checked and withstand any critique it has to in order to be taken seriously. And, at the same time, we are operating in a really, really busy and noisy U.S. media system.

One of the characteristics of media consumption on the Internet, as a lot of reports have shown over the years, is there is this tribalization of information. You go to places where you feel they are reputable and you have a world-view agreement and it seems truthful. I think that is probably a key characteristic for why we can succeed in this space. We can give context and tell a story, and do the daily reporting to an audience that is more politically diverse than one might think given our brand, but is looking for a kind of critical analysis and smart reporting at the same time. We try to position ourselves in that regard.

Ellis: How do you try to distinguish what you are doing on the editorial side? You do the quick hits, longer pieces, you’ve had success with explainers. What do you think it is you guys can provide and what is it the audience wants?
Katz: I think there are a few things going on. One of the things we’ve seen as an essential step in good journalism in a digital space is you have to have really good reporters and editors who stick with a story. We were raised as a magazine in print and for most of the history of the organization it was freelance-based. You can do that in a magazine, you can hire good quality freelancer writers and reporters, drop the story in, nicely edit it, associate other collateral material with it, publish it. And then the freelancer’s done, they have to move on to the next story. On a bi-monthly magazine cycle, that works pretty well.

When you switch to a digital environment, you can’t really do that. We needed reporters on staff full-time who could develop expertise in the field, who could follow a story and do iterative coverage on a story as it unfolded, who become recognized in their area as having expertise, who then become part of the Mother Jones brand, so that people would turn to them because they knew that they were informed and reliable journalists.

That’s the way we’ve approached the work since 2006. And I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to succeed editorially. It completely goes against the grain of all the business trends in digital publishing — to make the case you actually need more staff and better staff and pay them well so they don’t leave or they don’t get poached. That’s what makes Mother Jones work. We’ve got some really great reporters onboard and they’re really contributing to an explanation of what’s going on out there. Personally I feel really proud to support those guys.

One of the things that leads to — and it may be nothing more than a nose for news, or it could be a tip or insight that an editor or reporter gets — is that sometimes our guys zag when everybody else zigs. The case in point on that was we decided to start putting major editorial resources into coverage of gun violence in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, and ended up producing both narrative reporting and data-driven reporting on the nature of mass shootings in America that helped to inform the news stories at other outlets that other reporters were doing as these tragedies unfolded over the last year, in Colorado and Newtown.

That was an editorial choice by one of our senior editors to pursue that, not knowing if there would actually be an audience for it. One of the characteristics of Mother Jones we’ve been able to hang onto and really provide our reporters and editors is the freedom to do that.

We have what I would describe as a dynamic relationship to people who are involved in advocacy and social change work directly. We don’t see ourselves as activists and advocates. We do see ourselves as journalists first and foremost. It’s a very complicated, but I think productive, relationship we established with those folks. So some of our reporting has helped to inform what other people have done based on the facts that we’ve generated.

It’s analogous of what happened in Texas. The Texas Tribune had that camera on [during the abortion bill filibuster] and it was used appropriately by others to motivate and mobilize opinion. I think that’s an appropriate role and division of labor between what a journalist can and should do — point the attention in the right direction for something that matters and be open to the possibility that reporting will indeed by used by others for their purposes.

                                   
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  • GM52246

    Mother Jones does great work; their distribution of the 47% video was a significant factor in the 2012 Presidential election. The troubling thing is that so many media outlets before them were not interested.

  • http://gearboxmagazine.com/ Brian Driggs

    Thank you for sharing this one. As founder of a small, struggling, niche outlet, myself, I consider this time well-spent today. There are a number of takeaways in this piece; lessons learned through hindsight of a scenario most of us will never experience, personally.