Nonprofit 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.