Nieman Foundation at Harvard
What’s in a successful succession? Nonprofit news leaders on handing the reins to the next guard
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Dec. 12, 2019, 1:34 p.m.
Business Models
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Hanaa' Tameez   |   December 12, 2019

When a news organization is slapped with a defamation lawsuit, it can be a cause for panic. In 2012, Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot sued Mother Jones over a story it had published about his political efforts.

Mother Jones had a choice. It could either pay the $74,999 that VanderSloot had sued for — $1 short of what would allow the case to move to federal court — and admit wrongdoing. Or it could fight what it believed to be VanderSloot’s attempt to intimidate journalists. Mother Jones chose to fight, and it eventually won — but only after running up $850,000 in legal costs.

Taking the case to court was a gamble — but Mother Jones’ victory and the way it presented tha battle to readers ended up being a cunning way to fundraise, according to a new case study by Caroline Porter and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. The 43-year-old progressive outlet eventually published a story about the entire case that served as a launching pad for fundraising campaign that earned $350,000.

“The decision to talk frankly with readers about the legal attack, its cost and its effect on the overall organization and its reporting — that veered from journalism tradition,” the report says. “The inside workings of news organizations traditionally have been kept just that — inside. Mother Jones, frank and forthright in its editorial tone, opted to extend its reporting approach and its voice throughout its business operations, to voice its journalism mission and to cover it like a story, for its readers and the world.”

The report looks at the decisions the nonprofit made to strengthen its position and become a self-sustaining news organization during an extremely uncertain time in the news business.

Across the industry, one in four newsroom positions disappeared between 2008 and 2018, according to a July 2019 Pew Research Center report, as the total number of newsroom employees in the U.S. plummeted from 114,000 to 86,000.

By contrast, the number of people getting news from Mother Jones grew by 17 percent from 2014 to 2019, to a total audience size of 8 million unique visitors a month, including social followers across platforms, web traffic, print subscribers and podcast listens. The online and print magazine’s budget increased in recent years, which in turn has allowed for an uptick in hiring and reporting. Between 2014-2015 and 2019-2020, MoJo’s budget increased from $13.5 million to $18.1 million, and MoJo’s staff increased from 73 to 93 staffers…

The magazine was less dependent on advertising revenue than many of its peers, which were hit hard by the decline in ad rates across print and digital. By the end of 2019, it expects to raise $25 million through its “The Moment for Mother Jones” fundraising campaign, a striking achievement for the field of journalism.

Their strategies?

Prioritizing investigative and long-form journalism

In 2006, Mother Jones editors consolidated their print and digital teams after seeing their print subscriber base continue to age as it gained younger readers online. That left a “two-pronged news organization that produced daily news coverage as well as long-form feature writing.” It invested in hiring more full-time staffers (relying less on freelancers) to establish a bureau in D.C. to cover the United States invasion of Iraq, an issue that they knew readers cared about and which lent itself to more investigative reporting. The emphasis on investigation helped center Mother Jones’ brand around “smart, fearless journalism,” which later changed how it could appeal to potential donors.

Zeroing in on relationships with readers

When Monika Bauerlein became CEO in 2015, she shifted both the business and editorial strategies to be more reader-focused. That meant changing the marketing language and donation appeals to be more direct, as well as changing the formats of asks to look more like a news story.

Bauerlein believes that too often journalists make choices based on what they themselves think is good, rather than following readers’ preferences. “Journalism exists only as much as there is an audience engaging with [the work], large or small,” said Bauerlein.

Restructuring its fundraising campaigns

Mother Jones employs two types of fundraising campaigns that serve different purposes: seasonal campaigns throughout the year and institutional campaigns that run over the course of multiple years. Seasonal campaigns often respond to the news cycle and specific reporting needs; they’re typically fueled by small-dollar donors. Institutional campaigns appeal to Mother Jones’s long-term vision and goals and bring out the bigger checks. The divide smooths giving throughout the year and offers stability to the operating budget. It also makes sure to include multiple ways to donate to make the process as convenient to the reader as possible.

Betting on small experiments to build audiences

Lots of newsroom experiments happen in the realms of audience engagement and social media strategy. Ben Dreyfuss, editorial director for growth and strategy, said Mother Jones takes a “minimal approach” to new projects, spending about a week coming up with a new project instead of six months.

“If it’s not working after two weeks, we’ll try to fix it a few times. But it’s not going to take three months to kill it,” Dreyfuss said. “The most important thing I’ve done is make it clear that reporters and editors can publish whatever they want, but if they want it on Facebook or Twitter, they need to think about how it will engage a social audience. That carrot and stick — it is like being a front page editor.”

You can find the PDF version of the case study here.

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