A big smushy kiss to Mother Jones, and thinking about success, however modest.

15 May 2009

smushykissI’ve written posts about some other organizations since I started Maimonides Ladder, so I thought this might be an okay time to say a few words about the Mother Ship, my employer. It also happens that I sent in an application today for a scholarship to attend this summer’s Stanford Publishing Course (at $3950 plus food and lodging, it’s not as if this non profit lifer has the cash to plunk down for a week down on The Farm – and MoJo definitely doesn’t, either).  As part of the application, they asked for a 1000 words describing how Mother Jones “is innovating to create, promote or deliver content for a digital future.”

Hmmm. I swallowed some happy pills (trust me, it’s not all sweetness and light, and the future is looking simultaneously thrilling and terrifying), and this is part of what I wrote (with my commenting function switching on):

In 2003, I was hired to take Mother Jones’ non-profit fundraising program into the 21st century (true as far as it goes; of course, I NEEDED to get away from a toxic atmosphere at Earthjustice, but as I’ve written elsewhere here, that’s an entirely different story…). My objectives were to professionalize our development operations, diversify our funding streams, and ensure that our editors could count on a steadily growing stream of contributed revenue (and generally regain trust in my own judgment and competence). Although it’s not been without its challenges (oh yeah, testify here! 3 changes in editor-in-chief in 6 years!), this is precisely (hyperbole alert) what we’ve been able to achieve. Contributed revenues, which constitute about half of Mother Jones’ total income, increased from about $3.5 million in 2003, to nearly $6.5 million from over 26,000 contributors in 2008. (true that, amazingly, but don’t forget Pareto’s Law applies at MoJo just like every other NGO running a full spectrum fundraising program. It helps to have a great fundraising team to work with, too.)

As recent stories in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have noted (we luv ink stained wretches!), Mother Jones has shown that it’s possible to organize a hybrid business model strong enough to support a top quality team of editors, full-time bloggers, staff reporters, and an amazing network of freelance journalists and photojournalists. (and I’ve got a bridge to sell you…no, really, it is *possible*. With Great Depression 2.0,  the collapse in advertising, and  a whole new competitive environment built on highly flexible very fast very low cost barely make a living organizational forms with no legacy platforms, it’s also really hard to pull off.  Without a core of unbelievably dedicated donors – Pareto’s Law again, people –  it wouldn’t happen: folks who create the floor that we stand on, so that we can do the rest of the work. Unsung heros IMO. And the secret to just about every independent media operation out there.)

With this financial strategy (hey, if it works, it’s a “model” or a “strategy,” right?) in place, probably the single biggest innovation at Mother Jones in the past three years has been a deep cultural shift away from a “print first” viewpoint to a more open, flexible stance that takes advantage of the best a particular platform offers, whether that’s a bimonthly paper magazine or a digital screen (nothing like finally facing reality. It’s really something how difficult it can be to break through an organizational and occupational culture – and as happened here, it needed new leaders to make it happen. Long overdue, long, long overdue…and we ain’t done yet). When editors Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein took over leadership at Mother Jones in 2006, one of the first things they did was to merge our web and print editorial staff into a single team. Now, reporters, editors, and interns (Mother Jones is home to one of the largest internship programs in investigative journalism in the country, named in honor of Ben Bagdikian) collaborate on both platforms. (again – why am I continually amazed by this? – true! A genuine Big Deal in the history of the organization. But having done this, the issue becomes one of balancing unceasing demand for seriously scarce time, resources, and attention between the two platforms. It really is all about balance, for us, anyway. In the context of a massively changing world. Anybody got pointers on this one? call me.)

This directly led to our decision to open up a seven-person Washington D.C. bureau in 2007 (plus DC was clearly the place to be after the 06 midterm victory by the Dems: the writing was on the wall, big time…), and to hire Kevin Drum, a leading political blogger (but you knew that, didn’t you?). With Drum blogging and our Washington team posting news on a (more than) daily basis, we used this new flow of daily news and opinion to establish Mother Jones’ relevance and impact in the 24/7 news world (certainly compared to where we stood before we made these moves, although I guarantee you that no one is satisfied with where we stand right now) – both online and in the cable television and talk radio scene – and began converting that attention and audience into revenue.

It worked (pretty much): Corn and crew appear regularly on the talk shows, our website traffic nearly doubled in a twelve month period, and digital revenue more than doubled, too (true – although there was also the small matter of a world historic presidential election during this time period, too). Now, Mother Jones regularly and directly reaches about 1.5 million people via print and online platforms (yup), and millions more through reporter appearances on cable television news (mostly Corn, who’s a real pro at this stuff) and talk radio shows (MoJo’s secret talk radio sauce: Communications Director Richard Reynolds, 28 years at this, he’s got AM talk radio and FM public/community radio wired! Feel better Richard!) . There’s a long way to go on this, but it’s headed in the right direction. And for an organization with deep roots in the print culture, that’s saying a lot. (well, I just said it, didn’t I?)

This also drove innovation on the business side (plus, Jay and I finally grokked that our two brains were too puny to  do this on our own). In a move that mirrors the online/print integration of the editorial staff, this year we merged our subscription-based circulation operation with our fundraising direct marketing functions (mail, telephone, and online)  – a surprisingly complex move (this one will definitely deserve its own post down the road) – to maximize monetization opportunities from our community of interest both online and off, to wring out as much efficiency as we can from our operations, and to ensure that our readers and donors have a smooth, consistent relationship with Mother Jones. (The impact of this reorganization simply can’t be underestimated, and I frankly don’t know anyone who’s pulled it off. But we’ve got two of the best folks – Kevin Walter and Amber Hewins – working this puppy, and if anyone can do it, they can.)

There’s more, but that’s enough, you get the point:

How often do any of us look back at our own histories, our own work, and measure the progress we’ve made towards the goals we’ve set? That’s really what this application was about for me: somebody asked me to talk about our/my own success, and to keep the bullshit to a minimum (okay, okay, I’ll cop to the hyperbole). Usually doesn’t happen, does it?

Especially these days, when things are so tough for all of us working in the non profit space (media or otherwise) I think it’s important to step outside the daily pressure to produce, and remember not only why we started doing this work in the first place (change the world!) but what we’ve actually accomplished along the way. Sure, it’s not the whole story, but it’s a big piece, right?

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2 Responses to “A big smushy kiss to Mother Jones, and thinking about success, however modest.”


  1. […] A big smushy kiss to Mother Jones, and thinking about success, however modest. « Maimonides’ Ladd… A fun read about fundraising from Steve Katz at MoJo: "As recent stories in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have noted (we luv ink stained wretches!), Mother Jones has shown that it’s possible to organize a hybrid business model strong enough to support a top quality team of editors, full-time bloggers, staff reporters, and an amazing network of freelance journalists and photojournalists." (tags: buildtheecho business_models) […]


  2. […] the world. (I was lucky enough to get a scholarship from Amazon to pay my way; here’s the essay I wrote for the application, annotated with my alter ego color […]


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