We’ve known for a while that the news business is in trouble. Long before Google and Facebook started gobbling up advertising revenue, newsroom hiring froze and investigative teams were dissolved as corporate and hedge-fund owners sought ever fatter quarterly returns. Eric Klinenberg laid it all out in MoJo in 2007: As far back as the 1980s, he notes, corporate owners had begun to “buy up local newspapers, crush the competition, jack up ad rates, downsize the editorial staff (and, if required, break the union), then watch earnings soar.”
Fast-forward through the history of digital publishing: Blogging (and layoffs), search engine optimization (and “rightsizing”), social-media optimization (and layoffs), pivot to video (yep, layoffs), rinse and repeat—and suddenly it’s late 2017, and here’s another round of, you guessed it, layoffs and revenue implosion. And the timing, at a moment when pursuing the truth about those in power feels like a matter of life and death for democracy, could not be worse.
There’s one reason (or rather, some 240,000 of them) why MoJo has avoided that fate in this tough economic climate: readers who support our work. Because nearly a quarter million of you pitch in with a subscription or a donation, we can do things that defy conventional wisdom. We can go after tough, dangerous stories. We can lay bare our revenue numbers, so you can see where the money is coming from. And at moments like this, when making our budget is critical and the advertising market is tougher than ever, we can unabashedly ask for your support.
I won’t beat around the bush: December is our most important fundraising month, and I hope that by the time you finish reading this, you will consider joining in with a tax-deductible donation. But whether or not you’re ready to do that, I hope you’ll keep on reading, because this story is about a lot more than Mother Jones. It’s about how investigative journalism can survive, and why this moment in particular feels so critical.
The past year has made crystal clear that the threats to journalism aren’t just economic. What we’ve been seeing is a coordinated and politicized assault on the very concept of an independent, critical accounting of facts. Consider:
- The administration and its allies’ nonstop attacks on anyone who does not parrot their alternative facts: “Enemy of the people,” “the opposition party,” “FAKE” and “FAILING.” (No surprise that we now have a sitting congressman who has pleaded guilty to body-slamming a reporter.) From rage tweets to fake sting operations, these attacks are designed to cast the press not as an arbiter of facts, but as driven by the same kind of mercenary partisanship and petty vendettas that motivate President Donald Trump and his associates. Because once you’ve established that foundation, you can pull the “fake news” card on any inconvenient claim, no matter how well documented, and get at least your core supporters to buy it.
- The constant threats of lawsuits, prosecutions, and regulatory action targeting the press: Not only does Trump regularly call for journalists to be sued; his attorney general has spelled out that the administration intends to pursue journalists to find out who they talked to. Meanwhile, in a Washington, DC, courtroom, a photographer is facing a felony trial for livestreaming inauguration protests this past January, and the Department of Justice is also taking the unprecedented step of challenging the merger of Time Warner and AT&T, a move that just so happens to dramatically affect the network the president calls out most often:
.@FoxNews is MUCH more important in the United States than CNN, but outside of the U.S., CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly. The outside world does not see the truth from them!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 25, 2017
- The war on public information: The administration has been slow-walking Freedom of Information Act requests, buried government data, and turned the public information offices at some agencies into barely more than propaganda shops. Some of these agencies have flat-out lied to reporters, while others are encouraging their own staff to censor themselves by removing words like “climate change” and “greenhouse gases.” The Environmental Protection Agency unironically tweeted a string of quotes from its administrator, Scott Pruitt, done in the treacly style of inspirational posters:
Happy Thanksgiving! pic.twitter.com/M15Q498kbO
— U.S. EPA (@EPA) November 21, 2017
Happy Thanksgiving! pic.twitter.com/exhW2CkGub
— U.S. EPA (@EPA) November 23, 2017
There’s a lot more. (One of the documents I update on sleepless nights is a list of current threats to journalism and journalists—it now runs to six pages and counting.) But here’s the bottom line: Unprecedented economic problems for media, or unprecedented political attacks on journalism, would be bad enough on their own. But both at once—that’s a synergy so unusual and dangerous that we haven’t even begun to grapple with its implications. And those implications reach well beyond Trump: What happens when future demagogues follow this playbook? What is to stop them from leveraging an increasingly desperate media industry for visibility and power, and then using that power to knock back press freedom? It’s not hard to imagine a death spiral that ends in banana-republic territory.
This is a problem for the media—and news consumers—that can’t be fixed with more creative advertising strategies, or “do more with less” newsroom pep talks. The economics of news simply no longer guarantee the kind of deep, unflinching reporting that we’re going to desperately need. Yes, the New York Times and the Washington Post have been hitting it out of the park—but the vast majority of newsrooms are unable to follow suit. And how long will the likes of Jeff Bezos be willing to subsidize accountability journalism?
We need a different model. And as MoJo readers like you know, we’ve placed our bets on an admittedly radical idea: that journalism is a public service, not a profit center, and that its survival rests with the people it serves. You.
MoJo has been an independent, reader-supported nonprofit since 1976, because our founders knew that car manufacturers were not going to bankroll investigations of exploding Ford Pintos. Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, putting MoJo—and our supporters—on a path that others in the media are just beginning to explore.
It’s not always an easy path, but the rewards are worth it, because we can take on tough, difficult stories without fear of backlash from advertisers or corporate bosses. Our reporters have worked inside an online warehouse and a private prison, embedded with a militia, and exposed Russian interference when no one else dared. We can fight back when we’re sued by deep-pocketed billionaires, and we don’t have to publish “sponsored” stories that are just thinly veiled advertising or hide our investigations behind a paywall.
And we don’t have to feel icky when we come to you with a fundraising pitch. Because we’re seeking to earn your support in the same way we pursue our journalism: by laying out the facts and letting you take it from there.
We have a $350,000 budget to raise this month. It’s a stretch goal, but it’s what we need to keep our no-frills costs covered and our reporters on the beat. The only time we’ve raised more than that online in a month was last December, when a lot of people rallied to investigative journalism because the urgency felt so great.
But the truth is, the need is even more urgent now. Back in 2016, a lot of people were nervous about what a Trump administration might portend. A year in, we know what the playbook looks like, what the real dangers to our democracy are, and how investigative reporting can begin to have an impact.
Take, for example, the day-to-day digging that Pema Levy, one of the reporters in our Washington bureau, is doing about the Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department. (Her deep dive about Sessions’ roots in a race-driven war on drugs was eye-opening.) On November 8, Pema and her colleague Dan Friedman published a piece about how often Sessions has made false statements to Congress under oath. Six days later, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) entered that article into the record as Sessions testified before the House Judiciary Committee—a move that so incensed a Republican congressman, Louie Gohmert, that he took the floor to warn that “this committee doesn’t need Mother Jones to…tell us what happened.” (This is a man who has claimed that the surge of unaccompanied children across the border was an Obama ploy designed to turn Texas Democratic.)
Here’s what we’ve learned: There is now a portion of American political leadership that is committed not to spin and manipulation, but to actual disinformation. (I wrote about this during the health care debate, and it played out again just last week in the rush to pass tax reform.) It’s stuff that Americans used to excoriate when it happened in other countries. Now we actually turn to studies of things like Kremlin propaganda techniques to understand what’s happening here. (This paper from the First Draft Coalition does a good job categorizing the different kinds of information warfare.)
We’ve written before about the propagandists’ “firehose of falsehood” technique that aims to confuse and overwhelm people with chaotic messages. Trump fatigue is real; in fact, a new survey, finds that “the future of the nation” is the biggest source of stress that Americans report, even ahead of “money.” But the same survey finds that some 59 percent of Americans report that they took civic action in the past year, from signing a petition to running for office. Staying aware and getting involved is actually helping people stay sane, as we heard from many of you when we asked how you’ve been coping this past year.
That’s the landscape as we look to 2018—and I’d really like to send off 2017 with a big show of support for the unflinching investigative journalism the moment demands.
If you’re reading this far down, I hope you’re in—and that we can defy conventional wisdom in one other way, too. A common fundraising technique is to keep hammering at just one thing you want your audience to do, because people supposedly are overwhelmed by choice. But you’re a MoJo reader, and I think you prefer making your own decisions.
So if you can become a sustaining donor with a monthly gift, that’s an amazingly effective way to support our journalism. (And we’ll throw in a subscription to our Magazine of the Year Award-winning print mag.)
If you can only give a small one-time gift right now, that’s powerful too—if everyone who reads this site gave us even just $5 a year, MoJo would triple in size.
Among our one-time donors, the average gift this year is right about $47, which is a fun little homage to our big 2012 scoop. If you could round that up to $50, you’d be above average, and we’d be grateful. (And if you can cut a big check, someone on our team would love to talk to you!)
One way or the other, what matters is to pitch in now if you possibly can. There are 50,000 of you donating already, and 190,000 who subscribe. If we can raise both those numbers even by 10 percent, we can shine a lot more light into dark corners.
But don’t just take it from me. Recently we asked some of our readers to tell us why they decided to donate or subscribe, and here’s what one of them said:
“Why should you pay? For the same reason that you wouldn’t consume junk food over real food, if resources allow you to. Don’t underestimate how toxic the current culture is, and consuming the junk out there is bad for our health on every level. I’m happy to support real journalism. There is a difference.”
You can read more reader responses below, and I hope you’ll add your own, because that is the most powerful way to inspire others. Why do you support news of substance when you can get junk for free?
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Here’s what some of your fellow readers have said:
“Deep investigative journalism has the capacity to hold power to account, expose problems, and build support for genuine and effective change. But it also takes time and skill and costs money. If that’s a thing I want to have in the world, I need to do my bit to contribute to it.”
“We need to keep all those who care informed. We need the whistles blown. We need the corruption uncovered. We need the secrets aired, exposed, and we need a place for that. Independent publications are that place.”
“What I’m voting for when I pay for Mother Jones is the work of serious journalists who want to give me good, hard, fact-based reporting on things I care about—without running it by their advertising department first, and without flashing huge horrible ads across my screen all day long. I vote a big ‘yes’ to good journalism, but I vote an even bigger ‘NO’ to the continued use of advertisement revenue to keep that good journalism going.”
“Independent journalism is not going to be biased the way corporate news can be, which is beholden to the owner of the company. If I can get old-fashioned journalism that follows the news to the root of the issue, and follows the money to find out what is really happening in this world, I am willing to pay to keep this going and be grateful for the privilege of honest news.”