This would be so much easier if we could make up donors from whole cloth, like George Santos may have done. Or if we impersonated a YouTube executive to sing our praises on a Zoom call, and raked in $83 million (but maybe minus being arrested for fraud in the end). Imagine if a billionaire with visions of grandeur sank $44 billion into Mother Jones instead of Twitter: That would be enough to fund us from now through the year 4495 at our current $17-plus million budget. Or how about reporting things that you know to be false to generate a record profit? Just three months of Fox Corporation’s revenue in 2021 could keep Mother Jones afloat until 2078.
None of those things are going to happen at Mother Jones. But we can predict, with a high degree of confidence, that the months and years ahead will be tough for journalism. It also seems safe to assume that a small but noisy group of reality-denying, extremist-enabling forces will continue to test, and possibly break, our democracy. And that presents some big challenges, and big opportunities, for what the Mother Jones community has always rallied around: The power of investigative journalism to foster accountability and change.
How bad is it? “This will be a year of heightened concerns about the sustainability of some news media against a backdrop of rampant inflation, and a deep squeeze on household spending” is the first sentence from a recent Reuters Institute report that found only 44 percent of news leaders are confident about the year ahead.
For corporate media, the responses to this uncertainty have run along the lines of: 1) Shut down entire newsrooms; 2) Big layoffs that leave a skeleton staff chasing thinner and thinner stories; 3) Put up paywalls so you have to pay to read the information you were after; 4) Ratchet up softer content because people are tired of news; 5) Pivot to the latest magic bullet (right now, the big money loves the idea that artificial intelligence will replace journalists.)
Grim options for a vigorous, free press in a democracy where everyone needs to be informed and engaged.
But Mother Jones has never been in the business of doomsaying, and we’re not about to start now. Because history tells us previously unthinkable change often happens during moments of upheaval.
Here’s the deal: We need to come up with almost $6 million over these next three-plus months to finish our fiscal year break-even. That’s about a third of our budget for about a third of the year, so it can absolutely be done. But it’s going to take all hands on deck. We’ve already cut all the expenses that we could from our budget this year, to make sure we accounted for all the headwinds journalism faces, and there’s no room for error. That means we have to raise about $650,000 in donations from our online readers by June 30. It’s a tall order—and more than we hoped we’d need to bank on—but we know that with your support it’s possible.
We also know that there’s a needle to thread. It’s not that the challenges we face are entirely new; Mother Jones has been defying the odds and hanging in there through tough times for 47 years now. But when it comes to the economy, the state of journalism, and the stakes for democracy, it all feels more uncertain than ever right now. Different.
So we wanted to take a level-headed look at how we can best adapt, and best ask for the donations we need to keep charging hard. It’s easy for fundraising to make it feel as if things are about to fall off a cliff, which is why your inbox is probably full of “oh no OMG help” emails. We don’t want to be another voice in a cacophony. You read Mother Jones because we’re loyal to the facts, and we’re known to stick our neck out from time to time, so we’re just going to be real about what we need to accomplish and why it’s so incredibly important.
For 47 years, our nonprofit model of being funded primarily by readers who aren’t forced to pay, but choose to pitch in, has allowed us to weather storms big and small. But just like the bomb cyclones, heat domes, and megadroughts we’re all becoming familiar with from the weather news, those journalism storms are intensifying as the underlying conditions change. For a decade-plus, advertising reliably made up between 11 and 15 percent of our budget. Now it’s 6. At one point, Facebook showed our reporting to users as many as 83 million times in one year. Now it’s just under 5 million. (Our audience has been growing elsewhere, reaching more and more people on Instagram for example—but where revenue on platforms like this used to be pennies an article, now they’ve made it virtually impossible to generate any money at all.) Paper and postage for our magazine and mailings has gone up 30 percent. Insurance and lawyers to defend against attacks on the truth and powerful interests who take issue with what we investigate used to be $85,000 per year, now it’s $250,000. This is the new normal in the news business.
For the last few months, a group of us from across the organization have been doing scenario planning, a new way for us to think through so much uncertainty (thanks to an incredible expert who offered pro bono help!). We’re considering different futures, where democracy grows either weaker or stronger, and people become either more engaged in journalism or leave it behind thanks to atrophy, apathy, or outright attacks. It’s early days, but already one thing is crystal clear. No matter which scenario we’re looking at, building trust and better connecting with readers is essential. And we’re excited to start working toward that, and hear what you think at the bottom of this post.
We have 3 big goals in mind—all related.
- We need to figure out how we can start greatly increasing the share of our online readers who decide to donate.
- We need to come up with that $650,000 in online donations by June 30 which has us, uh, a bit nervous.
- We need to find ways to, in time, rely less on high-stakes fundraising moments like this—they always come down to the wire and require us to be more in your face with legitimately urgent fundraising requests than we’d all prefer.
Big challenges, no doubt. But as always, it’s cathartic to write out the things that challenge you. Because the first step to meeting the challenges is quite simple: We need to better explain what makes Mother Jones unique, why support from readers is the only thing that keeps us going, and what exactly our finances look like.
Some 50,000 readers currently support our work with a donation, and we’re so grateful for each of you. But millions of folks read our reporting regularly and don’t pitch in. Some of that will always be the case, and it’s important that people be able to access information regardless of means. But we need to make a better case to the 99.8 percent who don’t contribute. And over these last several months, you’ve given us reason to believe it can be done.
Why We’re Optimistic
When our fundraising was struggling last fall, we flat out asked how we can better go about asking you to support our work—and we got tremendously helpful answers. You told us to focus less on chaotic headlines that can be overwhelming and more on the constant core of what has always made Mother Jones’ journalism unique. You had questions about why we’re a nonprofit and how our funding works. You shared what Mother Jones means to you (see below for some amazing examples).
What you value about Mother Jones, you told us, is a trusted voice that helps you cut through the noise and figure out what stories really matter. You turn to us for deep dives and investigations that are all too rare in today’s media landscape; for underreported topics that we stick with over time, and for unique perspectives. In a nutshell, you read Mother Jones for reporting you don’t find elsewhere.
To a T, the things readers value most are the exact things that our mission requires—and the things we can do thanks to being a nonprofit powered by donations.
And this is a big one: You also told us, straight up, that you’re overwhelmed by all of the fundraising requests you’re bombarded with around the internet—the sheer volume of ads and emails, the overwrought tone, the manipulative bullshit. We are too! So last December, we matter-of-factly broke it all down in “No Cute Headlines or Manipulative BS,” and it was our best fundraising campaign in a while.
In the end, the big adjustment we have to make right now isn’t a change so much as an affirmation: What we’re doing is exactly what you want us to be doing. But in today’s media landscape, we have to do a lot better at breaking through the noise and making it clear why Mother Jones is different than most of the news out there. It’s not complicated, but it’s also not Captain Obvious material when simply reading our reporting because it speaks to you. (This is also why sharing our work and our story—sharing this very post!—with friends and family matters so much and is something everyone can do to help. It’s simply the best way to bring folks into the fold.)
Putting all our cards on the table: We’re optimistic this matter-of-fact approach will continue resonating with more people—and we have two particular subsets of readers we’re hoping we can start earning more donations from to grow our base, alongside our current donors.
- Regular, fairly long-time readers who appreciate our unique way of doing things but have never decided to pitch in (or used to, and stopped) because you figure others will and we’ve always been able to scrape by.
- Newer readers who found our journalism in just the last few years, and appreciate our mission-driven approach, but don’t know our story, the ins and outs of how paying for the news works (and doesn’t work), and why being a nonprofit is fundamental to everything we do.
Getting just 10 percent of the folks reading this right now to join the community that supports our work would be utterly transformative.
A Quick Primer on Nonprofit Journalism and Mother Jones’ History
If you already know about our history and why being a nonprofit means everything to us, you can probably skip to the next section, where we tackle urgency, crisis, and stability in fundraising the best way we know how: Head on.
But here’s the TL;DR.
Investigating the “great unelected power wielders of our time” is how co-founder Adam Hochschild described Mother Jones’ reason for existence when reflecting on why we got started as a nonprofit magazine back in 1976. It was the aftermath of Watergate, and there were lots of important stories that the big outlets were not going after. And the small group of journalists who got together to launch a scrappy magazine called Mother Jones knew the normal ways of paying for news would never support the kind of fierce journalism the world needed.
Case in point: Advertising revenue was the main source of revenue for magazines back then, and car manufacturers and tobacco companies were among the biggest spenders. One of Mother Jones’ first high-profile investigations was about how automakers calculated that it was cheaper to pay settlements for deaths and injuries than to fix cars with fatal design flaws like the now-infamous Ford Pinto. Another was about how tobacco companies were trying to snuff out anti-smoking efforts. Guess who wasn’t going to advertise in Mother Jones?
The truth, then and now, is that corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. And advertising or profit-driven owners will never make time-intensive, in-depth reporting viable. The only investors who won’t let independent, investigative journalism down are the people who actually care about its future—you. No matter the ups and downs of paying for quality journalism, these constants remain.
Being a nonprofit means we can invest time and effort into big, underreported stories that are hard to do if you need to maximize clicks or look out for skittish advertisers. It gives us the independence to call it like we see it without fear, favor, or false equivalence. Because we answer to readers who want this type of journalism to exist, we go after the stories that most need going after. We can connect the dots and look at the systemic forces and failures behind the headlines.
Right now, that means our team is focused on investigating the forces working against democracy and highlighting the people working to expand it. Voting rights, election integrity, dark money and political corruption; disinformation and propaganda; extremism, political violence, and the backlash against racial and gender justice, even the climate crisis—it all comes back to the battle over democracy vs. minority rule. That’s how the hardest-hitting journalism happens: when you look at the whole tree, not just the bad apples that fell off it.
An example: As we were putting the finishing touches on this post, news broke that one of Steve Bannon’s major financial backers, Miles Guo, was indicted following our investigations. Reporter Daniel Friedman spent the last three years digging into the story of this fugitive Chinese billionaire. It was Guo’s yacht that Bannon was arrested on in 2020, and that’s by far not the weirdest detail. As Dan explained in one of his captivating stories on Guo, “His saga—a rapping, fashion-designing billionaire presiding over a disinformation empire—is psychedelically strange. His alliance with Bannon, a nationalist crusader once dubbed ‘the great manipulator’ by Time magazine, gives him entree to the cast of characters surrounding Trump. Together, they are starring in one of the weirdest, wildest buddy flicks you’ve ever seen. But this is no comedy.”
To date, Dan—whom Mother Jones was able to hire thanks to a special crowdfunding project focused on corruption and foreign influence—has published close to a dozen stories based on this investigation. One of them led him to the bombshell recording of Steve Bannon laying out Trump’s Big Lie plan before the 2020 election, which ultimately was played twice during Congress’ January 6 hearings. (Here is one of Dan’s national TV appearances, discussing the Bannon scoop last July.) This reporting seems to have struck a nerve: In recent weeks, Dan has been the target of online attacks from Guo followers trying to smear his reporting and get him blocked on social media platforms.
And last Wednesday, Guo was arrested on 12 counts of fraud and related charges, and the federal government seized more than $600 million from various bank accounts he controls. The indictment reiterates many of the allegations Dan uncovered. Kudos, Dan and the team of editors, fact-checkers, and producers who helped bring this all to light after years of hard, unglamorous work.
Two other outstanding examples of what journalism that goes deep and exists to make a difference, not a profit, looks like—from just the last few weeks: Kiera Butler’s scoop on how “died suddenly” conspiracist Stew Peters has unleashed a torrent of MAGA trolls and threats on a hospital in Florida, aided by former national security advisor Mike Flynn. And Madison Pauly’s bombshell after obtaining a trove of leaked emails (“As always, please do not share this with media. The longer we can fly under the radar, the better”) showed a years-long coordinated effort to push anti-transgender laws across the country among state lawmakers, anti-trans doctors, and legal heavyweights.
Forty-seven years ago our founders made a bet that people would pitch in to keep this kind of journalism going because it’s so rare and essential. Ever since then, we’ve managed to scrape by. Kind of incredible, given all the glitzy launches and spectacular failures of news organizations in those intervening decades.
Urgency, Crisis, and Stability
Nothing drives fundraising like a crisis. A natural disaster, a national tragedy, looming legislation or disastrous court decisions—people open up their wallets during emergencies and it is 100 percent a great thing. But in the fundraising world, that’s also had a sort of perverse effect: The temptation is to crank the volume up to 11 all the time, to capture those “crisis donors,” and keep them engaged. And when the new normal feels like crisis after crisis, eventually even the most committed folks get inured to the urgency.
Crisis also drives news cycles, and that explains why following the news can sometimes feel so exhausting. Politicians, pundits, and propagandists need to grab people’s attention, and media companies need ratings and advertising impressions. That creates a vicious feedback loop where everyone postures for ever-shorter internet outrage cycles. “In an era of shitposting politicians,” writes our brilliant colleague, Inae Oh, “adults who run our country now obsess over ways to appear in headlines claiming they’ve DESTROYED political foes [but their] long game doesn’t extend much further than to create endless content.”
Bottom line: There’s only so much crisis any of us can take.
Is our budget reality a crisis for Mother Jones? It undeniably feels that way more often than it used to. But it’s also the new normal. So what’s the best way to communicate urgency without crying wolf? With the data and facts, of course:
- 74 percent of our budget comes from donations big and small this year. Nothing else could keep us going. There is no backup, no secret benefactor. Without a wide base of support from readers, we won’t be here for long. It’s that simple. There is more on our financials here and here.
- This one is worth repeating from up top: When we say “we can’t afford to come up short” it’s the honest-to-goodness truth. We’ve already cut our budget to keep up with the various challenges, which is why it’s so important that we not fall short for the rest of our fiscal year. None of this is just fundraising rhetoric.
- Our biggest expense and biggest priority to protect is paying the journalists and publishing professionals on our staff. There is no fat or frills to cut, so the most likely effect if we come up short on our fundraising goals is pulling back on big reporting projects we have planned.
- We don’t have to tell you about skyrocketing expenses and how just keeping pace with inflation (and corporate greed run amok) is so damn hard these days, whether personal or professional. It’s almost like we have an economy that works best for the ultra-wealthy.
- But we do have to tell you that coming up with that $650,000 in online donations by June 30 is incredibly challenging. The old way of doing things ain’t going to cut it. We can’t keep beating the drum nonstop for three-plus months without wearing us all out. So we’re going to go all-in starting today and pray to the fundraising gods that we can rally $300,000 in just three weeks and take it from there—that is, take a bit of a break from being in your faces and inboxes before needing another short, hopefully manageable sprint to finish off June. It’s going to be a nailbiter. (Update: We came up about $45,000 short of that first $300,000 goal, so yeah, it’s going to be a nailbiter.)
But nailbiters are something we’re used to here at Mother Jones, because—and this is another thing that traditional media organizations can’t do—we’re not really going after a predictable cash flow as our top priority. Sure, we could be putting more money into a bank account somewhere to be safe, and do a lot less journalism. And while it would feel sooo comforting to have a decent reserve fund (and we’re working on that for down the road!), at MoJo we’ve always gone after the biggest possible impact. We hope that you’ll agree that putting it all on the line is worth it right now, even if it means it’s a squeaker to balance the books by June 30 every year.
Because here’s another thing that sets Mother Jones apart from not just mainstream media companies, but virtually every other national newsroom in America: We are supported by a lot of people, not mostly by people who have a lot. Many media companies, and even nonprofits, rely on a relatively small number of individuals and foundations who can give checks with a lot of zeroes. But at Mother Jones, a lot of our work is sustained by people who give $5 or $10 a month, or maybe $500 when it’s a good year.
That’s harder in a lot of ways, and a lot more uncertain, than getting those big gifts—like the million-dollar pledges that Sam Bankman-Fried, the once crypto billionaire, dropped to some media organizations. But you know what is more powerful than a billionaire? A large and steady group of people giving $5 a month, $60 a year, for 10 years. Because that kind of support doesn’t go poof when someone goes to jail or just changes their mind. That kind of support is from the people who will be here next year and the year after that, who will work for change one day at a time. Marla Jones-Newman, MoJo’s VP of People and Culture, said it really well in a recent meeting: There are a lot of people who know that America has problems, and who believe that those problems can be fixed. Those are the people that Mother Jones is for. As the tagline on our very first issue, back in 1976, read, this is “a magazine for the rest of us.”
“This is a Terrible Way to do Things”
Tens of thousands of people doing their part to keep fearless investigative reporting alive is a powerful thing, and like every movement, it gets more powerful as it grows.
And we need it to grow: It’s the only way we’ll be able to come up with that $650,000 in online donations by June 30 and the only way we can keep on doing the reporting we love doing for you, at our current level, amid so many uncertainties. Our goal right now is to lay the foundation for a future in which we can mobilize more support on an ongoing basis, so that we don’t have to push so hard during big campaigns like this. We want to ask more of all of you, in order to ask less, if that makes sense. But we’re not there yet.
Right now, online giving accounts for roughly 7.5 percent of our annual budget—hovering around $1.3 million for the last several years. Another stat a lot of people find surprising is that only 1 in 500 of the people we reach decide to donate in any given year–some 50,000 donors overall of 28 million reached. Don’t get us wrong, we’re grateful for every single one of them—that’s a Yankee Stadium worth of MoJo donors! —but again, we have to do a better job reaching the other 99.8 percent.
One reason for this relatively low rate, to be sure, is that we don’t force anyone to pay to read our journalism, and so a lot of people might leave it at that—lord knows there are a lot of news sites that you can only access as a subscriber (while all the junk content on the internet remains free). In fact, we can’t count the number of times we’ve been told, by very smart business people, that this is a terrible way to do things; usually, that’s followed up with a pitch for software tools that get into our readers’ face until they pony up or go away.
But here’s the thing: Not everything that matters is for sale. Some things are important enough so they should be free. And trust, generosity, and grit are not a hopeless business model.
Normally, a fundraiser would put a rousing finish here—a crescendo of superlatives, about how DIRE the situation is and how DESPERATELY we need your support. And we do! But instead of trying to manipulate your feelings, we’re going to make the crazy bet that we can simply earn your support. You read this far, so you get what it takes to make fearless, independent reporting happen. If you pitch in, you have our promise that we’ll keep working our butts off to do that, and we’ll never take the easy way out.
And we’ll let the MoJo community bring this home—we’d love to hear from you as well. Please let us know what makes Mother Jones stand out to you, as the folks whose testimonials you see below did, so we can better make the case to others. Send us your questions about how MoJo works and our nonprofit model. Give us your thoughts about we can start growing the share of our online readers who decide to donate. The form if you have something to share is here.
As a former Conservative Republican, I’ve been gravitating left for a few years, and my life was changed this summer when SCOTUS overturned Roe. After reading other news sources, Mother Jones is my top choice, and the only one I pay subscription for. I can’t afford the major newspaper paywalls, and don’t need them anyway.
I’d say you’re doing a remarkable job, given your relative financial independence and limits. Your focus is clear, you don’t clutter the facts and contexts reported with personal attacks or self-aggrandizing opinion, and your staff are never (to my knowledge) having their photos taken on multi-million dollar yachts and jets which they own.
I think your magazine is well focused and balances the depth necessary to understand an issue with the speed of responding to fast moving circumstances
I subscribe to Mother Jones because of your integrity, care, skill and compassion at reporting. I forward many of your stories knowing that this will open minds and hearts.
I read about information from you and hear about it 3 weeks later in the more mainstream media.
You cover issues I’m interested in, but there is a real humanity to your coverage that I really appreciate. You always connect the big issues back to people.
Still the best since I started diving into political news 15+ years ago as a teenager. So much reporting now is slapdash, clickbaity, entirely hot takes or opinion. Thank you for continuing to do deep dives, finding important stories, and not leaning on anger or sarcasm for clicks.
Your investigative journalism is an exception to progressive screeds and stands out as exceptional.
You lay out situations clearly and cogently. You dig deep. You don’t under or over dramatize.
You focus on issues that Big Media skirts and bring these issues to the forefront.
You have stories I don’t read about anywhere else. Your reporters don’t try to impress me with their vocabulary.
I feel confident that I can trust what I read from you.
I turn to you when I am exhausted at scandal and false truths in the media.
You’re tireless in your efforts to speak truth to power through clear and well-researched processes and analysis–and I appreciate all of it.
What I like most about is hearing (reading) a voice that expresses the outrage I feel about injustices, which helps me feel validated and less alone.
I like that I feel like YOU feel like I do. Like some days it’s crap and some days it’s good. But if we stick together and keep trying, we can make it through.
I enjoy the feeling of community with smart, informed, funny, irreverent people with a shared commitment to facts, truth, and a brighter vision for our nation and our world.
It makes me feel I’m not alone, that a lot of what I’m thinking but maybe haven’t really digested, gets put into words I can digest, and not feel so unsettled.
I get a sense that you care about what you’re doing, and what you’re reporting on.
Not too solemn but not too cynical either.
The overview and context. Weaving events together to show trends. Reminding us of past events & trends to show where we’re headed. So few sources do this!
A source for angles on the world that I can’t find anywhere else.
Well, I don’t think you are liars.