Maybe you’ve noticed it: There’s been a Groundhog Day vibe in the news about media. Every day, it seems, Punxsutawney Phil pokes his head aboveground to find more newsrooms shutting down or laying journalists off. BuzzFeed News—the digital outlet that only a few years ago was winning all the prizes, hiring all the talent, and throwing all the parties—shuttered as its founder, Jonah Peretti, confessed he’d “overinvested” in the newsroom. Vice, another once-swashbuckling shop, is headed for bankruptcy. The Daily Beast is on the auction block. The Washington Post, NPR, and CNN have announced layoffs while corporate media owners kept strangling local news.
And more déjà vu: Donald Trump is yet again on the presidential campaign trail, and a major news network yet again gives him unencumbered national airtime to spread his lies. The nation’s top news organizations default into false equivalence as debt ceiling hostage-takers dangle the nation over a cliff edge. A well-funded media startup launches with promises of viral hotness.
At a time when democracy faces a huge stress test—a time when, not to be grandiose, we should be pulling out all the stops to save the republic—the news industry is lamely cycling through its greatest hits from the past. Why??
Here’s one main reason: The bad, yet unkillable, notion that news is indeed an “industry”—that the marketplace will take care of ensuring the free and fearless press that a democracy needs. That bad idea is behind so much of the tragic state of journalism right now. It’s what gave us Fox News and Tucker Carlson; it’s what’s killing your local newspaper; and it’s even threatening nonprofit outlets like NPR and Mother Jones.
Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit 47 years ago, and relying primarily on support from readers is the only reason we’re able to do journalism the way we do it. But the news-for-profit fallacy means that a lot of people expect this kind of work to be paid for by advertising, paywalls, or some other commercial wizardry. So in unpacking this all today, I hope I can also make the case that MoJo’s approach to journalism is urgently needed—and that many of you will decide to pitch in if you can. We have a $390,000 online fundraising gap we need to close by June 30 to finish our fiscal year break-even—and we cannot afford to come up short, so we need more help than normal, quicker than normal, this month.
Here in California, there’s a saying that you can make a small fortune in the wine business, you just need to start with a large one. This is true for news, too—and yet, somehow the fantasy persists that it’s the other way.
Last month, three of the biggest names in the world of digital news—BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, former BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith, and Gawker founder Nick Denton—got together for the first time ever on the Recode podcast to dissect how, exactly, the hundreds of millions invested in the quest for scale in digital publishing went up in smoke. Denton, the grizzled veteran among them, argued that it was actually that gusher of money that broke the business, because companies grew too fast and ran up too much in costs (including, in Gawker’s case, legal defense), and revenue never caught up. “I don’t think anybody really could have made it through [that period] intact,” he concludes. That line stuck with me.
None of these smart guys bothered to point out that nonprofit newsrooms did, in fact, make it through that period intact and many of them, including Mother Jones, grew. But perhaps that blind spot is not surprising, because nonprofit newsrooms were trying to do something very different: They—we—were trying to deliver public service journalism and a return on investment in the form of a stronger democracy. And for that goal, there is no gusher of venture capital.
One more time for the billionaires in the back: Quality news is a public good like schools, museums, and libraries. And like those other public goods, it’s something the market doesn’t solve for. Yet we keep pretending that it will. In 2016, MoJo editor in chief Clara Jeffery and I reported on a previous wave of media meltdowns, quoting news executive Josh Topolsky, who has cycled through no fewer than seven digital startups: “I can tell you from personal experience over the last several months, having met with countless investors and leaders of media companies and editors and writers and technologists in the media world that there is a desperate belief that The Problem can be solved with the New Thing. And goddammit someone must have it in their pitch deck.”
Seven years later, that search is getting even more desperate (hello, artificial intelligence!). So maybe it’s time to acknowledge that there is no silver-bullet pitch deck. The answer is much simpler: Journalism that serves the people needs the support of the people. That’s the Next New Thing, and it’s already here.
If this makes sense to you, maybe you can stop reading right here. And maybe you can pitch in with a much-needed donation of any amount to help us square our budget by the end of this month.
But if you’re the kind of person who demands more evidence—and you’re a MoJo reader, so odds are that you might be—let’s get weedy. In fact, maybe we can have some fun taking a look at some archetypes of the news-for-profit fallacy, each embodied by one of the men who have made themselves its face.
#1: The Viral Dead-Ender
Everything you need to know about the digital news startup The Messenger is probably in this photo.
Jimmy Finkelstein, the media entrepreneur behind The Hill, is starting The Messenger, a venture covering politics, entertainment and business, with Richard Beckman and Dan Wakeford. https://t.co/FGg9BLKr4R
— NYT Business (@nytimesbusiness) March 12, 2023
The tall guy in the center is Jimmy Finkelstein, a media heir who turned his father’s business—a credible, if sleepy, Washington newspaper named The Hill—into a viral content factory. Along the way, he cultivated friendships with Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani and provided a platform for Trump’s Ukraine disinformation. And in May—after the flameout of BuzzFeed News and Vice, after virtually every other major news brand announced layoffs—he launched his latest venture, a news site funded with $50 million in investor capital.
What was Finkelstein trying to do? According to him, The Messenger aims to heal the country’s political divisions (which Finkelstein’s friends did so much to foster, but never mind). “People are exhausted with extreme politics and platforms that inflame the divisions in our country by slanting stories towards an audience’s bias,” its editor, Dan Wakeford, wrote in his opening-day column.
If that description gives you “fair and balanced” vibes, your BS detector is well tuned: “Media is too divisive” is often code for “journalists just need to be nicer to conservatives.” As media critic Jay Rosen put it on Twitter:
You could argue that they're trying to repeat the trick Roger Ailes pulled with "fair and balanced."
* Take a right wing POV; make it super obvious
* Deny that you have any POV, like The Media does
* Turn the friction into culture war
* From that culture war program the channel
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) May 15, 2023
Sure enough, The Messenger’s biggest story on its launch day (if you don’t count “Florida Man Has Been Living Underwater Since March, Breaks World Record”) was an “EXCLUSIVE” conversation with Donald Trump, pressing the former president on such matters as how he feels about Ron DeSantis and how Melania feels about him. As my colleague David Corn noted, to call it a softball interview would be an insult to the sport:
When Trump (once again) claimed the 2020 election was rigged against him, Caputo let him bray on about this false and dangerous claim. Caputo did point out that Trump’s campaign conducted two studies that found no signs of significant fraud. But Trump steamrolled over this, and Caputo made it clear he did not want to engage in a forceful exchange over Trump’s firehose of falsehoods. “I need to find a way to discuss the 2020 elections without sounding like I’m debating it [with you],” he told Trump.
I’m sure Caputo, a solid political reporter, knows that speaking the truth is not “debating.” But Caputo clearly believes he’s not allowed to “sound like” he is.
And that’s the tell. People who find the truth inconvenient often turn to the “debate” metaphor because it legitimizes lies—it posits that we’re simply in a rhetorical battle between two equally legitimate positions. That’s why they complain endlessly about “polarization” and “bias.” It’s a tool to make us—journalists and readers both—feel ashamed of our bias for the truth.
Why would Finkelstein, with his stated commitment to “day-to-day delivery of balance and objectivity” have his reporters bend over backwards so they don’t “sound like they are debating” with liars? I can’t judge, but Joshua Benton, one of the best media columnists out there, went and looked up all of the known Messenger investors. And it just so happens that every single one is a major Republican donor.
That makes a little more sense. It was hard to fathom that all these rich men invested $50 million, in the year of our Lord 2023, into the idea that a diet of Trump interviews and “Honey Boo Boo Graduates From High School, Mama June Posts She’s ‘So Proud’” would be the path to media riches. But maybe what they wanted was simply a news outlet that doesn’t “sound like” it’s debating with liars.
Which brings us to…:
#2: The Suit
Chris Licht, appointed last year as the CEO and chairman of CNN for what turned out to be only a 13-month tenure, had the unenviable task of succeeding a larger-than-life predecessor. Jeff Zucker’s claims to fame included turning Donald Trump into a cable-TV sensation with The Apprentice; putting countless hours of Trump speeches on live TV in 2016; and finally, belatedly, taking a stand once the president made CNN his top journalistic punching bag. Zucker was forced out last year following an undisclosed relationship with another CNN executive, and Licht took the job announcing that he planned to repair the network’s relationships with audiences across the political spectrum. In practice, that turned out to be—as it always does—mostly courting Republicans. Licht went on what conservative media gleefully described as an apology tour on Capitol Hill and booted a few of the network’s most consistent truth-tellers, such as media correspondent Brian Stelter.
And then, with the presidential campaign getting underway, he staged a town hall where Trump got 70 minutes to preen and lie while host Kaitlan Collins valiantly tried to interject her factchecks (earning Trump’s default lady insult, “nasty person”). Unlike The Messenger’s Caputo, Collins didn’t seem afraid of appearing to “debate” Trump, but the winner of that debate was foreordained.
The town hall set off a furious backlash inside CNN, with some staffers venting anonymously and some, like anchor Christiane Amanpour, going public with a plea: “Maybe we should revert back to the newspaper editors and TV chiefs of the 1950s, who in the end refused to allow McCarthyism onto their pages.”
The network’s media reporter, Oliver Darcy, covered the outcry in his newsletter, only to be called into Licht’s office for a talking-to. Licht had once promised that when it rains, CNN would talk to people who love the rain and people who hate the rain. In fact, CNBC media reporter Alex Sherman pointed out, “he’s let someone on now who says it’s raining when it’s not, and he added hundreds of people to applaud when he does it.”
Licht was undeterred: He might have managed a couple of things differently, he said once the dust settled, such as letting the TV audience know that the cheering studio crowd was made of Republican voters. But nothing major. And that’s no surprise, because ultimately Licht’s job was not to figure out how CNN can do the most responsible job at a time of democracy in crisis. His job is to rescue the network’s ratings, just as it was Zucker’s job years ago. For Zucker, that meant hitching his wagon to the man he called a “ratings machine.” Licht did what he felt he needed to do to deliver the numbers (and got shivved by Zucker while he was at it). So will his successor, whoever that may be.
On, then, to our third archetype:
#3: The Serioso
I am, as you might expect, a sucker for articles in which people running news organizations share how they think about this work. So I was excited to see New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger weigh in with a 12,647-word essay on journalistic independence.
The piece does not disappoint. There are a few cliches of the genre (Walter Lippmann—drink!), but it does address pretty much all of the controversies around the Times in recent years with honesty and some self-reflection. It makes a good overall case that in journalism, as in science, the method of gathering information is key. Everyone comes from a point of view, Sulzberger argues, and the way to ensure that that POV does not overwhelm the fact-gathering is to be ruthless about the “how”: Talk to people with many different views, especially those you don’t agree with. Look for evidence that contradicts what you think, or what your sources tell you. Make a fact-checking list and check it twice. And most importantly, be open to “the possibility of new and evolving facts that may reveal other aspects of a story.”
I was 10,491 words in when I found myself thinking: “Wow, this might be the first essay in this vein that does not drag in a ‘Mother Jones on the one hand, random conservative outlet on the other’ comparison to make a facile point about ‘advocacy journalism.’” And right then…
Today many high-integrity news organizations are open about their politics and objectives, from Mother Jones on the left to The Dispatch on the right to a host of podcasts and newsletters catering to every imaginable subject and viewpoint. The Marshall Project has not let its core goal of remaking the criminal justice system allow it to skew the facts. CoinDesk broke a story that threatened the very cryptocurrency industry it was launched to support.
To be sure, it’s a nuanced version of the old trope. ”High-integrity” is a graceful and kind thing to say, and The Dispatch is probably the most journalistically sound outlet that could also be described as ideologically conservative. In terms of quality, it’s a compliment to be compared with them.
In terms of what each newsroom actually does, though, it’s apples and oranges. Three of the news organizations Sulzberger name-drops—MoJo, The Marshall Project, and CoinDesk—are focused on reporting. The fourth, The Dispatch, does mostly opinion journalism—columns, essays, and the like (though it certainly has produced some great reporting as well). That’s a big and crucial difference that Sulzberger (after spending a fair bit of time earlier in the article on the difference between opinion journalism and reporting) simply glosses over because it gets in the way of the point he wants to make: Those other guys are biased, but we at the Times are not.
Sure enough, in the very next paragraph Sulzberger makes that plain when he highlights Fox News’ election deception as evidence of “the dangers of the advocacy model when fully unchecked.”
It should be obvious that what Fox News did was not some “unchecked” version of what MoJo, The Marshall Project, or The Dispatch do every day. The facts uncovered by the Dominion lawsuit—which showed that Fox News hosts knew that what they were saying was false—show that it was not trying to engage in journalism at all, but something different entirely.
The distinction Sulzberger could have drawn is between journalism on one hand, and propaganda on the other. But that’s not the one he chose to make. And in 2023, with a hurricane of propaganda on the horizon, that’s a big problem.
Why does Sulzberger feel compelled to do this? It’s not for me to analyze his personal motivations, but again let’s consider the business part of it: Back in 1896, when his great-great-grandfather Adolph Ochs bought the New York Times, he made a break from the tradition of partisan newspaper publishing, betting that a broader audience—and more revenue—could be found by capturing readers across the political spectrum. That panned out, as the Times over time became a must-read news source for political and economic elites. But it also meant that, for its survival, the Times would depend on not too harshly offending those elites, which in turn left it vulnerable to elite consensus thinking (Iraq has WMD; Trump will become “presidential”). Its business model has created one of the world’s great newsrooms, but that’s its big blind spot.
Which is why that question I mentioned at the outset—“what do you mean, journalism is in trouble? I hear the New York Times is very successful!”—makes me want to cry. First of all, let’s not forget that what makes the Times successful is not that it does great public service journalism: It’s that it bundles in a bunch of other content, from games and wellness to sports and cooking. This is not a bad model; in fact, it’s the classic news-in-front-party-in-back combo that worked for traditional publishers and broadcasters, and BuzzFeed tried to perfect for the social media age. But in a for-profit environment, it only works as long as that revenue line has a pretty steep upward trajectory. When it doesn’t, as BuzzFeed demonstrated (and the Times has in the past), it’s the newsroom that gets the axe.
Let’s assume—let’s hope—that the Times’ revenue trajectory goes up and to the right forever. That would be great. Even so, how many times do we have to learn that relying on one company, or a handful, to gatekeep what news is “fit to print” for all of us is dangerous for all of us? (For a case in point, just consider the embarrassing winners-and-losers-focused coverage of the debt ceiling precipice.) People talk a lot about the “information ecosystem” right now. But what do you call an ecosystem where everything is starving except for the top dog?
Which in turn brings us to…
#4: The Fascism Flirt
I lied. There are in fact two kinds of news that will reliably turn a profit. One is the kind that delivers a very specific, highly valued audience (think Politico’s politicos or the Wall Street Journal’s 1 percenters). The other is the kind that pushes fear, anger, and “told you so” buttons. That latter approach has a long history—“you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war”—but its apogee right now is Fox News, with Elon Musk nipping at its heels.
The Musk-Murdoch rivalry would be delicious to watch if it weren’t so terrifying. Who is the king of right-wing media? The billionaire who broke a social media platform and made his pal’s presidential announcement a “can you hear me now” laughingstock? Or the other billionaire whose top hosts openly discuss how they despise the liar whose lies they are promoting?
It doesn’t really matter, because the thing they both have in common is this: They’ve given up on even the pretense of public service. If there’s an audience for lies, racism, and conspiracy, that’s what they’ll furnish. Who cares if they’re delivering that audience into the waiting arms of extremists, animal torturers, and scammers—or even hasten their deaths? Who cares if every once in a while they have to pay a nearly $800 million settlement? To haul in $4 billion in quarterly revenue, you’ve got to break a few eggs. Plus, what is “news” anyway? Remember how back in 2020, Fox News convinced a judge that a subject of Tucker Carlson’s invective couldn’t claim defamation because no reasonable viewer would believe what Tucker Carlson says?
Forgive me if I go a little meta at this point, but this, too, was entirely predictable. In 2014, the columnist Felix Salmon spotted a fascinating exchange in the comments at Gawker, where founder Nick Denton pointed out that a viral Gawker story (about a grandfather disowning his daughter after she had disowned her gay son) was a little too good to be true. Then–Gawker editor John Cook replied with prescient honesty:
I’d rather be calling bullshit on stuff like this than calling attention to it…But we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been—ruthless honesty—and be reliably and speedily on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.
Neetzan Zimmerman, whose job at Gawker at the time was all about “getting a shit-ton of traffic”—then responded to them both:
Most viral content demands from its audience a certain suspension of disbelief. The fact is that viral content warehouses like BuzzFeed trade in unverifiable schmaltz exactly because that is the kind of content that goes viral. People don’t look to these stories for hard facts and shoe-leather reporting. They look to them for fleeting instances of joy or comfort. That is the part they play in the Internet news hole.
It’s almost painful rereading this nine years later (if you can find it—the URL where that exchange originally lived now serves up an error page with a slimy pink “OOPS”), because “getting a shit-ton of traffic” is exactly what created the information mess we find ourselves in in today’s “Internet news hole.” (Indeed, to fully close the circle, Zimmerman is now one of the key architects of The Messenger.)
Even at the time that Denton and Cook were having that exchange—just eight months before Donald Trump would descend that golden escalator—it was clear that people do not look to viral content just for “fleeting instances of joy or comfort.” We look to it to confirm and solidify our view of the world and our place in it. Content can do that by warming our hearts, or by stoking our outrage and fears. The latter works faster and with more intensity.
The implication in the Gawker exchange, as in Fox News’ defense of Tucker Carlson, is that “people know that we’re feeding them BS, and they like it.” If that’s so, why work so hard to dress the BS up as trustworthy news? Tucker sits behind a desk like an evening news anchor does. Viral headlines use the diction and capitalization of newspaper headlines.
People did not click on the story of a grandfather disowning his bigoted daughter because they thought it was a fun bit of fiction. They did because they believed it was true. That was what warmed their hearts. People are not listening to Tucker Carlson rant about Democrats replacing “true” Americans with immigrant brown people because they are interested in his rhetorical ability. They do it because they believe him. Maybe in 2014 it still felt like fun and games to argue about the veracity of virality. But right now it’s deadly serious.
So what’s the alternative?
It’s painful to see these entirely predictable, mostly terrible outcomes repeat themselves once again—and know that it’s what we’ll be left with if we leave our media to the markets: The Messenger’s softballs for Trump; CNN’s scramble to pacify the right; the Times’ earnest but conventional gatekeeping; Tucker, Elon, and the pursuit of virality above veracity; more layoffs and quality newsrooms being shuttered while bullshit thrives.
You can probably see where this is going: Mother Jones’ reader-supported model and our approach to journalism can solve for a lot of what ails media right now. Are we going to fill the role of CNN, the Times, or your local newspaper? Hell no. Does nonprofit journalism need to grow, big time, to meet the stress test that journalism and democracy face? Hell yes. Do we then need to better break this down for readers? Also yes.
I’m about 4,000 words into this column, which is still two-thirds short of that Sulzberger essay, but it’s time to land the plane. Here’s the bottom line that I hope might convince you to support us for the first time, or once again, as I do everything I can to come up with the $390,000 we need in online donations this month.
At Mother Jones, the goals of our nonprofit business are not “in tension” with the goals of our newsroom. And you, our readers, have told us time and again that that’s why you turn to our journalism and support us: Because we can do the things that you expect from the news and that seem far too rare in other media, such as:
- Deep dives and investigations that take time, effort, and money but pay off in insight and change;
- Prioritizing underreported beats that won’t maximize eyeballs, but are often ahead of the curve—and sticking with them over time;
- Bringing a unique voice, perspective, and values to the daily headlines to help you understand what it all means (and know what stories are worth your time amid a sea of junk);
- Dedicating an entire issue of our magazine to the forces behind the headlines, like our sweeping private equity project;
- Investigating both the problems and the solutions that exist, like our big package on decarbonization and how to fix our cities;
- Being transparent about how it all works so you can make up your own mind.
You’re here for journalism, not fundraising, but one cannot exist without the other, and it’s vitally important that we hit that intimidating $390,000 number in reader donations in the next three-plus weeks.
Donations big and small make up 74 of our budget this year (the one that ends this month and we’re behind on) and there is nothing else that can keep us going strong. There is no backup. No secret benefactor. We are powered simply by the amount of money we can scrape together year after year to get as close to breaking even as possible.
We have zero wiggle room, having already cut $1 million from our budget over the course of this year. You certainly know that everything costs more right now. But it might surprise you how brutal the collapse of advertising (a small, but not zero part of our budget) and reach on platforms like Facebook has been across our field and even for Mother Jones—in a best-case scenario, we’re one-third off from our target for the year, which in turn was down 40 percent from two years ago—or that our office landlord still won’t give us a break on the rent, more than three years after the pandemic rewrote the rules, or that every time we turn around there’s a new charge from our printer, or our shipping service, or… you get it. All of our revenue and fundraising teams are really feeling the pressure to hit their numbers this month, so that we don’t have to start cutting even deeper.
That’s my attempt to convey the true urgency of our budget right now. (There are even more specifics about our finances, our challenges, and our opportunities in our recent post “It’s Not a Crisis. This Is the New Normal,” and of course you can ask us anything, anytime, here.)
Corporations and Wall Street investors will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. The only investors who won’t let independent, investigative journalism down are the people who actually care about its future—you.