Journalism is in trouble, and that’s nothing new. It’s been that way since I got started in the field, on the membership side here at Mother Jones, nine years ago. It’s been that way since Mother Jones itself got started as a nonprofit back in 1976, with a goal of doing things differently than the corporate press.
But we learned something the hard way over the last year. We need to start being more upfront with you about exactly how hard it is to keep a newsroom from falling off a cliff. Because the crisis facing journalism is the new normal, and Mother Jones’ existence depends on getting this right and earning enough support, one donation from our community of readers at a time, to keep going strong. To be blunt: We need to find ways to start increasing the share of our online readers who decide to chip in and support Mother Jones when you can.
Something else we learned: Fundraising doesn’t have to be bullshit.
When we hit a rough patch during a fundraising push about a year ago, we asked readers how we can do a better job. You told us you’re sick of the fundraising requests you’re bombarded with on the internet—the sheer volume of ads and emails, the overwrought tone, the manipulative drivel. You told us to give it to you straight. You told us to focus less on the daily chaos and more on the constant core when asking you to pitch in. And making good on that has been a real silver lining amid the dark clouds hanging over journalism, and our budgets: Matter-of-factly explaining our inner workings—the challenges and realities, the nonprofit model and finances, the 47-year-old backstory and legacy—can actually bring readers into the fold and earn the donations we rely on. It makes sense, even if it defies conventional wisdom.
Like our journalism does. You’re here for reporting you don’t find elsewhere, and MoJo readers have been generous of late in helping us learn what resonates most about our work through our first newsletter survey, a series of focus groups, online feedback, or everyday conversation. You told us you’re here for a trusted voice to help you cut through the noise and know which stories really matter; for deep dives and investigations that are all too rare in today’s media landscape; for coverage of underreported beats that we get out ahead of and stick with; for unique perspectives and a fiery and fact-based voice. Did we get that right? You can let us know what you think about anything, ask us your questions, or share what draws you to MoJo at the bottom of this piece. Please do.
You wouldn’t expect it, but these next few weeks are vitally important on each of these fronts: It’s time to get serious about raising the money it takes to keep Mother Jones charging hard for the financially uncertain, incredibly high-stakes year ahead.
We need to raise $253,000 in online donations quickly, by October 7.
The type of journalism you want from us is possible only because readers make it happen. It is also the type of hard-hitting reporting that is desperately needed to fight for democracy, justice, and the truth itself.
Please pitch in, like right now, if you’re nodding along and don’t need any more convincing. Or let us connect the dots for you if you’re not sure it really matters all that much.
And if you can’t pitch in now, or ever, please keep reading—there are ways to help and things worth knowing for all.
This is a legitimately vital fundraising moment for us.
And when we say that, it isn’t paper-thin fundraising boilerplate we toss around without thought. It is a 100 percent accurate way to characterize our finances.
In fact, adequately communicating the true urgency of our fundraising goals and deadlines is probably the hardest thing for me to accomplish in making the case for a big haul of donations right now. Demonstrating the value and urgency of our team’s reporting given the state of…everything, and how being funded primarily by readers is the thing that allows us to do it all? That’s so much easier. And I’m so glad you’re with us to tackle it all head-on with you, our readers and funders and champions.
The short of it: Last year, the advertising dollars that have historically propped up journalism fell off a(nother) cliff and corporate owners’ quest for profit forced countless more newsrooms to shutter or shrink. Mother Jones wasn’t as hard hit because we are not, mostly, dependent on ads. But we, too, felt the effect of that and lots of other financial headwinds, and had to cut $1 million from our budget so we could have a chance of breaking even by the time our fiscal year ended last year. And despite a huge rally from so many of you leading up to the deadline, we still came up a bit short on the whole. We can’t let that happen again. We have no wiggle room to begin with, and now we have a hole to dig out of. All while expenses keep rising and other industry-wide pressures only increase and squeeze us in ways big and small.
Case in point: Advertising used to reliably bring in between 11 and 15 percent of our budget. Now it’s 6 percent, despite our tiny team’s tremendous hustle and smarts. Foundations are fickle and often more inclined to give to startups than to organizations with a history and track record. On the expense side of the ledger, virtually every single damn line keeps going up by double digits. Paper and postage for our magazine and mailings went 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. In fact, we are still trying to cobble together our final budget for this year—that’s how much uncertainty there is out there. What’s clearer than ever, though, is that we, and everyone in the journalism field, need to find new ways to somehow make it all work.
But of course, it could also be so much worse.
Mother Jones is (incredibly!) fortunate to have a community of readers whose donations—whether it’s $5, $50, or $500—make up about 75 percent of our funding. And we have an incredible staff, across the organization, coming up with those new ways we need to make it all work. Despite the significant challenges, we’re quite optimistic. After all, unlike a lot of other newsrooms (America is still losing local newspapers at the rate of about two a week) we’re still here.
To keep sticking around, one big thing I, specifically, need to do is find ways to greatly increase the share of our online readers who decide to donate. Right now, online giving makes up about 7.5 percent of the pie and being able to bump that up, big time, in time, is one of the few ways we can realistically (and largely with what we have) make up for the hits we’re taking in other areas. Inching that up, and getting just 10 percent of the people who are interested enough in our work to read posts like this (ahem, that’s you) to part with a few bucks would be utterly transformative for us.
Back to the short-term, the immediate-term, and that $253,000 in donations by October 7.
We’re trying something new that might just make earning the support we need less harrowing, and less prone to ending up with a bigger gap than can be filled as the budget year ends—if it works. For that to happen, we’ll need all the good mojo, of the lowercase, unitalicized variety, we can muster.
5 key points:
- We’re starting to use quarterly fundraising goals to (hopefully) avoid falling too far behind to make up for like last year. We can’t leave it to chance. We can’t stomach needing to trim any more expenses to make it all work this year.
- $350,000 each quarter gets us to our $1.4 million online donation goal for this fiscal year, July 1 through June 30. Even if the entire budget isn’t truly final yet, bare minimum, we have to get to where we were last year.
- We’re committed to being less in your face with fundraising, and we’re also quite committed to paying staff. But I’m willing to roll the dice and see if we can raise what we need in just three weeks or so as each quarter winds down. Our first quarterly goal and deadline was supposed to be in 10 days, on September 30, but it took me longer to get this all figured out than anticipated, so we’re pushing it back a week to Saturday, October 7. (Kind of on-brand for an ambitious, scrappy newsroom—always pushing right to the deadline!)
- The good news! Some of what we’ve learned from you is leading to better results outside of these big campaigns, and almost $100,000 has already come in this first quarter.
- So that leaves the $253,000 in online donations we need over these next few weeks.
How about some real talk?
The thing about why $253,000 is so important right now is actually kind of dumb and arbitrary, or at least it’s supreme sausage-making. Big picture, we need to bring in that $1.4 million in online donations by June. That’s the number and deadline that matter most. Breaking even. The pedestrian, but profound, reason why $253,000 in donations over these next two weeks is vitally important is simply that it keeps us right on track and helps us avoid any significant (and knowable) cash-flow crunches for now. Laying it all out and being able to rally $253,000 toot suite is my best way to answer the age-old question: How the hell are we going to raise all that money for the whole year?
I used to be more nonchalant about this, thinking that if fundraising struggles earlier in our fiscal year, we’ll nail the next campaign and make it up later. Not anymore. There is zero doubt that the market forces decimating journalism, or any other number of things, will keep throwing us serious curveballs, and we can’t allow ourselves to fall behind. Please give if you can.
It would be so awesome if we could bring that $1.4 million in a lot more quickly, much more easily. We wouldn’t have to come knocking as much, we wouldn’t have to scramble as much (at least this particular scramble). It would allow me to sink precious time into growth projects that we have in motion or on the horizon (and need to do!), instead of so much labor going into what it takes just to scrape by each year. But here we are, as they say.
How awesome would hitting our annual goal well ahead of schedule be, you ask? Awesome enough for me to finally do something I’ve joked with Monika (my boss and our CEO) about over the years when trying to figure out how we can bring in what we need: I’ll get a tattoo in honor of MoJo readers if we did it by, hmmm, May 1 sounds good—two months ahead of schedule, and of course, International Workers’ Day in honor of our badass namesake, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (who also claimed May Day as her birthday). I don’t currently have any tattoos, and my first would will be a spoof of this classic with “Mother Jones Readers” instead of Mother/Mom, of course. (Also, hi mom!)
That’s not how asking for donations is supposed to work, at all—and I have some concerns about the way fundraising, mostly, does work. It requires so much urgency. And nothing drives donations like a crisis. That’s not a bad thing—people who want to help in a crisis are awesome. But the encouraging signs I’ve seen since taking this new, more matter-of-fact approach have mostly been during a hair-on-fire moment for MoJo—when we were staring down the end of a fiscal year with a sizeable hole to fill. People get that.
Just three months into our budget, I can’t (in good conscience) really lay on the “these next few weeks are truly make-or-break” or “it’s all coming down to the wire and we have to get to break-even” language that communicates how legitimately dire it is when the year winds down. “These next few weeks are vitally important,” and “we need to stay on track so we don’t come up short later,” is true right now, but it just doesn’t have the same oomph.
Will folks pitch in when we’re not frantically trying to finish a fiscal year square?
We saw how important hitting those numbers is month after month, year after year. One day last March, I woke up to news that the legendary Texas Observer had suddenly shuttered before many knew how dire it truly was for them. And once folks knew, no surprise, readers stepped up big time and breathed new life into the 69-year-old institution. That hit sooooo close to home. It’s all so fragile, and a strong base of support from readers is vital in shoring up what we can.
But, will folks rally and respond when we’re not yet at the edge of a cliff, when hitting our goal is the thing that keeps us back from the cliff’s edge later in the year?
What happens if this falls flat and we come up way short of $253,000?
Oy. Fall fundraising has historically been the hardest of the year—we’ve had some real stinkers. When our CFO caught wind that we needed another week before asking for donations in a big way, her face said a lot—and since we’re just saying things straight up these days, I’ll say the rest: Even a slight delay could mean another challenge for cash-flow management, so coming up well short would be brutal right now. To get a sense of what it’s like, last summer we shared a powerful example of the hard decisions we have to make if we don’t hit our numbers: Being unable to fill an important video journalist position, mostly dedicated to our biggest investigations, when a rock star moved on. Please give if you can.
Speaking of concerns and urgency and cliffs’ edges, there’s one more: American democracy.
A functioning one, that is at least tethered to the truth and governed in good faith, is in trouble now, too, huh? Perhaps this crisis is related to the crisis in journalism? Perhaps a strong and independent press would help prevent the slide toward authoritarianism from falling off the cliff toward authoritarianism in these next 13-plus months?
I don’t know about you, but I always thought a moment like this would feel a lot different: An election in which the frontrunner for his party’s nomination faces 91 felony charges, including for attempting to overthrow the government, which we all watched play out live on television, and yet that candidate could well prevail again. That’s a shocking sentence to write, but none of it feels all that shocking in the day-to-day anymore—and historically low traffic to news websites at a time of hugely important news backs that up.
Will it take Donald Trump becoming president again for people to re-embrace the need for journalism without fear, favor, or false equivalence—like so many did when it was all new and shocking?
Proactive, not reactive, mobilization is so much harder.
But it has to happen. Because here we are.
And I have to wrap this up even though there’s still ground to cover to give you everything anyone might need to know before deciding “yeah, Brian’s right—this matters and I’ll pitch in whatever works for me right now.” (There’s space for you to let me know how I did in a minute, because we really have to get this right.)
If you’d like to go even deeper on why being funded primarily by donations from readers means everything to our unique journalism, how impossibly hard it is in the news business right now, or how journalism’s problems are too easily exploited by those who benefit from a greatly weakened and ridiculously timid press, here are a handful of columns from us over the years. They hold up. The challenges are nothing new, the scale and scope are.
- “News Never Pays” – it’s time to stop pretending the marketplace will save journalism, and the four archetypes of the news-for-profit fallacy–The Viral Dead-Ender, The Suit, The Serioso, The Fascism Flirt—as represented by the men who embody them.
- “News Is Just Like Waste Management” – on the hedge funds and vulture capital firms that are buying up newspapers, and why “Use it up, sell it, or kill it. The profit is the product” is a really bad way to run a newsroom.
- “The ‘Animal Spirits of Capitalism’ Are Devouring Us” – like the above, but also sharing the whys and hows behind our huge newsroom-wide special reporting project—and entire issue of our magazine—on private equity, one of the most powerful, malignant, and secretive forces in our daily lives.
- Did you know Facebook throttled Mother Jones’ reach a few years ago? “Facebook Manipulated the News You See to Appease Republicans, Insiders Say,” and “I’m the Co-Chair of the Mother Jones Union. Facebook Hurt Our Members to Play Politics” have the infuriating details.
- “It’s a Perfect Storm for Destroying Journalism,” and “Pop Goes the Digital Media Bubble”– from 2017 and 2016, respectively, because the challenges destroying journalism right now were not hard to see coming.
- “This Is What’s Missing From Journalism Right Now” – from 2016, and our biggest investigation ever, when we sent a reporter undercover to work as a guard at a private prison for four months because that’s the only way to find out what really happens inside them.
Quality journalism costs money. In-depth reporting takes time and effort. Calling it like it is in no uncertain terms, prioritizing underreported beats, and looking at the forces behind the headlines requires the independence of being supported by readers instead of profit-driven owners. That’s why it’s in such short supply.
The fundamental truth is that corporations and powerful people with deep pockets 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.
It all comes down to trust, and I really love that. You trust that we’ll put your gift to use doing the type of hard-hitting journalism you expect from us, and we trust that enough donations will come in so we can keep doing it. Been that way for 47 years now. And we’ve been told this is a terrible way to do things, but that’s crap. As nerve-wracking as it is, trusting that we’ll see the $253,000 we need in the coming days, there’s no way we’d rather have it.
Because being supported by a community doesn’t go poof.
Our funding base comes from tens of thousands of people doing their part to keep fearless, impactful investigative reporting alive. It is a powerful thing, and like every movement, it gets more powerful as it grows. We need it to grow, for reasons both economic and civic. Which is why, if you’re unable to give today or ever, we hope that you’ll think of one person, three people, however many people in your life who seem like they would value our journalism and send them a link to this post, or an article that spoke to you, and a personal note encouraging them to check us out. It works. (I wanted to get stickers made that said “I would donate to Mother Jones but I can’t afford to right now because of many of the structural issues they report on” but it seemed impractical.)
It’s incredible, really. When so many in the media are looking for the next new thing, what Mother Jones has had all along is a huge part of the answer: Kickass journalism, an incredible community, loads of trust, lots of grit. So one last time: Please help if you can right now. Whether you can swing $5, $50, or $500—it all matters and makes a difference when added up to let our team do the type of in-depth reporting the moment demands.
That’s everything! Well, almost. Seriously: Please let me know what you think. How can we better go about asking you to support Mother Jones? Did anything above speak to you in particular? Did we miss anything you think would be helpful to include? What draws you to our journalism in the first place? What questions about running Mother Jones do you have?
Community feedback has been invaluable, and figuring this all out with you is going to be essential for the work ahead. It is also a joy. Thank you.