Inside the Mother Jones Pocketbook

An editor’s reflections upon Mother Jones’ second birthday.


It feels rather strange to find Mother Jones approaching its second birthday next month. The mortality rate of new political magazines is so high that sometimes we feel like some shell-shocked Survivor of Verdu who knows that, statistically speaking, he should not be alive at all.

It is saddening that publishing independent magazines should be such a risky business. In the back of our minds, many of us who should know better still believe in the myth of the free press: if you have enough good ideas to attract readers, you can start your own publication and it will flourish. In Tom Paine’s day that may have been true. But if he were around today Common Sense would end up as a subsidiary of RCA. Magazine publishing is becoming ever more tied to the large corporations.

The classic successful magazine these days is either started by a major corporation or is bought out by the time it is several years old. Like newspapers, increasing numbers of magazines are now owned by chains. Two corporations most people have never heard of, for example – Peterson Publishing and Ziff Davis-publish 37 magazines between them. And, like publishing houses, magazines are being bought up by big multinationals that aren’t even in the publishing business. New Times, for instance, was just purchased by MCA, the entertainment conglomerate.

For these corporate owners, a magazine is a way of reaching specialized audience they can then “sell” to advertisers. The key to success is finding an audience no one has precisely targeted before -cockroach collectors, for example. And so, the first issue of Roach will come off the presses.

An even more typical new magazine might be for a still more specialized and more affluent audience-say, roachcatching-equipment manufacturers. Cockroach Industry Week won’t have as big a circulation, but its ad rates will be higher than Roach’s, since the reader the magazine sells to advertisers is not just someone who can pay $50 for an insect display case but someone who can buy $50,000 worth of exterminating equipment.

So when we set out to found Mother Jones, everybody told us we were crazy. Readers who were interested in social change and positive alternatives, who wanted to read corporate expos6s, were not an “audience” in the traditional sense of the term. There are no manufacturers of social-change equipment. We could never get enough readers, skeptics said, to make the magazine economically viable otherwise.

They were wrong, of course. This issue of Mother Jones has a press run of more than 130,000; the next, which will follow a major promotional campaign, more than 200,000. That’s the largest circulation any magazine of the Left has had since the late Ramparts (where a number of us here used to work) at the height of the anti-war movement.

That still leaves, however, the difficult economics of publishing a magazine. It is an expensive process. Paper costs are going up because, among other things, the pulpwood industry, like the oil industry, is an oligopoly able to raise prices at will.

Lithography, basically the process of turning pasted-up pages and art into printing plates, costs us $58,000 a year. Acquiring new subscribers is costly for us, too: more than 50 per cent of the money we take in from each new subscription has already been spent on the direct mail or advertising costs necessary to reach that subscriber. In short, the costs of publishing Mother Jones far exceed what we take in from subscriptions. Where, then, does the money come from?

From four principal sources:

* Economizing. We scrimp in every way possible. Our entire manuscript budget for one month is far less than what The New Yorker pays one writer for one “Profile.” Most people working here get less than half the Salaries that editors or business executives at other magazines receive.

* Donations. We are published by a nonprofit foundation. One staff member, Diana Dillaway, works full-time, searching the country for people who have that rare combination of sympathy for what we’re doing in Mother Jones and money enough to make us substantial donations.

* Readers. In the last several months we have asked readers to renew their subscriptions for several years in advance; a stunning 14,000 of you have done so. Encouraged by this, we are going to be asking readers in the months ahead to make us tax-deductible donations.

* Advertising. It was not without qualms that we decided a while ago to accept paid advertising. But our readers turned out to have fewer doubts than we. We polled 2,000 of you, asking, among other things, “Would you be willing to pay up to 25 per cent more for your Mother Jones subscription if the magazine contained no advertising?” An overwhelming 87 per cent of you said no.

Rest assured, though, that more advertising will in no way change what we say in our articles. Indeed, after each issue goes to bed, we mentally cross off one or two corporations we know will never buy an ad. Three guesses which company you can scratch after this issue. Clue: read the article starting on page 118.



Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

  • Adam Hochschild, the author of eight books, is a cofounder and current board member of Mother Jones and an instructor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley.