Deciding what to put on the cover of a magazine is one of the hardest calls an editor makes—cause for endless pulling of hair, rending of garments, and throwing of heavy objects. It’s a little easier here than for our friends at other magazines, where the terrific reporting on the inside pages must cede cover real estate to a great six-pack or suit. But Mother Jones is not immune to the pressure of newsstand sales: Sure, we’re a nonprofit, but we supplement readers’ support with every extra penny we can find. And that means getting casual browsers about to board a five-hour flight to pick up this magazine.
With that in mind, we agonized more than usual about this issue’s cover options. Mac McClelland’s Haiti piece is an amazing story about what has been called America’s 51st state. She reports that a year after the devastating earthquake, much of the aid we promised remains AWOL; that more than a million people live in displacement camps and may stay there for decades. But beyond that, she tells you what it feels like, sounds like, smells like. She explains that one reason rape is at epidemic levels is that the camps have no electricity, so it’s pitch-black at night. That people keep buckets in their tarp-and-stick shelters because it’s too dangerous to walk to the port-a-potties. That thousands of people have been moved to a “model” camp on land owned by a major Haitian corporation, which is now recruiting sweatshops to employ its residents. That volunteer rape counselors persevere despite thugs ripping down their tents and threatening to kill them.
But as compelling as all that is in a story, it’s a tough sell on the newsstand. Even assuming that anyone tempted to buy this magazine probably isn’t expecting cheerful (our joke is that the MoJo tagline should be “It’s Worse Than You Think”), rape gangs are pretty heavy stuff to hit a new reader with on our first encounter.
Josh Harkinson’s story on the pot business poses, if anything, the opposite challenge. It’s a rip-roaring read, an in-depth look at the world of marijuana investors aiming to parlay the medical pot boom (and the growing momentum for legalization) into venture capital, IPOs, and Wall Street dividends. But on the cover, we wondered, would it be seen as a welcome relief from disaster and a Congress gone crazy—or reinforce musty cliches of MoJo as a counterculture relic?
So we decided to have it both ways—a pot cover for the newsstand, where it might serve as a gateway drug for new readers, and a Haiti cover for subscribers jonesing for their fix. After all, though conventional wisdom says audiences hate bummer stories, you evidently can handle the truth. Our online readership is up 60 percent from last year, our print circulation is up at a time when most magazines’ is dropping, and reader support keeps growing. This year, you stuck with us through four months of all-out reporting on the BP disaster (coverage that just won an Online News Association award, a rare honor for a nondaily publication). And last issue’s story about a seven-year-old in Detroit who was killed during a SWAT raid being filmed for reality TV got an incredible reaction all over the social-media landscape. “I’m weeping on an airplane reading this,” one reader tweeted. “One of the best pieces of old-school shoe-leather reportage this year,” wrote another. “This story will just break your heart,” said a third.
Visceral, non-sugar-coated journalism has that kind of power, which is why our reporters immerse themselves in their stories—spending days to track down the mother of a murdered kid, or finding out exactly which company owns that sweatshop camp. But we often wonder what happens to the journalism after it leaves our hands: What do you do when a story moves you? And what would you like us to do after we publish: post regular updates? Host online forums? Provide information about community organizations? Tell us in the comments.
Speaking of comments: Starting this issue, our print edition no longer has a letters page. Why? Over the past few years, most of the interaction between publications and readers has moved online. We hear from you much more often through web comments, Facebook, and Twitter than we ever did via letters to the editor. So we’ve decided to move our Backtalk section online, freeing up print space for more journalism. Whether it’s reporting on silk-suited hydroponics moguls, profiling the former liberal crusader who’s behind a spate of new antiabortion laws, or knocking on the doors of “dark money” power brokers like Karl Rove and Mary Cheney, we tell the story the best way we know how. You take it from there.