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What it takes to make good journalism


It's a question we hear every so often: I read your stuff, but I don't get it—why should I donate to Mother Jones when I can read the news for free?

It seems like the right time to answer it head-on, since we're smack in the middle of our big December fundraising campaign and are experimenting with something different this year. Instead of sending short and dire emails that say we'll go out of business if readers don't contribute (which is actually true), we're trying to appeal to your intelligence and transparently explain—in a fair amount of detail—how reader support makes the reporting you get from Mother Jones possible.

So first, an update on where we are: We've raised $109,000 toward our $200,000 target this month. It's a strong start, but there's still a long way to go. Now that it's crunch time—just 10 days left—please make your tax-deductible, year-end gift today via credit card or PayPal.


Back to the question at hand, and first, my short answer: You should donate to Mother Jones because unrelenting, investigative reporting is vital to our democracy and contributions from our readers allow us to stay fiercely independent. Because we're not overly beholden to advertising revenue—or any investors or corporate overlords—we can write stories that no one else is writing, and invest in ambitious projects that others cannot or will not invest the time and resources to report. A prime example is our reporting to better understand the epidemic of gun violence that many other publications are citing in the wake of recent tragedies.

You rely on reporting like that to help make sense of the critical, complex issues of the day, and we rely on readers' tax-deductible donations to do it.


Now, my longer answer—and it starts with an important distinction between what we do at Mother Jones, where I'm the editor-in-chief, and much of what passes for "news" online.

There's the reporting itself—actual, original reporting. Our team of enterprising journalists doesn't just sift through existing stories and repackage them. We spend years cultivating sources, months or weeks combing through reports and data, days on the road, or hours on the phone with one source—whatever it takes to get that critical piece of information that leads us to a story you won't find anywhere else. Again, look to one of our recent cover stories, "Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter," which highlights what's being done to thwart the next tragedy before it happens.

There's also something that our readers can't see but is absolutely critical for the type of aggressive journalism we do: fact-checkers. Not a single story goes into our magazine that isn't painstakingly (just ask them) fact-checked by calling sources, verifying statistics, and meticulously confirming every single detail—and then checking it all again.

Don't get me wrong: There's a lot of really great journalism happening these days, but there are also a lot of hot takes that try to pass for news but are never reported and fact-checked. A big reason why is the way that most news gets paid for.

Actual, original reporting costs a fair amount of money. When you add up all the expenses, a cover story can cost in excess of $20,000. Depending on the time and staff invested, sometimes our stories cost twice or three times that.

And neither of the two models historically used to finance journalism is sufficient to fund the reporting that you, and our democracy, demand. Advertising is a volume game that incentivizes churning out content as fast as you can to generate as many ad impressions (each worth tiny fractions of a dollar) as possible. That doesn't lead to quality work. Well-heeled funders—be they venture capitalists, corporate parent companies, or wealthy individuals—who buy or start media companies can demand editorial control to suit their agendas or chase advertising revenue to turn a profit, which comes at the expense of investing time and resources to report a complex story.

It's our nonprofit model of reader support that makes Mother Jones what it is. Nearly 40 years ago, our founders made a bet that readers would support smart journalism they couldn't read anywhere else. And they were right. Today, two-thirds of our annual budget comes from readers who choose to donate or subscribe to our magazine—advertising revenue and foundational support make up much of the other third.


Contributions from readers allow us to stay independent and do the reporting you expect from us. And there's a nifty multiplier here: Reader support begets even more reader support. Think about it this way: By providing you with news and information you can't find elsewhere, we're able to earn your support—which in turn allows us to write more stories that reach more people, and that gives us the chance to earn their support. And so on.

That's how we went from a small bimonthly magazine to a news organization that has 9 million readers a month. And it turns out—given the challenges of relying solely on advertising or wealthy funders—more and more newsrooms are starting to look at similar models of soliciting reader support. It just so happens that our founders were a bit ahead of the curve by creating Mother Jones as a nonprofit back in 1976 and gambling that readers would step up to support it.

I hope you'll prove them right and support us with a tax-deductible, year-end gift today. With 2016 less than two weeks away, there are a lot of stories to cover, and we need your help to do it right—with actual, original reporting.

Thanks for reading,

Clara Jeffery HeadshotDavid Corn
Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief
Mother Jones

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