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Does Mother Jones Know Best?

Foundation funding and collaboration, touted as the way forward for news, have their own pitfalls.

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With an eye on the coming global conference on climate in Copenhagen, Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco has called a "major organizing meeting" of concerned media outlets—among them the Atlantic, Wired, ProPublica, Grist, and Slate. "Our intention is to take advantage of each of our respective strengths and report on what we think is the most important story of our times," writes Steven Katz, interim CEO of Mother Jones, e-mailing me from the coast. "We're very excited about this opportunity to breathe new life into journalism through this collaboration and to reach a much broader audience with really terrific reporting about an issue as big as this."

He continues, "As you can imagine, it's a big jump for all of us." And he adds, "there will be a lot of fundraising to do for it, from foundations and individuals."

Sounds like trouble to me.

Journalism as I learned it in the last century is not just fiercely but diabolically competitive. Surely it was the intention of the founding fathers that the eagerness of reporters to stab one another in the back would forever guarantee the public the multiplicity of viewpoints on which democracy stands. But here's Katz putting in a word for groupthink. How can that possibly serve the nation? And even if it can, what fun is it?

On the phone Katz says not to worry. He can't imagine the Atlantic or Slate or any of the other conferees surrendering an ounce of autonomy. But a new age demands new forms, new conversations, new alliances. We hang together or we hang separately. "We're still making this stuff up at this point," he reminds me.

Mother Jones is getting kudos for making this stuff up about as well as anyone around. Here's the San Francisco Chronicle in March: "Nonprofit Mother Jones Role Model for Industry." And Advertising Age in October: "Mother Jones, the nonprofit magazine of investigative reporting, has been around since 1976, but lately it's been getting plenty of fresh attention. Partly because it's a proven model for nonprofit journalism (the magazine gets support from subscribers, donors, advertisers and foundations) in a moment when old monopoly-driven for-profit business models for journalism, particularly at newspapers, are crumbling. But also because editorially, the magazine has been on a hot streak."

Last year Mother Jones won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. In 2007 it quadrupled its Washington bureau from two people to eight. And it's hiring! There are two openings: one for a top reporter to cover human rights and one for someone Katz calls "midlevel" to fill a vacancy in Washington.

But to call Mother Jones a successful business model is to reflect on how much the business has changed and on what now passes for success. "We're not immune to what's going on in the media business. Times are extremely tough," Katz says. Mother Jones is trying to work out a 2010 budget that assumes a 2 percent drop in revenues but doesn't mean laying off reporters and editors or trimming plans. "It looks like we'll be able to pull that off," he says. Mother Jones has a couple major reporting projects in development, one focusing on human rights and the other on climate change. The latter—the one being assembled as a trailblazing collaboration of many media—Katz is calling "Assignment 2020: Reporting as if the Future Depended on It."

"Over the years," he says, "we've published a lot on human rights issues domestic and international, and likewise with the environment. Last year we sat down with editorial and talked about how to extend what we're doing in ways that would appeal to funders. We've had some success on that with foundations and donors."

In the good old days, a major magazine would decide what journalism it wanted to do and then—if it could afford it—do it. At Mother Jones, "can we afford it?" yields to "who can we find to pay for it?" Imagine Time editors telling each other that it would be nice to launch a human-rights reporting project, but first they'd better clear it with advertisers.

I mention Time because it's retrenched as Mother Jones has expanded. Katz tells me that back in the 80s Time's Washington bureau employed more than 30 people; now it's the same size as Mother Jones's. "Which is scary," he says.

I ask him to tell me about dealing with foundations. "Ummmm, you have to be very careful with that," he says. "It's kind of a dance. In the foundation world there are some funders who understand the relationship they have to maintain with journalism-based organizations like us. That there's a point at which the funder has to be held at arm's length. They can't dictate stories. They can't dictate outcomes. So the conversation happens at a more general level. One of the things we want to do with human rights is to use it to expand our coverage of domestic human-rights issues. What those stories will be, how they'll be reported, how they'll be put together on the Web—those questions are wide-open. Those aren't things we'll flesh out in the room with funders. But the notion that there's a gap in the human-rights reporting—that's definitely something we'll talk about with these guys. You try to find the appropriate meeting place and hope everybody behaves properly.

"In one sense," Katz goes on, "it's old wine in new bottles. If you have a big advertiser in a for-profit operation and you run something they don't like, they may pull the account."

But when advertisers decide they really miss the audience you used to deliver to them, they scamper back. Advertisers spend money to make money. Foundations spend money to make the world a better place, and they deliberate long and hard about how to do that. "They have strategic goals," says Katz. "They have programmatic agendas. It takes an honest and straightforward conversation with these folks to make sure you're talking the same language." I'd say an advertiser reaching its market is a lot less likely to be looking over Mother Jones's editorial shoulder than a foundation that's decided what tomorrow should look like.

Yes, advertisers are easier for publishers to deal with. What a shame for journalism that so many are wandering away.

But "wishful thinking" is Katz's take on the tempting notion that foundations will step up to replace them. He elaborated a couple months ago on a blog he writes, Maimonides' Ladder. Responding to the collapse of the Chi-Town Daily News Web site, which had been launched with seed money from the Knight Foundation, Katz said journalists "getting into this game" need to understand that "the foundation big boys will not stay with you." He said Knight "has been absolutely explicit about their interests in funding startups: they want to seed the field with lots of experiments, help the pioneers to get started, and see what happens. They'll give you a leg up, but built right into your business plan has to be the assumption that the day will come—sooner than later—when they will say, no more."

And that's OK by him. "Your community is the heart and soul of your long-term fundraising strength—and no foundation will ever be able to take their place," he wrote in his e-mail. "Diversity in sources of fundraising revenue (or any revenue, for that matter) is a very, very good thing. For at least one reason: if you're doing your job, eventually you'll piss off every one of your contributors—and the last thing you need is to lose that One Big Donor."

So never get in bed with One Big Donor. Mother Jones gets about half its income from traditional revenue streams—subscriptions, newsstand sales, and advertisers, mostly the first two. On what Katz calls the "philanthropic side," he says much more money comes in from individual donors than from foundations.

But as I fretted at the beginning of this piece, foundations aren't the only institutions that can entangle a magazine. It seems to me, if not to Katz, that when publications form alliances they run a risk of entangling each other.

Mother Jones wasn't dragged kicking and screaming into the murky world of collaborative media. Four years ago it was a leader in organizing the conference of independent media that established the Media Consortium, a Chicago-based alliance of independent print, electronic, and online outlets whose politics are progressive and whose mission, according to its Web site, is "to amplify independent media's voice, increase our collective clout, leverage our current audience and reach new ones." Tracy Van Slyke, former publisher of In These Times, runs the Media Consortium out of her apartment on Logan Boulevard. Its big accomplishment is "The Big Thaw," a report a year in the making that proposes to guide independent media through "Journalism's Ice Age."

Van Slyke says the immediate impetus for the Media Consortium was the 2004 election, which left progressives feeling "it was imperative to sit down and have a conversation." The right was pouring money into media that got its message out, "creating a great top-down echo chamber system." But funding from the left, what there was of it, came "with a lot more strings attached—'I'll fund this coverage, but not the overall informational structure.'" That has only recently begun to change, she says, as funders recognize that the informational structure itself is on the brink of collapse.

When the consortium was brand-new, Van Slyke says, "it felt like there were a lot of white, older print people in the room. The next couple of years for the consortium I call our dating years, when we were bringing a lot more people to the table. Now we're in our polygamal engagement years—we're not married for life but for now we all want to be together and work with each other in the best way we can." The hazards of collaboration seem trivial when the alternative looks like insignificance and death.

But as Tony Deifell, author of "The Big Thaw," comments on the Media Consortium site, consortium members now debate whether what they've created is too pragmatic to be called "progressive," and whether "inclusivity" and "fairness" and a desire for "politically diverse conversations" should lead them to stop trying "to articulate political stances altogether." And smart as that sounds, it also sounds like recognition that surviving collectively will cost every member a little of its individual identity.

Mother Jones's "Assignment 2020" is blatant polygamy. "Journalists make lousy organizers," concedes the magazine in its latest issue and on its robust Web site. But "if climate change is the most important story of our time, why is it being covered piecemeal? . . . It's journalism's job to bring these elements together, to synthesize disparate data points and let the public and policymakers find the big patterns, bigger pitfalls, and biggest opportunities.

"To that end, we're forging a collaboration with a range of news organizations—magazines, online news sites, nonprofit reporting shops, multimedia operations—because we each have different strengths, but working together we can cover this story better than any of us could on our own."

Journalists by nature may be loners, but winter's hit and there's a barn to raise. Katz wonders if the Reader has ever collaborated on a newsgathering project. It may have, sometime in the last four decades, but nothing comes to mind for any of us here. He wonders how I'd feel if we were asked. Uneasy, I guess, but that's just me.   

Find this column and more media coverage at chicagoreader.com/media.

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