A good news site died a few weeks ago, a site founded on the idea that journalists need not kowtow to power or fame. When you go to its web address, you’ll still find articles, but it’s zombie journalism: The entire editorial staff is gone, driven out by owners who picked up the site at a fire sale, then sought to squeeze its credibility and devoted audience for profit.
The site is Deadspin, the sports arm of the Gawker family, but it could have been almost any media property. Over the past 10 years, America has lost countless newsrooms—close to 1,800 newspapers alone, or nearly four a week. Not to mention the growing number of news zombies like Newsweek or the Denver Post—ads wrapped in cheap content and delivered in the hollow shell of a great brand.
In Gawker’s case, the company was bankrupted in a lawsuit financed by PayPal/Facebook/Palantir billionaire and Trump fan Peter Thiel; it was then sold for parts, put through the restructuring meat grinder, and finally landed, like so many media properties on their way to the abattoir, in the hands of a hedge fund.
Deadspin (where, interest declared, my amazing colleague Tommy Craggs was once editor-in-chief), was a lot of what journalism should be: a thorn in the side of the smug, self-righteous, and overly comfortable. The story of its demise is the story of a news industry bleeding from a thousand cuts—litigation, the collapse of advertising revenue, platform changes, political point-scoring, and rapacious and/or incompetent owners.
At Mother Jones, we’ve encountered a lot of the same challenges Deadspin and so many other organizations have. We fought a massive lawsuit from a conservative billionaire. We’re regularly attacked by everyone from members of Congress to Twitter trolls. We lost advertising revenue with the flick of a switch at Facebook.
But here’s the difference: Our owners have a deep commitment to journalistic independence and fearlessness. They are smart, funny, and exceptionally good-looking. They are…you.
This is the single biggest factor that allows Mother Jones to fearlessly go after stories that others may soft-pedal or avoid entirely. And it’s what I think about every day as we plan for the year ahead—because it’s a bit daunting figuring out how we’re going to do what we have to do at this moment when everything is on the line.
In 2020, Mother Jones needs to go after corruption in all its forms. We need to combat disinformation, chronicle the struggle over voting rights, and keep our eyes on the other big issues even as impeachment and the campaign (and the president’s Twitter feed) go into overdrive. We need to get solid, fact-checked information in front of a wide audience at a time when the tech platforms make this harder to do (even as they keep the door open for lies and propaganda). We need to do so much more than I can list here (like continuing to cover climate change as the existential threat that it is).
To be upfront about it: December is our most important fundraising month, and we need to raise $600,000. And I hear some of you grumbling: Why are they always fundraising? Fair question. It’s because every week and every month America loses more journalists (7,200 this year alone), even as every week and month bring more abuses of power to be investigated. And because with a crucial election 11 months away, we owe it to you to put absolutely everything we possibly can into the fight for our democracy.
But whether or not you can pitch in, I hope you’ll keep reading because the bigger question we’re dealing with is about who controls our nation’s politics—and our press.
“Billionaires are the business model”
Reader support has always been the spine that kept Mother Jones strong: Back in the 1970s, against a backdrop of war, environmental crisis, and impeachment (the more things change!), our founders realized there was something missing from big media, and it was in part because key sources of revenue for long-form journalism—car and tobacco ads—were not going to pay for investigating, well, car and tobacco companies. So they launched a crowdfunding campaign, and a reader-supported nonprofit was born.
Today, more than 250,000 people support Mother Jones with a subscription, donation, or both. Some of you give $5 a year. Some can afford more. But you all have this in common: You believe that the free press, and the democracy on which it depends, is too important to be left to billionaires.
I want to zero in on that last part a bit, because it’s become a pretty standard joke in our trade that “the only business model left is billionaires.” But it’s gallows humor: We are in fact dangerously close to system where a small number of people control so much wealth that many of our public goods—the symphony, the schools, the press, the presidency—depend on their largesse. And you know what that’s called: an oligarchy.
When Fortune debuted its 400 list back in 1987, it identified 44 billionaires in the United States. Today there are between 600 and 700, more than anywhere else in the world; China, the runner-up, has around 300. America’s billionaires control nearly $3 trillion in wealth, or about 30 percent more than the entire bottom 50 percent. And they have an utterly outsized influence in our politics—to the point where, right now, they make up almost 15 percent of the Democratic presidential field.
There is no scenario in which Michael Bloomberg or Tom Steyer wins the nomination (if they do, I’ll eat a printout of this column), yet they had spent nearly $120 million on advertising between them by the end of November. (For the record, that’s enough to fund MoJo‘s newsroom well into 2032.) Steyer has spent about $15 for every dollar donated to his campaign.
That’s absurd, but only slightly more so than our system already was, when a sitting senator might spend two-thirds of his time raising money (in large part from billionaires). The stratospheric tippy-top of wealth is no longer just disproportionately influential; it’s distorting political gravity and making the planets align around it.
And the same is true in journalism.
Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos, and Fox’s Rupert Murdoch are some of the biggest-name billionaires (and near-billionaires) in media, but there are many more. Sheldon Adelson, who bought up the Las Vegas Review-Journal back in 2015; the Newhouse family, which owns Condé Nast, aka Wired, Vogue, the New Yorker, etc.; Laurene Powell Jobs (the Atlantic); Jay Penske (Rolling Stone). Some dedicate generous portions of their philanthropy to news—Pierre Omidyar (the Intercept); the Sandler family (ProPublica), Powell Jobs again (who supports, among many others, Mother Jones). Some believe that they can make news organizations financially viable where everyone else has failed; the wisest among these, like Philadelphia’s Gerry Lenfest and Salt Lake City’s Huntsman family, have bought newspapers and taken them nonprofit.
Then there are the billionaires who reshape the media landscape via litigation (Thiel, who killed Gawker, and Frank VanderSloot, who went after Mother Jones). And those who control the platforms that control a lot of the news you see—Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey; the list goes on.
This is not about which of these men and women are truly committed to a free and independent press (many are). It’s about whether we can afford to let that press increasingly depend on the goodwill of the superrich—some will inevitably use that power to advance their own agendas. Donald Trump may not be a billionaire (he’s lied about his money so much it’s hard to tell), but he’s shown us what the toxic trifecta of wealth, corruption, and disinformation looks like.
That’s why, in 2020, the stakes are so high. We are headed into a historic showdown over which model will prevail: politics and media as a billionaire’s game—or a playing field where the rest of us have a say.
And the good news is, the people-powered model has been gaining strength. After years of expanding influence for big spenders, the last couple of years have seen a resurgence of the political grassroots. Small donations powered many of the campaigns that changed the face of Congress last year, and they are behind the leading primary contenders: Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s campaigns have raised more than 50 percent from small donors, and Pete Buttigieg is close. (So, interestingly, is Donald Trump.)
To counter an oligarchy of the press, we need the same kind of grassroots strength in journalism. We need to build a media ecosystem where audiences call the shots, so that we can go after the most important stories without fear, favor, or false equivalency. Because as Deadspin and so many others (including the news magazine Pacific Standard, whose founder and main donor abruptly shut it down last summer) found out, there’s no hedge against a deep-pocketed owner’s whim.
Just enough so we can say no when we need to
Which takes us back to Mother Jones’ ownership: Over the last few years, we’ve been working hard with our owners—you—so we can rise to the challenge at a time of crisis for democracy. The Mother Jones community came through for our big five-year campaign to build an infrastructure of unrelenting journalism: a newsroom that’s grown by a third and that can go after issues like corruption in the administration from multiple angles and reach audiences in many places—on the coasts and in the heartland, in print and on Instagram.
But as they say about the dog and the car, what matters is what you do with the thing once you’ve caught it: Now that Mother Jones is stronger and more impactful, we’ve got to keep going hard into a high-stakes year. That’s why we have that $600,000 goal this month, and we can’t afford to come up short. Please help us get there today.
I have a soft spot for old movies, and a favorite is To Have And Have Not, for the incredible performance a 19-year-old Lauren Bacall turns in. There’s a goosebumps-inducing scene where she calmly offers Humphrey Bogart her last bit of cash—only a few bills, but “just enough to be able to say no when I feel like it.”
At Mother Jones, we can say no to anyone who might try to hijack or throttle our coverage. We don’t have to worry about the soft censorship of avoiding offense, and we don’t have a conflict of interest that prevents us from investigating a billionaire owner. Because for any one person who might hold us back from a story, there are 249,999 who will stick with us all the way.
That doesn’t mean we’re invulnerable, or even comfortable: As I’ve learned since taking on my current job, it’s really tough to pay nearly 100 salaries by earning the support of 250,000 people, one at a time. But it’s worth it.
And it’s going to be worth it more than ever before this coming year, because we can give everything we’ve got to the stories that others are missing. We can go after corruption in all its forms, from exploiting public resources for private gain to manipulating our elections and information sources. We can keep the spotlight on the Trump administration as it rolls back protections for people and the climate. We can call a lie a lie, and we don’t have to chase after horserace theatrics for the clicks. We can write honestly about the way journalism works, and unashamedly ask you to support it.
If we were owned by a billionaire, raising that $600,000 would not be a problem: It’s 0.001 percent of Bloomberg’s fortune, about the same as 75 cents for the rest of us. But because Mother Jones is Mother Jones, it can only come from you. If 600,000 people—about as many as read an article on MotherJones.com in three days—gave a dollar each, we’d be done.
It’s not that easy, of course: Most of the people who come to our site won’t donate or subscribe. And we won’t force them to, because our mission is to get investigative reporting out as widely as possible. The information that helps you participate in democracy should not be limited to those who can afford it. That’s why, for 43 years now, readers who can help have pitched in enough to cover those who cannot.
That’s why we ask for your support. Maybe it’s annoying sometimes, but I hope I’ve explained why we do it—because it’s either people-powered journalism, or the billionaire/hedge-fund model. And I know where you stand.
Just before the holidays I said goodbye to a man I’ve often thought of as one of Mother Jones’ many owners. Bob Rose was a retired teacher in Minneapolis. I met him there when he was the feisty president of the teachers union, a transformational presence in the lives of thousands of kids at Roosevelt High. I sat in on one of his classes as the teens, most of them African American and Native American, lit up with a debate on the tactics of civil-rights movements. When I moved to California to work at Mother Jones, I learned that Bob was a subscriber and donor, and when I’ve had tough decisions to make here, I’ve often thought of how he would want his money used.
A couple of years ago, when we visited for the holidays, Bob gave each of my kids a small stone turtle from a collection he’d amassed over the years. It came with a card he’d printed up: “Behold the turtle. It only makes progress when it sticks its neck out.” It sits on my desk and reminds me, every day, of who and what I’m working for. Thank you.
Top image credits: Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/Zuma; Monica Schipper/Getty; Javier Rojas/PI/Zuma