Mother Jones, the left-leaning magazine that was founded above a McDonald’s restaurant in San Francisco 36 years ago, found itself lavished this week with the kind of attention that is usually reserved for larger news outlets. And that is not a bad thing for a nonprofit publication with a circulation of just more than 200,000 and a business model partly dependent on the largess of its readers.
After Mother Jones released a video of Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, at a fundraiser in May calling 47 percent of the public “dependent” on government and feeling like victims entitled to help, millions of old and new readers tuned in.
Clara Jeffery, a co-editor of Mother Jones, said that in the 12 hours after the story’s publication Monday afternoon, Mother Jones’ website received nearly 2 million page views, double the magazine’s previous 24-hour record. She estimated that the video of Romney had more than 5 million views on YouTube 24 hours after the story appeared and counted more than 348,000 Twitter posts related to “47%” or #47 percent during that same period.
For a budget-conscious nonprofit like Mother Jones, there was another benefit to being in the middle of such a big national story: One enthusiastic reader sought out the magazine’s hard-to-find Washington bureau and dropped off a check.
The Romney scoop was another chapter in Mother Jones’ long history of public affairs journalism. It was “born in a time of upheaval,” according to its founder, Adam Hochschild, with the remnants of the 1960s still lingering and the early impact of the Watergate scandal being felt. It was named after Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, an Irish immigrant and famous union organizer at the turn of the last century, according to the magazine’s website.
The magazine’s streak of investigative successes started in the late 1970s when it exposed the dangers of Ford Pintos and continued with its aggressive campaign-finance coverage. It also angered more than a few politicians with its enterprising investigations. During the 1980s, Mother Jones spent heavily to defend itself from an Internal Revenue Service investigation, which ultimately was dropped.
Through all the political pressures and the challenges facing the magazine industry, Mother Jones thrived. It went on to win six National Magazine Awards and managed its transition to digital journalism. In 2006, it drew attention for publishing a comprehensive timeline of the Iraq War, which Jeffery described as “that moment of reckoning when we as a profession had not really filled our watchdog role that well.”
It prints bimonthly and has a full-time website with original reporting.
Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, said Mother Jones benefited partly because it delivered a story at a time when “there’s a tinderbox quality and a lot of press waiting around” covering the campaigns. He said the video also seemed “to fit into some pre-existing narrative lines about the Romney campaign.”
Lemann added that it helped that “Mother Jones seems to live in a zone where it’s respected. It’s obviously ideological. But it’s respected.”