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Attack of the 50-Foot Muckraker

Ellen Cushing | December 4, 2013 | Story Profiles

It’s about seven minutes into Mother Jones’s daily editorial meeting, and online editor Sam Baldwin, barely looking up from the massive spreadsheet of budgeted blog posts laid out on his laptop, is calling for a headline with more oomph. “Is there any way to work the cannibalism into the head?” He and the rest of the magazine’s staff—a dozen of whom are being conferenced in from the organization’s six-year-old Washington, D.C., bureau—are discussing an article about U.S. aid to Syrian rebels, one of whom was filmed eating the heart of an enemy soldier. Despite that lurid detail, it's a pretty wonky story, rife with acronyms and experts and complicated exposition, and the working headline, projected on a pull-down screen for the room to see, is simply too dry.

This is a telling moment for a few reasons. For one, it’s happening not at Buzzfeed, Gawker, the Huffington Post, or any of the myriad online news organizations that have made a mission (and a business model) out of working the proverbial cannibalism into the head. Instead, it’s happening here, at the San Francisco offices of a 38-year-old nonprofit named after an obscure Irish-American labor organizer, an institution long known for award-winning exposés on South American politics and the dangers of the Ford Pinto. TMZ, this is not.

But to hear Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein, the magazine's co-editors since 2006, tell it, conversations like this one are pretty common at Mother Jones these days. In fact, one could see them as an example of the magazine’s strategy, circa 2013: to publish the complex, thorny, nuanced pieces about U.S. foreign policy that all Americans should read, but to dress them up with enough juicy, clickable packaging to ensure that people actually will read. Mother Jones isn’t the only old-media mastodon that’s figured out this formula, but it might be the most unlikely.

Of course, any story about the new Mother Jones has to start with the magazine’s all-time greatest get: the minute-long Republican gaffe-athon now known smply as the 47 percent video. Recorded surreptitiously by a bartender named Scott Prouty and secured by the magazine’s D.C. bureau chief, David Corn, the video of then–presidential nominee Mitt Romney dishing about the perceived sense of entitlement of half the country's voters was a watershed moment in the 2012 election both for Romney's doomed campaign and for the magazine that broke the story.

According to Baldwin, saw about a month’s worth of traffic in the three days after the story broke (a huge accomplishment, made all the more huge by the fact that the video was on YouTube and therefore embeddable anywhere on the web). In total, the site ended 2012 with 100 million page views, up 400 percent from the roughly 25 million it had counted in 2009. What might be more remarkable, however, is what came next: The site's 2013 numbers are on track to beat last year’s traffic records by a “healthy margin,” says Baldwin, and that’s without a national election or a 47 percent–equivalent megascoop to bolster its numbers. The site is also lapping much of its competition: According to data from Quantcast, had 9,494,301 page views in September—more than twice as many as, nearly three times as many as, and more than ten times as many as, the American Prospect’s website.

The benefits have extended to the print magazine as well. According to Madeleine Buckingham, the organization’s CEO, Mother Jones now boasts nearly 40,000 donors and almost 200,000 subscribers. It posted a 30 percent increase in overall revenue over the last five years, the majority driven by web ad sales and online donations. “We’ve seen significant growth across the board, really,” says Buckingham. “And a lot of it is because of the work Monika and Clara do. They felt a real sense of responsibility to get this right.”

“I think it’s fair to say that we came in champing at the bit,” says Bauerlein. “We were living on the Internet, and, you know, the magazine wasn’t. We knew that in order to exist and be relevant, we had to be in people’s bloodstreams.” So they tore down the wall between print and web, which meant rebuilding the magazine’s website from the ground up, reorienting the workflow toward producing content on a 24-hour rather than a bimonthly cycle, and reorganizing the staff so that everyone—from interns, programmers, web producers, and multimedia specialists all the way up to long-standing editors—was producing journalism online. Perhaps most important, they established the D.C. bureau, which has allowed the organization to get ahead of national stories despite being 3,000 miles away from (and three hours behind) the East Coast media complex.

In short, Jeffery and Bauerlein chose to compete for the Politico reader, not just the Utne reader—and their efforts have been repeatedly rewarded. Perhaps the magazine’s biggest scoop since the 47 percent exposé came in April, when it posted a video of Republican senator Mitch McConnell discussing then-opponent Ashley Judd’s history of depression as potential election ammo. The magazine also unearthed important details about the identity of one of the Boston Marathon bombers and has garnered praise (and page views) for its exhaustive coverage of gun issues.

“There’s no longer this distinction between ‘old people read on dead trees and young people read on pixels,’” says Bauerlein. “That was sort of the bet we made: that all of our various audiences want reporting; they want original journalism.” But that doesn’t mean that they want nothing but 8,000-word investigations about gun trafficking or electoral politics. “We can do muckraking,” Bauerlein says, “and we can have cat blogging.”

She isn’t being facetious: Between writing statistics-packed wonk-magnet posts about national politics, the magazine’s political blogger, Kevin Drum, does indeed blog about his cat, Domino. Elsewhere on the site, pull-no-punches political commentaries are paired with deceptively light, Internet-perfect headlines like “Unpacking the Dumbest Things Said by a GOP Congressman About the Debt Ceiling.” On a randomly selected Friday in October, reporter Asawin Suebsaeng followed up a post about worldwide reaction to the U.S. government shutdown with a detailed analysis of whether Martin Sheen or Charlie Sheen would make a better fictional president.

Of course, none of this is another 47 percent video. But the good news for Mother Jones is that it no longer needs one. “What people don’t really understand,” Bauerlein says, “is how much the transformation of the organization gave us the ability to get the story out to a big audience and be trusted. It was a catalyst. More so than people finding Mother Jones for the first time, it sort of crystallized that Mother Jones was a player, and they could trust us, and there was a lot more where that came from.”

“Years ago,” Bauerlein continues, “we had to go into conversations and explain ourselves—say ‘No, no, no, not Mother Earth, not Mother Goose.’” She pauses for a second and then continues, dead-pan. “That’s not happening anymore.”

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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