Citizen Journalism? Um, How About Crowdsourcing Journalism With Actual Journalists?

Dumenco's Media People: A Q&A With Mother Jones Co-editor Clara Jeffery

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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.

Clara Jeffery
Clara Jeffery Credit: Anne Hamersky
Under co-editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, in charge since 2006, Mother Jones has been nominated for several National Magazine Awards, won the NMA for General Excellence last year, and opened an eight-person bureau in Washington, D.C. (The magazine is named after self-described "hell-raiser" Mary Harris Jones, a.k.a. Mother Jones, an iconic trade-union activist and opponent of child labor who died in 1930.)

A recent cover story went past the bottled-water-is-bad meme to look specifically at top-selling imported brand Fiji Water. Mother Jones writer Anna Lenzer -- arrested and detained by local police during her investigation -- ultimately reported how Fiji is produced under a military dictatorship in a diesel-fueled plant, among other dirty little secrets. And earlier this month the magazine exposed the fact that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which notoriously opposes climate-change legislation and has claimed three million members, technically has -- whoops! -- just 300,000 members. Thereafter, the Chamber quietly began citing the smaller number in its communications -- the three million number had been unquestioningly reported as fact by organizations from The New York Times on down -- and Mother Jones crowed on its website, "U.S. Chamber Shrinks Membership 90%."

Mother Jones is now spearheading a potentially revolutionary cooperative reporting venture that will bring together, starting with a kick-off meeting in early December, a half a dozen or more journalistic organizations to examine climate change in depth. For this latest edition of Dumenco's Media People -- an ongoing series of conversations with media grandees -- I had tea with Clara Jeffery during her recent trip to New York (she and Bauerlein and the main Mother Jones editorial staff are based in San Francisco) to discuss the climate-change project, nonprofit journalism and more (including, perhaps inevitably, Twitter).

Dumenco: So I know you've been talking to the gang at The Atlantic about the climate-reporting initiative. Who else might come on board?

Jeffery: It's all coming together very quickly, and scheduling gods must align, cats must be herded, but likely participants at the initial meeting will likely include Slate, Grist, The Atlantic, Wired, Pro Publica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, MoJo of course, and maybe one or two others.

Dumenco: It's admirable that you've decided to, in a way, crowdsource journalism using actual professional journalists. I love that. But as to the nitty-gritty logistics, how will you coordinate coverage -- and avoid overlap and turf wars? Frequent conference calls? Face-to-face meetings?

Jeffery: Rules of engagement are to be hashed out in the big confab we're having around Dec. 1. But in all of the one-off talks we've had, everyone seems agreed that a combination of enlightened self-interest and threat of group shame can prevent turf wars.

It remains to be seen -- and much is dependent on how much money can be raised -- whether there will be all-in group reporting projects, side collaborations amid partners, more of a blog carnival approach, a group feed -- likely any and all of those combinations. But what's interesting is that we all feel that there's upside not only for the journalism itself, but for our individual constituent needs of the audience. I was joking with the editors of The Atlantic that, sure, there are some people who subscribe to us and them, who read Slate and Grist, etc., etc., but they're probably all journalists. We have complementary audiences, but even the biggest players seem to think they can benefit from having their work introduced to the core audiences of the other partners.

And I don't want to underplay how important folks see this as being journalistically. First, on the topic at hand, there was no need to convince anybody how important it is, how media coverage has been fractured and inadequate and not compelling enough. Secondly, everybody is really eager to use this as a way to test-drive collaborations, which everybody sees as a vital part of the emerging media landscape. On that front, we'll likely learn as much from what doesn't work as what does.

Dumenco: Did you consider approaching Fox News? I'm kidding! But seriously, did you consider inviting a broadcast partner?

Jeffery: We're hoping to have at least one at the table. It might not be [traditional] broadcast -- but video is a component I think all of us think is very important to the mix.

Dumenco: What's the timetable here? Are we talking staggered reports by all the participants, or some sort of simultaneous-ish release?

Jeffery: I don't think it'll be a "report." This isn't "green issue" redux. We hope it's bigger, ongoing coverage -- more than we could pull off individually, both in terms of content and amplification.

Dumenco: Amplification -- yeah. You know, to move on to Mother Jones in general, it strikes me that you and your co-editor, Monika Bauerlein, have been pretty good at figuring out how to do attention-getting things journalistically and for the magazine's brand.

Jeffery: I think in part because as a nonprofit you have to sing for your supper, we have that kind of entrepreneurial bent. We always joke that the killer app for public broadcasting is that they can just essentially torture you into submission [with their on-air fundraising]. With print and digital, you can't do that -- you can't say, "We're stopping this magazine, we're stopping website, until you pay." So I think you do have to be sort of ingenious about how to raise money. There's something really energizing about thinking about the business side of things.

Dumenco: Your new D.C. bureau seems like it's been a good investment, too, just in regard to how much buzz your staff there has generated.

Jeffery: We added the D.C. bureau -- eight people -- because we were building up our website and we needed 24/7 capabilities, which you just can't have with freelancers. And for investigative journalism you have to be able to send people down rabbit holes without the guarantee of the story. It's just not cost-effective to do that with freelancers.

Dumenco: You've been putting a lot more resources into your website. Have you had serious conversations in the organization about essentially phasing out of print?

Jeffery: I think everyone is having that conversation. I mean, for us in particular the numbers just don't add up so, because our print readers, our subscribers, many of them become donors.

Dumenco: So the physical product, the print brand, reminds them that they're supporting a nonprofit organization.

Jeffery: Right. You know, I think what every publication needs to do to stay healthy is create a community -- a community that feels they want to support the work that you're doing, whether you're nonprofit or not. I think having the magazine in your house at least now just reminds people of what they're getting.

Dumenco: It's funny to think about branding for a magazine named after Mother Jones. I wonder if she ever thought about branding.

Jeffery: Oh, she was the ultimate brander, really. Like, she dressed up to look way older than she was so that when she was arrested or attacked [while protesting], it would get more attention. She was this real guerilla-theater person, basically. She knew that having what looked like a grandmother essentially being hauled off in chains would elicit more sympathy. Actually, when the founders started the magazine, they initially wanted to name it New Dimensions, but that name was taken so they picked Mother Jones as a sort of icon. We go back and forth about whether -- I mean, it's a unique magazine brand to deal with.

Dumenco: You go back and forth on whether you should change the name?

Jeffery: Well, we've talked about changing it. I think just, bottom line, the amount of money it would take to do that well, if it could be done well, we wonder if that is where we should be spending our resources. I think a lot of people who love the brand would be alienated by the change as well. But if we weren't Mother Jones we wouldn't get stacked, like, in the parenting section [of newsstands] or wherever else.

Dumenco: Remind me where you were before Mother Jones?

Jeffery: I think I'm going into my eighth year at Mother Jones, and before that I was at Harper's for about seven years.

Dumenco: Harper's -- another nonprofit magazine, of course. It's interesting how what used to be perceived as a sort of sleepy, earnest category is now the focus of so much attention because there's all this talk of trying to preserve newspaper journalism in particular by converting papers to nonprofits.

Jeffery: I do wonder if that shouldn't ultimately be what happens to the New York Times and other papers. I don't think advertising revenue is coming back -- not in the way that supports, you know, in the case of the Times, a $200 million newsgathering operation.

I still don't really think that the media has really made that case for how vital its watchdog role is to democracy. Everyone was locked into a competitive model for so long, people didn't praise each other's work openly, people were reticent to talk about how hard it is to get a story or what they went through because they didn't want to be the story.

Dumenco: Yeah, true. Who, among your journalistic peers, do you watch? Who do you think is getting it right?

Jeffery: The New Yorker, as always, is a great magazine. I think The Atlantic is doing some really interesting things and is also creating new products online that are interesting. And then New York Magazine in terms of taking your brand and sort of perfectly executing it online.

Dumenco: Speaking of online, it's interesting to think of Mother Jones, which has always stood for long-form, in-depth journalism, having to adapt to the Twitter and Facebook era, where there's this movement towards increasingly bitty, piecemeal information.

Jeffery: I think it's, in part, about taking some our longer content and figuring out how to repackage it for online purposes. We can offer readers, you know, whole issues devoted to a certain topic, but then we have the guys in D.C. doing rapid-fire 24/7 coverage, and then we're also integrating all the social-media stuff.

I think this is a general issue for the whole medium -- the rise of the sort of "brand you" journalist where everyone feels this need to market themselves all the time. It's a distraction from other things. I mean, there's a limit to how much we can all do -- to figure that out on an individual level, but also on a company level, where the balance of those things are, is a real challenge. When I look at Twitter I can find myself becoming kind of overtaken by it, but then you must shut that window and go back to the 85 other things that need to happen today.

Dumenco: It's kind of exhausting.

Jeffery: It is exhausting. My partner is a web designer so he was an incredibly early adopter -- like, he has a two-letter Twitter handle. At first I was like, "I don't understand. You say thousands of people follow you? Why?" Now I'm the one obsessed with it.

~ ~ ~

This interview was edited and condensed from a much longer transcript, as well as a further conversation conducted by e-mail in which Clara Jeffery provided updated information about the collaborative climate reporting project.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco

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