Mother Jones Gets a Makeover

What's happening at this mainstay magazine of the American left -- and where it's headed next

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Mother Jones, the San Francisco–based muckraking bimonthly magazine named for a turn-of-the-century radical agitator, has never taken the easy path to publishing success. It was founded with a goal of widening the audience for new thinking from the political left at a time when American liberalism had begun its long, slow slide into electoral marginality. And it has stuck to a mission of hard-hitting investigative scrutiny of people with power during an era when fawning celebrity features and hyperindividualized news-you-can-use has come to dominate the magazine racks.

Yet, against considerable odds, Mother Jones has succeeded. This success has not been in the financial sense, since its deficits over the past 22 years have been erased only through the generosity of loyal readers, philanthropic foundations, and members of its board, especially co-founder Adam Hochschild, heir to the Amex Mining Corporation fortune. But it has succeeded in making a mark on American life, from the famous 1977 exposé on how Ford Motors ignored the fact that Pinto cars were prone to explosion during rear-end collisions, to a 1984 profile that first raised disturbing questions about Newt Gingrich's character, to the current issue's listing of America's 400 biggest campaign contributors and what kind of return they get for their money. The magazine has won three National Magazine Awards and widespread acclaim for its investigative reporting and engaging photojournalism. And it was one of the very first general-interest magazines to make its presence known on the World Wide Web, with the much-lauded Mojo Wire.

Yet at the same time, Mother Jones’ history has also been strewn with highly publicized mishaps, beginning with a boycott called by prominent feminist leaders in the 1970s. During a moribund era in the '80s, the magazine seemed to be at a loss about how to deal with the Reagan revolution. A messy legal settlement with fired editor Michael Moore (who went on to tell his side of the story in the hit movie Roger and Me) followed. Now editor-in-chief Jeffrey Klein has resigned.

The August announcement of Klein's departure came at a particularly ill-timed moment, just as the magazine was unveiling a splashy new redesign and embarking on an ambitious $150,000 marketing campaign to boost its circulation (now 140,000) by 40 percent. Many of these new subscribers, it is hoped, will be drawn from the ranks of younger people.

The typical Mother Jones reader, according to its most recent subscriber study, is now less likely to be a fiery young activist than a graying middle-class professional. She or he (there's a neat 50/50 split between men and women readers ) is 49 years old, well-educated (41 percent have a graduate degree), financially comfortable ($72,600 average household income), owns a home (74 percent), recycles (90 percent), eats natural foods (83 percent), and purchases about as much classical music as rock 'n' roll. In other words, the core readers are members of the '60s and '70s generation who have settled into a quieter middle-class life but not shed their basic political values. These are the readers Mother Jones sought when it was launched in 1976 (although there may be far fewer of them today than the founders would have hoped)—people who, while they aren't hard-core activists, carry a measure of progressive thinking into the diverse institutions and communities to which they belong.

But the magazine realizes that to continue making a mark on American life it needs to reach out to a younger generation that is beginning to exert its own influence on the culture. While they're not explicitly political in a '60s let's-stage-a-protest sort of way, many people under 35 are deeply concerned about the environment, human rights, and basic questions of fairness. And, like Mother Jones, they're skeptical of those in authority. It's clear that this new generation of readers offers potential as an emerging political force, but pulling them into the magazine without alienating Mother Jones’ loyal baby boomer readership will be no small task.

The initial signs are encouraging. The bold redesign—masterminded by new creative director Rhonda Rubinstein, former art director of Smart and Esquire and most recently a design consultant to Wired—is meant to appeal to Gen X visual tastes without alienating the sensibilities of older subscribers. Increased coverage of technology and media along with new columns on marketing and finance seem to be aimed at reaching savvy 25- to 35-year-old readers, and with Doug Henwood—the sharp and decidedly-not-soft-on-corporate-crime editor of Left Business Observer—penning the finance column, no one is going to confuse Mother Jones with the featherweight social commentary of youngish magazines like George and Swing.

Yet questions remain about how a magazine whose political values were forged in the anti-war movement of the late '60s, and whose journalistic spirit arose out of the Watergate era, can connect with readers who came of age in Ronald Reagan's and Bill Clinton's America. The debate over how best to answer these questions played some part in Klein's surprise decision to leave Mother Jones.

Klein, 50, one of the founding editors of the magazine, left Mother Jones in 1981 after being passed over for the editorship and spent a number of years editing West, the well-regarded Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News. Coming back to Mother Jones in 1992, he promised to return the magazine to its feisty tradition of investigative reporting. Everyone agrees that he and his staff succeeded, with hard-hitting stories about Newt Gingrich's ethics violations (which helped lead to censure by the House of Representatives) and the tobacco lobby's offensive against anti-smoking measures (which helped spark the media's current storm of scrutiny of tobacco companies) and the direct links between the largest campaign contributors and government policies (which has become an annual feature known as the Mother Jones 400).

Yet the political direction in which Klein has steered the magazine dismayed certain readers, including some members of the board of the Foundation for National Progress, the nonprofit organization that oversees and helps fund the magazine. Last year the 23-member board raised approximately 30 percent of the magazine's $5 million budget, much of it from their own pockets. Adam Hochschild, a co-founder and former editor who now devotes his energy to writing books, is gradually phasing out his once hefty contributions. But other board members—including Anita Roddick (co-founder of the Body Shop), Rob Glaser (a “Microsoft millionaire” who went on to found the successful RealAudio and RealVideo companies) and board chair Rob McKay (a foundation official and venture capital investor whose family once owned Taco Bell)—are able to make up the difference.

Two special issues of the magazine in late 1997 on race and spirituality drew the most criticism. The race issue, for which Klein was only partly responsible since he had just returned from a sabbatical after the death of his wife, awkwardly featured four white writers discussing the changing dimension of racial politics in America. Klein further irked some progressives with an editorial questioning the value of affirmative action, even though it was a fresh and thoughtful essay that acknowledged the thorny complexity of the subject. As for the spirituality issue, some wondered why a political magazine was devoting more than 30 of its pages to religion. It might have been better to ask why the magazine, which pays its writers comparatively well for an alternative publication, couldn't find a few more illuminating articles on this vital topic. The section seemed to have had no real point beyond proving that spirituality is not an out-of-bounds topic for a left-wing magazine. That said, however, Mother Jones publisher Jay Harris points out that it was one of the best-selling issues of recent years.

Klein has always been fond of challenging progressive activists to rethink their principles and policies. As early as 1981, alternative press chronicler David Armstrong, in his book Trumpet to Arms: Alternative Media in America, noted Klein's “self-critical looks at the left.” This approach has produced some lively, first-rate journalism during Klein's tenure, especially in Michael Lind's provocative contributions making the case for a broader populist brand of progressivism that could appeal to the great middle of the American public. Yet the magazine occasionally seemed to fall into being contrary for contrary's sake, most notably in Klein's editorial last March urging progressives, labor, and environmentalists to give up their opposition to free trade deals and optimistically embrace the potential of a globalized economy. Does it really make sense for progressives to support measures that essentially take economic decision-making from elected officials and hand it to powerful corporate chiefs in the cheery hope that such a change will benefit the average American—not to mention average people throughout the rest of the world?

While Klein's resignation has been painted by some observers as a PC putsch, a case of an editor being purged for not toeing the proper progressive party line, the truth of the matter is not nearly that simple. It appears that Klein and some members of the board, which in a nonprofit organization like Mother Jones functions as the editor's boss, did have differences about the magazine's editorial direction, including the best way to attract younger readers. But at Mother Jones, like so many other organizations committed to alternative causes, it appears that not only is the personal political, but the political can become very personal. Nearly all the people I contacted for this story went off the record at some point during the interview, and most of them suggested that the problem could be traced to a heated board meeting in June when the magazine's editorial direction was under discussion. “This is my reading of what happened,” notes Armstrong, now media critic for the San Francisco Examiner, who has closely followed the Mother Jones story. “He [Klein] lost patience with them [the board] and they lost patience with him. Things were said that could not be taken back.”

The participants themselves are somewhat more diplomatic. As Hochschild notes, “Disagreements at Mother Jones are nothing new. If we had a dollar for every disagreement at a board meeting—there would be no deficit.” And Klein adds, “Disputes at a magazine like Mother Jones are expected and sometimes healthy. They range from the ideological to the petty; the truth is always in between and parts of both.”

Everyone involved now seems intent on maintaining an air of polite calm. Klein, for his part, is continuing in the editor's chair until his contract expires in February, and no one I interviewed expressed anything less than praise for the overall job he has done in six years at the helm. And six years, as Klein and others noted, seems about right for a changing of the guard. The search for a new editor has begun while plans to boost circulation and welcome younger readers into the pages move forward. Like its namesake, a rabble-rouser who led miners' strikes when she was in her 80s and lived to be almost 100, Mother Jones is a scrappy survivor.