Mother Jones Gets a Makeover

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


| November/December 1998



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.