This week on Recode Media, Peter Kafka spoke with Clara Jeffery about how her publication, Mother Jones, is weathering the current media climate. As editor in chief, Jeffery has steered the nonprofit print and online publication to write long-form investigative pieces as well as experiment with video.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: Today’s show is sponsored by Mack Weldon. They make the most comfortable hoodies, sweatpants, underwear, and socks you’ll ever wear. I’m wearing them right now. Clara, do I look comfortable?
Clara Jeffery: You certainly do.
I don’t even know what color my socks are today. They are a ...
Nice little pattern.
Slightly jazzy, pink and some gray, ’cause I’m comfortable with myself. I feel great, because they’re really comfortable socks. I smell great. I’m not gonna ask you to smell them, but they are made of antimicrobial something something, which eliminates odor. They’re easy to buy. Go to MackWeldon.com, you get 20 percent off your order with the promo code Recode. That’s MackWeldon.com, promo code Recode. Clara is looking at me skeptically, but it does work. Even better, you don’t like these socks, you hang onto them. Mack Weldon will send you your money back. Go to MackWeldon.com, get 20 percent off the order with the promo code Recode. Thank you, Mack Weldon.
Hello Clara Jeffery.
Have you ever done a sock ad before?
I have not. Is Mack Weldon a person? Is it like the name of a person who got into socks?
I don’t know the origin story of Mack Weldon.
No. I don’t think anyone who works at Mack Weldon is named Mack Weldon. I think it’s one of those names that’s supposed to evoke a certain sockishness.
Vaguely Scottish sockishness.
But enough about Mack Weldon, who are fine sponsors. We love them. We’ll talk about you, Clara Jeffery. You are editor in chief of Mother Jones.
I’ve wanted you on this podcast for a long time, so much I had to fly out here and talk to you, so thanks for doing it.
I’m not sure that’s true, but ...
It is totally true. You can go back and look in your DMs, emails, we’re saying, “Hey, let’s do it. Let’s do it.”
Yes. It’s been a long time coming.
Now we’re doing it. Many people who listen to this podcast will know what Mother Jones is, but for those who don’t, want to give us the two-cent summary?
Sure. I mean, it’s a nonprofit news organization that was a magazine for a long time, was the first actual general interest magazine to be on the web, way back.
The publication itself dates back to ...
Yes. We’re not as old as the Atlantic. Yeah, and so we specialize in investigative journalism, and politics, and you know, many other things.
So there’s a print magazine.
I can pay to get that.
There’s a website.
And you guys are a left-leaning / progressive nonprofit.
I would say that we are primarily an investigative journalism shop, but we are informed by progressive values, as many muckrakers are.
I want to talk about the business model, and many other things. But let’s talk about business first. You guys take advertising, right?
If I click on that, it’s a ...
Print and digital. Yep.
But you’re mainly supported through subscriptions and memberships. Are they different things?
Donors of various kinds, so subscriptions, people who make essentially a digital membership bid, or give us money one time. And those all range from people who give us a little bit of money to a few nice people who give us quite a bit of money.
So a subscription gets me a print magazine.
But I can read the website for free. There’s no paywall there.
You can. Yeah.
As you probably notice,be’cause you pay attention to this stuff, right now everyone’s very interested in charging people for access to content. Have you guys thought about putting a paywall in front of the website?
We haven’t, because I think it’s important to our mission to get the work that we do there out to the widest possible audience. And frankly, we found that people are happy to give us money, because we tell them that they should, and it’s important to support journalism, and they do.
So it’s subscription as sort of a vote, right, in favor of the work that you’re doing, more than it is access.
Yeah. I think some people grew up with a print magazine, and they just think about us that way, and they like to get physical magazines, as I still do as well. And so that’s sort of the primary vehicle by which they give us money. But even those folks often give us money on top of their subscription.
And Donald Trump has meant many things to the media.
He has. Yes.
For a lot of publications, there’s been a Trump bump, a big spike in subscriptions. Are you guys seeing that, subscriptions, donations going up since the election?
We’ve had a big bump in subscriptions, donations of various kinds, including we’ve really made a plea to people to think about supporting journalism on an ongoing basis, and not just a one-time gift. So we’ve made a lot of sustaining donors online.
Yeah. How does that work? I was thinking about this relationship at the Times, and other folks who’ve seen their subscriptions go up in response to Trump, and how they’re going to sort of try to retain their subscribers six months, nine months from now.
Exactly. I mean, it’s one reason why we ask people to think of a model that’s an ongoing donation. Magazine subscription is one way, but like I said, people like to give more than just that. And also because it just helps any institution regulate its cash flow, right?
So how does a sustaining membership work? Do I give you ... Like I commit to paying you for five years?
Basically. It’s like five bucks, ten bucks, fifteen bucks every month off your credit card.
When you’re looking around — and you’re a frequent commenter on Twitter — as one does on Twitter.
And you look at sort of the travails and pivots people are going through as they’re trying to find sustainable business models. Do you guys think you have one?
I do think we have one, and I think that ours is one of the few that’s gonna last long-term, for most institutions. I think the digital ad market is plummeting for everybody, and it’s just not a great hook to hang your hat on.
The fact that you’re giving away the stuff for free on the web bothers you less, because you’re not making much ad money from it to begin with.
That’s ... Well, we make a decent amount of digital ad revenue, so I’d certainly ...
You’d like to have it.
I’d like to have it. Yes. I would not like to lose it. But I think that we’re trying to kind of build a ship for the long term. And the CPM, as they call it, the cost per thousand, the unit cost, is going down. It’s going down for everybody. It’s going down in every category. So this is why publications do a lot of the things that people don’t like, constant clickbait stuff, and other tricks of the trade, because they just need more page views. But it’s not necessarily like an in-depth considered reader, necessarily.
Got it. Do you think that the mix that works for you is it the fact that you’re sort of mission driven, so you’ve got a readership / base that wants to support you regardless of what’s happening week to week? Is there something about the fact that it’s nonprofit that makes it more sustainable, or is it a combination of all the above?
I think all of those things helped, and that this has basically been our business model for the long haul.
You have not pivoted into this.
Right. We have not pivoted so much into various projects. But I also think the other thing — and you’re seeing it with the Times, the Post, whatever — people just want to support journalism now. And so our pitch to people is, if we’re one of the places that you think does valuable work, that you should do it, and you should do it on an ongoing basis, and also subscribe or give to these other things as you see fit.
So we think ... I think the media did not need to make a case for itself financially, because it was so subsidized by advertising, for most of the last century, and that is going away. And other business models need to be explored. It’s why some places are getting so into events.
Do you worry about what happens? I mean, not everyone can subscribe to everything. Do you worry about what readers do if they don’t have unlimited funds, if they can’t support you, and the Journal, and the Times, and the Post, and five other publications? Since ads are going away and revenue is declining, what happens to those readers? How are they served?
Well, right. I think two things that ... We have to broaden the base of people that will support us, which is both just broadening the audience per se, but also just making that connection of loyalty to a broader base of people who already read us. But I do think there’s an overall crisis, and I think we see it every day. There’s layoffs every day. There are things shuttering all the time. There’s a culling going on, and frankly, the only way that’s gonna stop — at least in the short-term for a lot of places — is for people to step up and support what they think is valuable. Now, people pay 80, 120 bucks a month for their cable TV bill. That is important and entertaining, to be sure. But if you think that watchdog journalism is important, then you support things like us, and great papers, and whatever else.
Curious, do you guys have any kind of relationship with Facebook, or using Facebook to acquire subscribers? Are you just spending a lot of time thinking about how to distribute stuff there, or is that not relevant to you guys?
No, we do spend a lot of time thinking about a strategy for Facebook, because as is true for us, for everybody, that it’s well over 50 percent of our traffic comes in via Facebook one way or the other. And they’ve started to let you make, in various ways, make pitches to readers about financial support. So I think that’s encouraging. It’s frankly been a long time coming. I mean, in a way, Facebook rests on top of all of the work product of not only journalists, but everybody just sharing whatever.
But for the journalism part, if we’re to believe what they always say, that they think it’s really important, then they’ve got to at least help us figure out a way to support ourselves in this new environment.
Do you ever think about the politics and possibility of a Facebook tax, where Facebook distributes on the revenue they get?
I hadn’t, but it’s intriguing.
All right. We’ll do that in podcast No. 2. Let’s keep talking about the actual work you do, besides the business. You guys made a big splash, was it last year? The prison piece?
35,000 words. Shane Bauer spent four months working as a guard.
Undercover, in a private corrections facility run by what was then called CCA. And yeah, it was a big piece that we spent ... He was inside for four months. We spent another almost a year fact-checking and researching, working it out.
Have you ever taken a project on with that kind of scope, that’s that long?
No. I think it’s safe to say it’s the biggest project we’ve done in any way you want to measure bigness.
Why’d you decide you wanted to spend that much energy, time, money on that story?
Well, it’s something we’ve covered over the years, and we think was really important. And Shane, who had been reporting on corrections for a while really wanted to do this. And frankly, we weren’t sure if he would be able to be hired, giving his real name, and the name of our parent company, and all of that, so ... But he was.
So he put that all on the work history, right?
They’re not scrutinizing it that closely.
No. Not. Because they’re desperate to get people in, because they pay $9 an hour for a really scary, horrible job. And they just rip through people, so they’re constantly searching for people to hire. And the prisons are often in pretty poor areas, rural areas, and there’s not a lot of jobs, as we know, left around there. So they get a lot of desperate people taking these jobs.
So you came out with that story, made a huge splash, wins you the National Magazine Award. That’s the Oscars / Emmys for magazines.
Actually, just got nominated for an Emmy for the video-related stuff you did for that. Want to ask for that video as well. It’s 35,000 words, so when it came out, I remember a lot of people saying, “This is great. You must read it.” And also, I haven’t read it yet.
Well, I mean, it is 35 ... You got a vacation coming up, Peter? It’s some light beach reading.
Do you have a sense of what percentage of your readers got through it versus looked at the first page, first couple hundred words?
I wouldn’t say I have mathematical precision on that. More than two million people have read it in some form or fashion. How many people got to the end, got to the end in one sitting, I don’t really know.
Did you think it would take off like that, that it would have that kind of reach?
We knew what we had once we had it. I think, with that story, with the 47 percent story, some of the other really epic stories for us.
That’s the Mitt Romney tape.
The Mitt Romney tape, right. We knew what we had. We knew it would be big. Did we know it would be that big? No.
Yeah. I’m glossing over it. You guys actually had the tape of Mitt Romney saying ...
Right. We had that.
How did he describe the 47 percent? This is a whole election cycle ago. It’s gonna be hard to remember.
Yeah, it’s hard to remember. But basically he said ...
Disparaging half the country.
Yeah. He was saying they were kind of layabouts.
And you guys had the audio and that went viral as well.
That makes more sense. That’s a thing. It’s a clip. You can share it. You can summarize it really easily, and pass it around, and it takes all of a few seconds to actually consume it, as opposed to a 35,000-word piece.
Well, I think the thing about a 35,000-word piece is it was watching somebody go to work in such an environment.
It’s a movie.
Yeah. And it is likely to be a movie. But it is gripping. There’s drama. There’s scary parts. So it doesn’t — it’s not a 35,000-word policy paper, I will say.
So there’s an ongoing discussion about what people will read online, what they’ll pay for online, if they’ll read short stories, if they’ll read long stories. Does publishing a 35,000-word story and then having it read by two million people, does that prove something to you? Or is that sort of a one-off because it’s such an amazing story, and you can’t really draw a conclusion from that.
No, I mean, I feel like people will read long, and heavy, and gripping stuff. So long as it’s good, they will do it. And I think the readability on mobile has gotten better, all of our phones are faster. It’s not, we don’t paginate, all that stuff. We make it easy for people to read it. And we had a lot of video work in there that was part of what just got us nominated for the Emmy, and those videos were amazing. It was pretty easy to get hooked on it.
Good job. Good for you guys. And you did do video for it.
And that was planned from the get-go, that you would create an accompanying video.
We thought there could be some video. Yep.
Generally, people have yet to sort of figure out video on the internet, and when they do, it’s sort of a stand-alone thing. The idea of creating a video that would accompany a piece is something I think a lot of magazine people did at the beginning of the internet, or at least 10 years ago. And everyone sort of discovered, eh, there’s not really an audience for that.
And maybe we’ll show you behind the scenes of a Shaquille O’Neal cover shoot, but that’s not super gripping stuff.
What did you commit to making the video for this, for that project?
It was basically one producer editing the interviews, and some of the footage from the prison.
That Shane took himself, right?
Yeah. So it was ...
So easier to pull off in some way, as long as you have someone who can drop themselves in a prison.
Yeah, but also it was interesting. We did definitely think this is a matter of how to construct it. And I’m not sure that we completely nailed it. But we thought, okay, is it better to make one thing that’s a half hour, or should we make five or six things that are each about five or six minutes long, which is still kind of long for online video. But we figured the way most people would be ingesting these is either that we would put it online and it would sort of lead people to the story, or they’d be going through the story and they’re just like, “Okay, I’m gonna take a break and watch this now.” And it seemed to work.
What percent of people who were reading the story also consume the video?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have a perfect answer for that.
What’s your gut?
I would say, I don’t know, actually.
Do you think it’s half?
No, I don’t think it’s half. I think maybe 10 percent. But I don’t know, I’d have to think about more than I can do on my feet here, if that would include just on the page versus other places ...
All right. But it’s a minority of people watched the video, but that’s still successful for you, to get two million folks reading the story.
Well, it’s also, for a piece like this, it’s also verisimilitude, right? It’s like, this happened. Here you go. This is what it looks like. Shane’s a great writer, and was describing it very well, but some things you just want to see with your own eyes.
Got it. Okay, so you’re not gonna see this ad, but you will hear it. We’re gonna hear from one of our fine sponsors just now, and we’ll be right back with Clara Jeffery.
We’re back here with Clara Jeffery. You may hear noise during this podcast, because there’s noise here in San Francisco. There’s construction, and maybe a drone. Sandwiches flying around here. But we’ll make it sound good.
Clara, you’re editor in chief of Mother Jones. Prior to this, you were running Mother Jones with Monika Bauerlein.
Mm-hmm. Yep. Running the editorial side. Right.
So that’s a promotion for you?
How did you get to Mother Jones?
I was at Harper’s Magazine for about seven years.
That was my dream job for a while.
Good to know.
How’d you get to Harper’s?
I had been an intern at Harper’s, and then I went to Washington to work at Washington City Paper with David Carr, who you know, and Jack Shaffer before him. And then I was called back to New York, basically. They offered me a job.
That’s a pretty good arc. You went to Carlton College. How do you get from Carlton College to Harper’s to City Paper?
The first thing I wrote out of college was a investigative weekly article about sexual assault on Carlton’s campus, and that story, along with others, kind of got a lot of national prominence at the time, so I was kind of hooked on the journalism thing. That said, my dad’s a journalist, so it was ...
So you had an idea of what that career might look like.
Sort of percolating in the background there. Yeah.
And you graduated at a time when magazines were still a thing. Harper’s Magazine was still a thing. There was a career in journalism. Is this what you thought you would be doing for the rest of your life?
Do you ever know what you’re gonna be doing the rest of your life when you’re 21? No. I had no idea.
No, but I kinda hoped it would be something like this. I didn’t imagine internet. I never thought that part through.
Right. Right. So you know, my dad was an editor at National Geographic, so I grew up in that environment, which was, as you would imagine, both lots of exciting things going on, and also just this very big institution, particularly at the time. My dad went to Antarctica on assignment. I have a picture of him and a penguin.
He had all the cool stuff that you get to do when you edit National Geographic.
Yeah. He was mostly an editor, but once in a while he would deploy into the field.
And how is this job different than you imagined it would’ve been 10 years ago, 20 years ago, as you were working your way up?
Well, I think that one thing that’s changed, and it’s changed for almost everybody — and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad change, and people dragged their feet for too long — but I think that people who are editors, particularly if you’re the editor in chief, but even if you’re just in pretty senior editorial management, you just need to think about the business side, whatever model that is.
You can’t proudly say, “That’s the ad side. That’s the business side. That’s not my problem.”
Right. And you have to kind of look at those. I mean, it’s not ... It used to be you’d be worried about ad adjacencies next to an article, and that ...
Right, whether you were gonna have an ad from a private ... Well, you wouldn’t have an ad from a private prison next to your private prison expose, but ...
Right. That kind of a thing.
One on the airlines, and a Delta ad appeared.
And that was sort of the extent that editors mostly ... The rest was ...
A lot of us sort of reveled in the fact that that was someone else’s problem, and they had no connection to that world.
And it implies a lot of independence, and I think that’s all good, but it also, I think, led to publications not understanding the way technology and reader habits were moving, and being too slow to adapt. And I think frankly, too slow to demand of the business side that these ... What is the trim line for these ads? ’Cause I hear things, but you know. I think if editors had realized where the business was going, sooner than they did, there might’ve been changes.
Do you feel like you were able to peek around the corner a bit on what this business might look like, because you have sort of an untraditional structure around the business?
Yeah. I think that that’s true. I think being a nonprofit, we have — how many legs are the stool now? — but that we were both digital and print allowed us some perspective. But also being a nonprofit, and always being willing, certainly, and increasingly insistent, that people give us money on top of their print subscription cost, if that’s what they want.
You were always clear that this was gonna be something that was supported by your readers.
Not just with their attention, but with their money.
Yes. And I think we always made that case, but I think in the last year or two, we’ve made that a more explicit case in several ways, so we just did a better job of sort of messaging on the site. But we’ve also, Monika and I have also written a lot of articles kind of explaining the business model of Mother Jones, but also in general. After Shane’s story came out, we talked about that this cost us, we spitballed it at $350,000 to produce that.
For a single story.
And by the way, two million views is a lot, but there are people who frequently generate that many views, especially if you count Facebook, right, all the time with stuff that takes them much less time, right? You can do it in 10 minutes.
Sure. In some ways, a lot of the most viral stuff, it can be the cheapest. Often it’s very well thought out, but often it’s just you got lucky.
But in any case, when we wrote this article, the number’s gone up, but we sort of estimated like, “Oh, and we’ve made about $5,000 in digital advertising on this story page,” like however many people had read it at that point.
Which is why many people who are in your business and my business look and say, “This is why you cannot do four-month-long stories that only generate two million page views.” The economics don’t work.
They can say that, but I think the economics do work if you make the case to readers that if they want stuff that’s not just cat videos, they’re gonna have to realize that, just like they pay for cable television or whatever, that they have to support that.
Let’s talk about video. You created a video for that piece. Emmy award, congrats again. Or Emmy nomination.
Congrats again. But you generally are not in the video business. You’re one of the people who’s not spending a lot of time. You’re not pivoting to video. You’re not spending a lot of time and energy trying to create videos. Why is that?
More than you might think. In fact, we just launched a program with two documentary filmmakers who are in residence with us, to sort of explore the ways that documentary film can work better in a newsroom environment. So again, I think it’s in part because we have the reader support model. We have the flexibility to sort of say, “This is something we think is important.”
We think documentary film is also struggling, and its business model is evolving quickly, in ways that are both good and perilous. And we think that there could be some real synergy, and we find it an interesting project, to help us figure this out.
But to put a finer point on it, you’re not ... There’s a lot of folks I work with, and that work at other organizations, that are spending a lot of time trying to figure out, how can we make video that will have the farthest reach on Facebook? And then eventually how will we make money from that? And that clearly is gonna be our future, is sort of ... pivot to videos now is cliché, right? But the taking what used to be a company that published stuff on the web to creating videos, that doesn’t seem to be something you’re interested in doing.
We do do it, but I ...
You’re not focused on it.
No. Yeah, and we’re not pivoting to video.
You seem skeptical on it.
I’m skeptical in the sense that I don’t think that this is what Facebook wants to pump right now, for its own reasons. And I think a lot of places are firing reporters, and great that they’re hiring video producers. Don’t get me wrong, but they’re making a big bet, and just the order that you put it, first we’ll make it. Then we’ll figure out how we’re gonna make money off of it. Well, I haven’t seen anyone really prove to me how they’re gonna make those costs back. And you know, video production can be very expensive.
Right. The positive, the not-flip argument is, there’s $80 billion in TV. Not all of it, but some of it was gonna come to the internet. We should partake in that. The more sophisticated version of it, I can’t do it as well as some of the people I work with. It’s sight, sound, motion. People have always liked that. People like to see things, and watch video, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be making that, and sort of ceding that world to traditional TV guys or movie guys.
I think that that’s true, and I think that there are some companies that are going to end up on top of that mountain. But I think a lot of places that are completely changing their business model are going to, as we’ve seen so many times before. Remember when everyone decided they wanted five iPad editions of their magazines, or whatever else? There’ve been so many variations on this theme, and it’s this sort of panicky, “Oh my God. This is the next thing.”
And somebody writes a really good deck, and all of a sudden an entire company has shifted its priorities.
In defense of the iPad magazine people. One, they had Steve Jobs, the best marketer of all time telling them that he thought this was gonna be a big deal. And two, I think this was misguided, but it was an attempt to sort of recreate the magazine business, or to save the magazine business, which was already sort of being atomized. But yes, I get your point. They chase after the next new thing. You had a great tweet about it being the cat chasing the laser.
Yeah. I mean, there’s so many ...
Was it ... You had a video as well, in the tweet.
I had a video with a cat chasing the laser. I mean, great. And I think another thing that we’re seeing is everybody rushing into podcasting. I think podcasts are great.
Podcasts are the best.
I listen to hours of podcasts a day. And I think, in some ways, podcasting, its costs are lower. It has the advantage of time-shifting and task-sharing.
How many people are in this room right now?
Yeah. You, me, Eric.
Plus somebody on the phone.
And Eric makes a ton of money. But that’s it.
So it’s cheap.
Yeah. It’s cheap, and it’s great.
And we’re not paying you.
Right. Right? That’s true.
Thank you for the free content.
How did I not demand money? But I think there is a sense ... It’s great that there’s so much experimentation going on. But I think sometimes, or the degree to which the overall industry is just swerving around somewhat crazily. Like you were saying, paywalls are back again, right? Paywalls are back. Well, we’ve done that before. They work well for some places, and there’s the various models.
What you can’t do is put a paywall in front of something, necessarily, and just say, “Now pay.”
Right. Exactly. I think the Times’ metered paywall situation is pretty porous by design, and it seems to work. But I think it’s also because they’re inherently making the argument as that little screen comes up whenever you’ve logged yourself out somehow, that we have eight million Pulitzers. Please support us. It’s basically a reader-supported model that’s ...
It’s just not a non-profit.
You’re free with advice on Twitter. I know you through Twitter. I’ve met you once before, but we met on Twitter, and I feel like I know you reasonably well through Twitter. I was doing some cursory Googling.
And your first couple pages of results, many of them are stories about things that you tweeted. They’re not great stories. They’re not bad — or some are bad — about you. Some are negative stories. Some are positive. None of them are deep thought, right, because so and so tweeted this. Does the fact that your tweets then become content for stories in the Daily Mail or the Guardian or whomever, ever make you reconsider the velocity with which you tweet?
Sometimes. It’s less that. I’m more like a ...
Should we explain what some of the stories were about? Do you know some of these?
I, which one?
There’s something about a Tomahawk missile.
Oh, God. Yeah.
There’s a bunch of these. But a lot of folks will just say, “Oh, and also, Clara Jeffery said this” in support of whatever thesis they’re making.
Right. Right. Fine. I mean, the ones that annoy me, and sort of not to make you give up on Twitter, but sort of have a negative view of humanity, I think, are the people who intentionally take things out of context, or like know you’re making a joke, but they want to rile up their base.
Oh there’s another, there’s a Salon one about Bernie Sanders.
Right. That guy.
Yeah. That guy.
Right. And it’s ... A) people are reading without context, so if they’ve been passed particularly screenshots of tweets, and they’re not seeing ... It’s why I think so many of us have gone to threading, in part to make a longer argument.
But in part, it’s not as easy to get away with taking my words out of context. But people mess up and say dumb stuff that they regret.
But you’re not curtailing it. It hasn’t made you reconsider hitting send.
It has at times, and, but I don’t know. I still get a lot out of it.
I was going over the piece you wrote right after the election, “Don’t Mourn. Fight Like Hell.” It’s a very good piece. You should go back and re-read it if you haven’t read it. There’s a line there that caught me. It said, “Social media ...” You were listing all the problems, everything that led to Trump winning. “Social media failed us most of all.” I remember that sentiment was super strong post-election, a lot of focus on Facebook and fake news. Do you still feel like you want to point the finger first at social media, when we think about Trump and that election?
In two ways. I think A) Facebook in particular could’ve cracked down on the fake news problem. And not only that, but they changed their algorithm after being kind of trolled into something by some conservative groups, which one of ...
The trending topic story.
Yeah, exactly. And you know, what that did was not only change the algorithm for legit conservative publications, which the more the merrier, but also the stuff that was masquerading as such, or was just the original definition of fake news. But I also think Twitter in particular has allowed its platform to be a method by which really unsavory groups of people organize and harass. And not just harass, but also maybe more than we knew at the time, even when I wrote that, like really perpetuate just ...
Facebook says it’s done a better job at fake content. I guess my question is, do you think that we overestimated how important those platforms are for getting people to think about something, to change their mind, to vote one way, to not vote? I think about it a lot now, where, all right, there’s glaring — between you and everyone else — maximum focus on Trump and everything that’s going on there, and there is a large portion of the country that does not care. Either doesn’t believe what you and other folks are publishing, or knows that it’s true and doesn’t care, and Facebook could be completely immaculate. Twitter could go away, and these, I wonder ... I don’t think those opinions would change.
I think that’s an interesting question. It’s hard to prove or disprove a negative. But I do think that they allowed people to think two things, that they were reading something that they thought was news and really wasn’t, and at best was inaccurate but at worst was far worse than that. But also that it kind of poisoned discourse and hardened lines.
And I think a lot of people pretended to be people they weren’t on social media, and intentionally stirred up fights and ganged up in mobs. And I also just think as an organizing tool, like whether it’s for ISIS or the alt-right, these platforms are letting themselves be kind of organizing methods for these folks.
I still find myself thinking that I’m confused that the internet is being used as a force for evil. It still, I know that it is, and I’m no longer naïve about it, but I still occasionally just reflexively think, “Well, if you offer the internet and knowledge to large groups of people, they’ll bend towards the light,” right? But that’s not the case.
Right. I think we’ve learned that that’s pretty much not the case. And particularly, in the old days of the internet, where it was just all out there, and the people who were particularly skilled could go find the Romanian novel they’d never heard of or whatever.
Right. Or find your stuff.
Right. Yeah. Exactly. But that was like an actual voyage of discovery, and now people are being manipulated down various lanes, and at worse they’re recruited into really horrible groups, and slightly worse than that, they start to just despise their neighbors. And I do think that it is a big threat to our sense of decency towards each other.
Is it something you think the market fixes? Do you want the government stepping in?
I mean, I think the platform could fix it. There’s some really simple things that Twitter could do to just completely reduce some of this. And they finally started to, but it’s all about you not seeing the hate being directed at you. It’s not stopping the hate from happening, and it’s not stopping hateful people from organizing.
Wait, you think Twitter can stop the hate from happening?
Well, I think they could do everything from making you really register. They could be much more aggressive about banning. They could be much less inclined ...
You think they should allow anonymity?
I don’t know. I mean, I think they should at the very least tier things. The blue checkmark no longer means anything — if it ever did — but I think they should tier it so if you’re who you really are, you’re being viewed more or less. You’re being treated differently and identified as such. Someone who will give a real name and a real address.
Right. Of course, the president, we know who he is.
And there’s a whole separate discussion about what he should do on Twitter. Let’s think about that for a second. We’re gonna hear from another fine sponsor. We’ll be right back with Clara.
Back here with Clara Jeffery from Mother Jones. We were talking about the media environment and Trump. There’s a story that got a lot of attention in the last year. That’s the Gawker versus Peter Thiel story. You guys had a preview of this story.
Because you were sued by your own billionaire. You’re still around, so it has a different resolution. This guy has a great name. Is it Frank VanderSloot?
Frank VanderSloot. Yes.
It seems like a made up name. Is a real person.
Is a real person.
Idaho billionaire. Sued you guys back in 2012.
He popped up on our radar because he gave a million dollars to Romney’s election campaign, and it was one of those things that pop up in campaign finance searches. So we wrote, like, a “Who is this guy?” story. And he had had various anti-LGBT activities, including kind of going after journalists who talked about his anti-LGBT activities. And sure enough, when we did that, he went after us, basically.
And you guys made some small corrections to your story. What did he say he wanted you to do after that story had been published? Did he want a correction? What was his stated complaint?
To be honest, I think it was a good example of people who just have a lot of power and are not used to being crossed. He wanted ...
Do you think he wanted ... If he’d taken down the story ...
Right, if we had taken it down ...
... do you think he would’ve called it? Like Peter Thiel wanted to get rid of Gawker, ultimately.
Right. If we had taken it down and banished it to the hinterlands, maybe. It’s hard to know what somebody would’ve done if you had taken an action. We made some minor corrections, like it was a suit in the state court, not a federal court, that kind of thing. And we felt the story was valid, and we felt the story was important. And we, I think, frankly didn’t really understand what the issue was, why he was so aggrieved, when this was clearly activities that he had not only done but celebrated.
So at some point, did you decide, “Oh, this is not about the story published, he would like us to go away.”
I think it was partly that. I think that because the landscape was changing about LGBT rights, even in heavily Mormon Idaho, that I think he didn’t want a spotlight put on activities that were a few years old. So it was partly that. But I really can’t say.
So you guys fought the case.
Fought the case.
It was not like the Hogan case because he’s not Hulk Hogan and there were no dick pics.
No. We were about to go to trial and we got a summary dismissal from the judge.
Three years. You spent what, $2.5 million, more than that.
More than that.
That’s out-of-pocket costs, plus the insurance.
And put that in context. You guys are a nonprofit, so I can actually go see your numbers. What is that as a percent of your cash flow or your revenue? What is $3 million to a company like you guys, a company of your scale?
Now we’re about a $15, $16 million a year company.
Yeah. And then we were 12, something like that. So it was a real threat. And it was meant to be a mortal threat. He sued us for $74,999 so he would stay in a court where he was the biggest employer in town, that it wouldn’t be vacated to federal court. It was designed to hometown us.
And designed to break you, right, because he knows what kind of resources you have. He knows how big your staff is, so getting you guys to fly up there for testimony. All of it designed to break you guys. So you won. The case is gone now, right?
The case is gone.
He hasn’t come back. Is there anything you can do to future proof yourself from this sort of stuff, or is this just literally the cost of doing business now, especially now that he’s provided a blueprint for it? Peter Thiel’s provided a very successful blueprint for it. It’s just something you’re going to have to live with.
I think we’ve always had an incredibly vigorous fact-checking and legal component to the work that we do. So that is what we do to future proof ourselves. There is some movement out there to create a fund for journalism shops that get sued in such a manner, to sort of help defray the cost, which I think would be lovely. I think the people who are talking about that should do it.
But you did. It’s not like you were fact-checking after the fact. You had done all the fact-checking. You got a few things wrong. But fact-checking’s important, one, because you get the stuff right, and also ’cause it proves that you ...
You’re trying. Right.
You’re trying. You can’t be part of slander and libel, as you have to prove that you were doing the stuff recklessly.
And if you’ve got a fact-checking operation, you’re saying, “Look, I’m trying to get it right.”
But so even with all that, he was able to tie you up, drain you of resources. Not drain you entirely, but really, really, really cause you a lot of problems.
No, I mean, exactly. I think at one point I calculated that for the cost of the overall suit, including the cost of our insurers, that would be the equivalent ... His legal costs were sort of the equivalent of buying a really fancy pair of shoes to me. I might buy a really fancy pair of shoes and be like, “Wow. I just spent a lot of money.” But that was like a small drop in a bucket of his legal costs.
Right. So it’s literally something that someone with his kind of resources can do without thinking twice about it.
Yeah. Billions of dollars. Exactly.
For you guys, it’s life and death. It’s the entirety of your career.
And it doesn’t seem like there really is a way to prevent. He or someone else can still tie someone like you up indefinitely in court.
Well, one way to prevent it is to pass a federal anti-slap act, which basically is like an anti-frivolous lawsuit of this description.
It basically says when he loses, you can recover significant damages.
Yeah, and so it basically makes people think twice about doing stuff that they’re just doing out of spite. And if we had been able to move it to California, we would’ve had a slap provision in place. So again, it really matters what state you’re sued in, which is why people try and venue shop. That’s why Gawker was sued in Florida.
So when you saw Gawker go through this, and then lose. As we’re recording this, there’s talk about who’s going to actually own the Gawker.com website. It’s being sold off. It’s catastrophic for them. Did you think, “Oh man. That could’ve been us.” Or did you think, “Well, that was never gonna be us because we weren’t gonna publish a sex tape.”
A little bit of both, maybe. But I did think once Thiel was exposed to be behind that, that this does represent a not only just a potentially mortal threat to journalism, but I think also represents a incredibly disproportionate amount of power being accumulated and wielded in a vicious way by a few billionaires because they don’t like you, or they have really thin skins, or both.
And at the same time, we’ve seen a rise of a right-wing media that is not fact based, that’s intention ... I mean, they can make the same argument about Mother Jones ...
... or the Nation, right, ideologically motivated. But their stories are often willfully incorrect. And then they’re retweeted by the president. There’s not an equivalence.
There’s not, and you know, I don’t know how often sites like that get often probably very justifiable take-down notices from people that they’re slandering.
I have seen Alex Jones now have to apologize several times.
That’s right. He did. He did have to.
He had to apologize to the Chobani guy, who is a billionaire, who has the resources to go after him.
Right, exactly, because ...
But by the way, he damaged his brand.
Right. So again though, I think part of the problem is just a sort of, it’s another measure of the sort of income inequality type situation that’s happening in our entire society. And this is just this weird corner of it. But when it’s about hurting a free press, to protect not even the business interest, but often the egos of folks who don’t want what they actually did to be in public.
Let’s end this on a positive note. What’s the best thing you’ve seen come out of 2017 journalism-wise?
Wow. I do think that the press, overall, has been reinvigorated, and takes its mission more seriously than I think a lot of it did, leading up to the election. I think the arms race between the Post and the Times is a sight to behold. It’s amazing. We are seeing some of the best journalism we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Would that more of it had happened last year. But I am relieved to see that, and also that I think it is really sinking in to people that they have to support it, whatever that means.
Good. So people can support you by going to MotherJones.com? You got a .com even though you’re a nonprofit. Good for you. URLs are hard to get. We’re at Recode.net.
Clara, this took a while to happen. I’m glad we made it happen. Thank you.
Thank you so much for having me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.