clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

How Mother Jones makes serious journalism in the age of cat videos: It asks readers for money

Editor in Chief Clara Jeffery says the dead-simple solution is the right one for the media’s economic woes.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Screenshot from “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Like a lot of news outlets, Mother Jones puts all of its content on the internet for free. But unlike many of her peers, Editor in Chief Clara Jeffery has no qualms about asking people to pay for that work.

“It’s important to our mission to get work we do out there to the widest audience,” Jeffery said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “And frankly, we’ve 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.”

Jeffery pointed to her nonprofit site as well as others like the (for-profit) New York Times that successfully appeal to their readers for cash, in exchange for serious and investigative journalism. Currently, “MoJo” is making between $15 million and $16 million a year in topline revenue, she said.

And the money is just part of the story: Earlier this year, Mother Jones won the top prize at the National Magazine Awards, for “Magazine of the Year.” A blockbuster 35,000-word story from last summer, for which Shane Bauer spent four months undercover as a private prison guard, garnered some two million views, Jeffery said.

You can listen to the new podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

The success of Mother Jones and others in collecting donations directly from readers marks an important break from the pre-internet era, where the editorial work of newspapers and magazines was largely walled off from the business side of media companies.

“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,” Jeffery said. “Other business models need to be explored.”

“The economics do work — if you make the case to readers that, if they want stuff that’s not just cat videos ... just like they pay for cable television or whatever, they have to support that,” she added.

And what does Jeffery think of the digital media companies that are chasing ad dollars by “pivoting to video?”

“I am skeptical,” she said. “This is what Facebook wants to pump right now for its own reasons, and I think a lot of places are firing reporters. They’re making a big bet: ‘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 prove to me how they’re going to make those costs back.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode, answers all of the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • And finally, Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, such as the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts— and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Peter. Tune in next Thursday for another episode of Recode Media!

This article originally appeared on