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Editor’s note, October 25, 2022: Our CEO, Monika Bauerlein, sent this note out via email late yesterday to ask readers why our fall pledge drive has been struggling. We heard some really good feedback from readers and saw an uptick in donations, so we decided to post it here so more of the MoJo community can see it.
This is a hard email to get right, so I’ll start as matter-of-factly as I can, and see where it goes from there.
Our fall fundraising campaign is struggling. We’re over halfway through it, and so far we’ve only been able to bring in 20 percent of our budget for this drive—about $65,000.
We’ve had rough patches before, but never quite like this. The emails we’ve sent have raised about half of what we’d expect from past campaigns. The donations that come in through our website, about half too. Even with a last-minute surge like these campaigns often have, getting to $325,000 in the next two weeks seems damn near impossible. That’s hugely concerning.
But instead of pleading for your donations late on this Monday, I wanted to ask for your advice.
Because sometimes I forget how much I take for granted.
Like last week, when I was talking to a Mother Jones reader and happened to mention that our budget now includes paying to scrub journalists’ personal information off the internet, since what happens online doesn’t stay online. It’s routine for journalists to get death threats, and more and more often they are physically assaulted.
I don’t usually talk about the minutiae of our budget like that, because what could be less interesting? Who wants to know that our legal expenses are up 30 percent this year versus last? Or that through the whole pandemic we had to pay all of the rent and bills on our offices and help people get what they need to work from home? Or that when you read one of our stories on your phone, as most people do, we make about half a penny in advertising revenue, thanks to the economics of online advertising and the cut that platforms like Facebook take? (People are also way less likely to donate when they use one of those small screens.)
It’s my job to worry about those numbers. That’s what I signed up for when I took this after a lifetime in the newsroom. And it’s 100 percent worth it when I see how much people appreciate that they can trust what they see in Mother Jones, and how hard our team works to make it all possible.
One of those lines in our budget represents the support from our online readers. It’s one of the most important ones, nearly $1.4 million—about 7 percent of our entire budget. And it’s a particularly white-knuckle one, because so many things can interfere with it. We put our best case for support out there, and then it’s out of our control. Is it an election year, when people get sooooo many requests from candidates, and journalism is pretty far down their list? Did one of the many news outlets that pick up our reporting give us credit, for a change, motivating folks to donate? Did we send enough emails to make sure they don’t get buried in your inboxes? Did we send too many and turn you off?
But maybe the biggest question of all is: Did we—did I—make the case well enough? Did I explain why independent journalism can’t be allowed to dwindle at this moment in history? Did I do a good enough job showing how fearless reporting really has an impact? Were we too bold when we put together our budget and bet that people would step up so we could keep our reporters on the beat?
Everyone with responsibility (and all of us are responsible for a lot, in our homes and at our jobs) struggles with these kinds of questions. It’s called impostor syndrome, and it’s probably a good or at least natural thing. If you don’t worry about whether you’re rising to the challenge, you may not be trying hard enough.
So, as long as I’m being vulnerable, let me ask you: Is any of this making sense to you? I’m really trying to understand why our donations are so far off right now so we can start righting the ship, and who better to ask than you all. If you’ve supported our work before, thank you—can you tell me why and what convinced you to do it? If you’re not able to or just haven’t yet, I’d love to know what draws you to our reporting (since clearly you’re reading it!) and why you think it matters. If you’ve given in the past but not anymore, can you say why?
If you have anything at all to share, please fill out the form below—it’s the easiest way for us to manage replies.
I need to know these things, because the responsibility I signed up for is to keep paying all those important bills: To protect our journalists, to keep the website humming, to get the truth out to as many people as possible. And right now, the way I’m making the case is not quite resonating like it should and has in the past. There’s got to be a way I can do better. Tell me how.
Meanwhile I’ll tell you about one of the many moments that remind me of the bigger picture. The other day I was headed to Chicago to meet with Mother Jones readers and supporters. On the plane, as I worked on some Mother Jones stuff, the lady in the next seat turned to me: “Excuse me? Are you a journalist?” Yes, I said, bracing for what might come next—it’s not like most people love journalists. “With Mother Jones?” Yes (more bracing).
She beamed. “I’ve used your articles in my classes!” She was a professor at a community college, on a trip taking students to historically Black colleges and universities on the East Coast. She had used a Mother Jones article about the international industry recruiting women in poorer countries to bear children for those in wealthier countries. Her students, she said, were smart, skeptical, and hungry for in-depth information. Sometimes they had disagreements about big issues, and she was trying to teach them how to discuss them with solid information, grace, and empathy.
If she could do that work every day, I thought, and if a MoJo article could be useful as part of it, it was worth it. And when I made it to Chicago and the fundraising event with MoJo readers and supporters, it was another big shot in the arm. It was the first gathering we’ve had there in a while, and it was powerful seeing new folks come into the fold.
Of course, there’s no way to recreate that online, but I thought baring a bit of my soul and asking our online community to help me understand what’s going on might be more fruitful than another increasingly urgent appeal for donations today. There’s plenty of time—well, two weeks—for that after hearing from you all.
Two final details, as long as I’m laying it all out: Why $325,000 and an Election Day deadline? We break that $1.4 million online budget into three big campaigns a year in the spring, fall, and December, so that we don’t have to be fundraising all the time. With people reading less news these days, we thought these weeks ahead of the midterms, with heightened attention and urgency, would be the right time for the fall pledge drive. Maybe it wasn’t.
What happens if we come up way short in the next few weeks? It’s not lights out for MoJo, but if we continue to struggle with online fundraising, we’re going to have some hard decisions to make—while still trying to get as close to that $1.4 million number as we can by June. So please do let me know if you think there’s a better way to go about this while we take a moment to regroup.
Thanks for reading, and for everything you to do make Mother Jones what it is.