Saturday, March 7, 2009

Mother Jones Tests Nonprofit Model in Race to Survive the Recession

The New York Times - In its beginning Mother Jones, the leftist magazine founded in 1976 in San Francisco, viewed itself as a defender of independent journalism free from corporate meddling.

Today it sees itself as a defender of journalism itself.

As such, Mother Jones has become a real-life laboratory for whether nonprofit journalism — a topic of the moment in mainstream news media circles — can withstand a deep recession.

Mother Jones, named for the early-20th-century radical labor organizer Mary Harris Jones, is a nonprofit bimonthly that has long sponsored investigative journalism in the tradition of Upton Sinclair. It cemented its reputation with a famous piece in 1977 on the Ford Motor Company’s indifference toward a fuel tank design flaw; the article has come to be known as the “exploding Pinto” story.

Back in the fall, when the economic downturn intensified, and the plight of print publications became more dire, Mother Jones suffered, despite its position of not being in it for the money. Advertising plummeted, down 23 percent in 2008, and some of the big donations the magazine depends on didn’t come through.

While it is not a new idea, the future possibilities of nonprofit, endowed journalism as a cure for the economic problems facing the print industry have recently engendered a lively debate within journalistic circles, in blogs and in articles in The New Yorker and on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.

“We’ve been hearing from more and more people, ‘How does that work?’ ” Ms. Bauerlein said. “ ‘What’s it like being a nonprofit?’ ”

But as Mother Jones’s example shows, nonprofit publications, while they may initially be more durable in a down economy, are far from impervious to market forces.

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