Friday, February 9, 2007
Mother Jones, founded in 1976, brings a decidedly West Coast flavor to the small constellation of progressive political magazines. Named after labor activist Mary Harris
, the magazine has traditionally emphasized investigative reporting on the misdeeds of governments and corporations. In 1993, Mother Jones became the first general-interest magazine to launch a website. Its most recent innovation is the promotion of two veteran female staffers to share the magazine’s top post. Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery are now some of the only women overseeing American political magazines. Before joining Mother Jones as features editor in 2000, Bauerlein was a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and New York, as well as an editor of the alt-weekly City Pages in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn. Jeffery has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and was formerly senior editor at Harper’s. Their first issue as editors-in-chief is on newsstands now, and features a cover story analyzing the sometimes contradictory stereotypes the American public holds about Hillary Clinton, and how they demonstrate cultural anxieties about women and feminism. And the magazine’s timeline of Bush administration lies about the war in Iraq has been a hit on the blogosphere. Here, Bauerlein and Jeffery talk about the under-representation of women in political journalism, the importance of reporting, and the nexus between culture and politics.
Campus Progress: Research has shown that male writers have about three times as many bylines in “thought-leader” magazines as female writers do. It’s well-known that women haven’t achieved parity in progressive journalism. But Mother Jones is regarded as somewhat of an exception to that rule. Do you think Mother Jones has more female contributors because of specific hiring decisions made by female editors like yourselves? Or do you think the magazine’s format of featuring more reporting and less opining, relative to its competitors, is more favorable to women writers?
I’m sure some of it has to do with the fact that there has been, for a long time, two women here doing a lot of the story assigning, and it’s obviously something we care about. I do think that the issue of why women don’t get bylines at major magazines is a complicated one. It’s a combination of actual sexism with real issues having to do with women leaving the workforce for awhile to raise their kids. When they’re writers, they come back and write about those issues, and perhaps not others. All we know is that we want more women, not just at our magazine, but in every magazine.
But I think your question about the reporting bit is true. Women, by nature of the way we’re socialized, gravitate more toward telling stories about things that we see and observe, and less toward pontificating. We feel strongly that women should be doing more pontificating. But pontificating of the kind encouraged at most news and political magazines weeds out women.
In your editor’s note in the current issue, you talk about Mother Jones‘s emphasis on reporting. Going back through the last few issues of the magazine, compared to some of your competitors, you have a more bottom-up view of policy–you’re less interested in the people who made the policy and more interested in the people who are living out its consequences on the ground, such as steel workers in Virginia, or crime victims on an Indian reservation.
I think it’s true that this magazine has an emphasis on progressive politics and social justice. What that boils down to is that it’s about normal issues that affect real people, and not just what a bunch of overpaid analysts in D.C. or New York think about things.
And that was the mission of the magazine from the start. That’s also why unlike many of the magazines in our class, we have a lot more photography and a lot more visuals, because we want to capture what is going on out there.
But your current Hillary Clinton cover is an interesting choice, because it departs from your principle of emphasizing reporting. It’s a piece based on analysis, not interviews. Whose idea was the story?
It was a story we conceived of. We read all the Hillary profiles over the year and felt they were missing the bigger picture.
We felt this is not such much a story primarily about Hillary, it’s a story about the country and where we are. Because some of the issues we’re wrestling with have to do with women in power.
As journalists based in San Francisco who have been around Nancy Pelosi for a long time, you’ve probably been aware of gender-based critiques of her. Do you see Pelosi and Clinton as similar figures, or quite different?
They’re really different in their style, but I think it’s certainly notable how once Pelosi became elevated to speaker of the House, it was the same kind of thing: analyzing her looks and fashion sense–all this sort of weird, coded language that sort of implies uncomfortability. It’s new to have a woman be speaker of the House, so some of this is to be expected and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a sort of vibe to a lot of the talk that goes on about her and Hillary where you walk away thinking, “Is this happening because of some deeper dysfunction in our culture?”
One thing we talk about a lot at Campus Progress is that there is a cost barrier to entering progressive journalism because most people can’t afford to live on what magazine internships pay. How does Mother Jones deal with those issues?
Our fellowship program may be one of the very few magazine programs of this kind that pays officially a living wage as defined by the city of San Francisco, but you know, we have a limited number of fellowships each year. This is one of our principle pet peeves about this industry–that people are required to invest substantial amounts of their own or their parents’ money in getting started in the business. It’s not an option for many people.
Honestly, I would put a little of the onus on the funders who I think should do a better job of funding internships across the board in media.
It’s discouraging though, thinking about the economic challenges that progressive magazines face. What all the magazines are facing is an aging subscription-based readership, combined with younger readers who expect to get their online content for free. How can a print magazine improve upon this business model?
This is why we’ve taken pretty dramatic steps in our short tenure so far, and hope to do a lot more in terms of building the website, breaking daily stories, and doing more cultural coverage online as well.
Your cultural coverage seems to always have a pretty straight-forward political angle, for example, looking at musicians with explicitly political lyrics or books explicitly about politics.
What we want is to have cultural coverage informed by our sensibilities. So while people on our staff are concerned about the war and very interested in politics, we are also watching America’s Next Top Model.