Monika Bauerlein: The Future of Journalism
This keynote talk was delivered at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.
Democracy is in crisis, and one central reason is the transformation of the media landscape resulting from the collapse of the economic model for news. From where will truth-seeking, fact-based, trustworthy journalism come as we rebuild our democracy? How do we overcome the hyper-capitalist algorithm devouring the free press? Monika Bauerlein is the groundbreaking CEO and former Co-Editor of Mother Jones, which since 1976 has stood among the world’s premier progressive investigative journalism news organizations.
To learn more about Monika Bauerlein, visit Mother Jones.
Read the full verbatim transcript of this keynote talk below.
Introduction by Steve Katz, Publisher, Mother Jones.
I want to do two things. One is to tell you a little bit about what Monika Bauerlein, the CEO at Mother Jones has accomplished over those years, and then I want to say a few things about who I think she is, and what you may hear from her today.
Mother Jones has, through Monika’s leadership, provided a home for 100 reporters and editors to do their work in three bureaus around the country, reaching eight million people every month, with investigative reporting that has changed the culture and changed the outcome of presidential elections. And it’s thanks to people like you that that has been possible. We’re deeply appreciative to everyone in the audience who reads our work, supports us, and really finds the rationale for reader-supported journalism as a central part of what they—the kinds of organizations that they support for social change.
All this is why Monika and Clara Jeffery, our editor-in-chief, were awarded the 2019 IF Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence earlier this year from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. They gave it to Monika and Clara in recognition of their enduring support of investigative reporting and independent journalists. And they went on to say that Monika and Clara have done a spectacular job of bringing Mother Jones fully into the digital age, and continuing the groundbreaking investigative reporting that Mother Jones has been known for since we launched in 1976 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.
It’s also why in 2017, Mother Jones was recognized as Magazine of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Editors, and why PanAmerica recognized Monika and Clara as having been the leaders in transforming Mother Jones from what was a respected if “under the radar” Indie publication to an internationally recognized powerhouse. Not bad. She’s fun to work with. [APPLAUSE]
So, who is this woman? She’s a smarty pants. [LAUGHTER] But first and foremost, she is a journalist, deeply curious about the world that we live in, and with a remarkable openness to be surprised by what she learns from inquiring about the world. She’s a superb writer and editor, who expertly deploys her craft to introduce all of us as readers to stories through character-driven narrative.
But then she takes it the next crucial step, turning a personal problem, as C. Wright Mills, a political scientist wrote many years ago, into a public issue and lifting the story up into an analysis of systems of oppression and control, but also pointing us towards solutions and right actions. As a journalist, Monika is professionally skeptical of extravagant claims, and looks at the world through a lens of verifiable facts. But I think what you’re going to hear as well in just a moment is a talk from someone who has a deeply held moral and ethical view of the world, and is motivated primarily by the passion and promise of what humanity is capable of achieving when we bring our best selves to the work.
She has a remarkable quality of being fully present with someone while never losing sight of the work at hand. And like gravity, she seems to be able to do that at a distance.
And I want to close my introduction by quoting from a note that we received from a donor of ours recently in response to a fundraising letter that we sent out for a very special, a very challenging fundraising campaign that we’re doing these days. And this donor made a lovely contribution to us for our reporting, and went on to write a handwritten note on the cardback that went like this:
Dear Monika, I could already walk when Hitler assumed power on January 30th, 1933. I remember only too well how difficult and full of daily anguish life was during the Third Reich for our family. The Moment for Mother Jones – that’s the campaign we’re doing – brings me hope in our current horrific moment in history, especially here in the USA. My donation and pledge comes with fervent good wishes.
Please welcome Monika Bauerlein, CEO at Mother Jones. [APPLAUSE]
Thank you, Steve.
I’m starting with a picture of Mary Harris Jones, who is the badass lady that Mother Jones is named after. And I wanted to do that because she was somebody who took on a really impossible challenges at a very tough time, more than 100 years ago, and she prevailed. And so may that be an inspiration to us.
I came back not long ago from a gathering of investigative journalists from all over the world, and this was a workshop that I saw there. And it was really a reminder of how many journalists all over the world deal with the same problem, which is that there is this rise of authoritarian and demagogic leadership in many, many places, and one of the first things that these leaders do inevitably is they go after the press. This is in Turkey, which is accidentally the worst jailer of journalists in the world. In India, in Denmark, in Hungary, in all these places, sometimes the journalists are murdered, sometimes they are put in prison, sometimes the oligarch gets their cronies to buy up the news organization and get rid of the troublemakers, sometimes it’s just a constant war of attrition and attacks on credibility and cries of fake news. And not familiar at all…In fact, the United States has fallen every year now in the last three years in the press freedom index that Reporters Without Borders puts together, because this is now a country where journalists are under attack all the time. And this is—I hope you can see this, but we’re ranked between Romania and Senegal at the moment.
And why do these autocrats do this? Why are they so obsessed with getting control of the press? It’s because the truth is really, really dangerous to them. It is one of their worst enemies. And they can’t have it, which is also why the people who wrote the Constitution, with all their flaws and all their blind spots, but they were trying to prevent anti-democratic governance. And so in the fight against tyranny, they saw journalism and a free press as a really essential ingredient.
And so, too, the kind of rise in civic energy that we’ve seen in this country in the last few years has been among other things a rallying to journalism and to the role of truth in empowering an engaged community. But this all goes back well before – that’s me trying to get a source on the phone. This all goes back well before our president with an itchy Twitter finger and all of that. And so I wanted to spend a little bit of time analyzing how we got here, particularly when it comes to this field that I work in.
So I’ve been a journalist all my life, and when I started out, I was living in Germany where I was born, and we spent a lot of time in Italy as well. And in those countries at that time, the memory of fascism and genocide and war was alive. All the old people around me had living memories of these things, and had been participants or affected by them in some way or another. And that gave me a real appreciation of how fragile democracy can be, and how dangerous it is to not fight for it at every step.
The Nazis, when they took power, one of the very first things, like all these other autocrats, they went after the press, and they melted down printing presses. And you know what they did to books. So this all seemed nonetheless really distant and sort of important but not present living history when I came to this country, and ended up in an incredibly vibrant and strong press landscape.
And in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I spent a lot of my early years as a journalist, they had two daily newspapers, two alternative weeklies, African American newspapers, Native American newspapers, Mung newspapers, dozens and dozens of neighborhood newspapers, and those are just the papers. And there were television and radio outlets, and all of them with compliments of journalists and sometimes investigative teams. So a huge amount of journalistic firepower directed at sometimes the powerful.
And I want to pause there to say that this was not the golden age of journalism that some people in my profession sometimes sort of wax nostalgic about, that there were a lot of blind spots. There were a lot of stories that were not being told. There were a lot of communities being ignored. The elite news organizations in particular were very bought into the status quo, and they were very white and very male.
So that was already a problem, and it became more of a problem because of the way that these news organizations were owned, because ownership, and then follow the money is what we say in my profession. The way we’ve paid for journalism in this country historically is by bundling up eyeballs, so all of you, gathering you up and tying you into little bundles and selling that attention of one minute or 10 minutes or two seconds to advertisers. And that was profitable for a really long time, and like any profitable activity, the people who were doing it, and particularly the people who owned the profit-making wanted to do more of it, and so there was an incredible amount of kind of corporatization and consolidation in the business.
Some of you may remember many years ago when Ben Bagdikian sounded a warning about there being 50 corporations that controlled much of the media. We’re actually down to six, and this chart is already back again out of date. So this has been an ongoing problem, and it’s made worse by the fact that really there are just two corporations that control a lot of the news that many people get. This is what happens when you Google—Facebook Big Brother or Google Big Brother. People have—Basically we’ve all had the same idea.
And Google and Facebook have this incredible amount of power. I want to kind of nerd out with you on the details a little bit because we don’t have enough of a conversation of what happens under the hood of how we get information. They have this inordinate amount of power, and it’s not by people walking around and saying, “Elevate this story,” “bury that story,” it’s robots. It’s algorithms. It’s algorithms that are programmed by humans, and in Facebook’s case, for instance, the algorithms are programmed in such a way as to maximize profit for Facebook. That’s what they’re there for. And so the way Facebook makes a profit is the more people spend more time on the platform and share and like and engage, the more money they make by them being the people who do the bundling of eyeballs and selling them to advertisers.
So it turns out one of the easiest ways to get people to like and share and engage is to cater to anger and fear. Whatever your anger or your fear may be, when you push those buttons, there are biochemical responses that happen. And so people who create content for Facebook understood that some people who were just trying to sell cat videos and some people who had much more of an ulterior motive, and we saw that in the 2016 campaign, how much content was shown in people’s feeds that people accepted as news coverage that was actually just designed to manipulate them.
But it gets worse, and it gets even a little more complicated, because Facebook gets a black eye for all of this after the election. And so they decide to ratchet way back the amount of news that they show in your feed period, not just the false stuff but all of it. And because Mother Jones is a nonprofit and we are accountable to our readers, we can actually show some of this stuff in a way that a for-profit corporation couldn’t, and we can also say things about it that maybe not everybody would.
This one’s for our creative director. And we can show the numbers behind it. So you can see that over a period of time, a lot of people became very engaged with our journalism on Facebook because they’re passionate about it. And then suddenly it falls off a cliff in the middle of 2017. And it’s not falling off a cliff because people stopped being interested in news. In fact, there are more people now who follow Mother Jones on Facebook than there were then, but because Facebook tweaked the robots and the algorithms in such a way that you see less news in your feed even when you have told Facebook that you want to follow news.
And that has a huge impact, not just on the information that people see, but also the resources that are available to make that journalism… So that’s just a not-very-well-made chart that shows you how Google and Facebook have sucked up the vast majority of dollars from the eye-bundling business that used to go to pay for journalism.
And just to bring that Facebook story forward all the way to the present, what happens is Facebook still shows people news, but the news—this is something I did yesterday with a tool where you can see what’s trending on Facebook, and you see the top—on the right are the top five stories that happen to be trending at that moment, and it’s basically animal news, lad magazines, and conservative right-wing propaganda. And this is what it looks like every day. It’s Fox News, Breitbart, celebrity stuff, rinse and repeat.
And the result is what has happened to news all over the country. This is a photo of the Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom, but the same has happened to the news in wherever you live. There are—There were 56-some-odd-thousand journalists working in just daily newspapers all over the country just 12 years ago, and there are now fewer than half that many. Journalists have actually been losing their jobs faster than coal miners. And I can tell you that in five or seven years, I don’t think your city is going to have a daily newspaper, if it does today. And this is capacity that is not being replaced. It’s not like the Internet is generating content that is no longer coming out of these newsrooms.
And it’s no coincidence that the time frame in which we have seen this implosion of journalism is the same time frame in which we have seen a rise in a different kind of politics, and of a politics that is much more reliant on disinformation and propaganda and ultimately anti-democratic impulses. And just to—The cherry on top is in this environment the only people who are investing in news operations are people who have often an ulterior motive, like Rupert Murdoch and like Sinclair Broadcasting is another company that you may have heard of that’s buying up local television stations all over the country, and you may have seen a video that went viral a couple of years ago where dozens and dozens of these local news anchors were forced to read basically a conservative propaganda script.
So that’s it. Bye! Yeah, no, again, we can’t leave it there, because at Bioneers we’re about solutions. And there is a solution to this, and it’s you.
And I mean that very specifically. I am convinced after everything that I’ve seen in this story of what has happened to news in this country and around the world, that the only way we are going to have journalism that serves the public, that serves the democracy that it’s a part of is for the public to take ownership of it. And that is a very different bottle.
So again, at Mother Jones that’s—we’ve kind of been a 43-year experiment in creating this sort of model. We were started 43 years ago as basically a crowd-funded nonprofit magazine, and today we are much larger than we were, but 68% of our revenue, as you can see there, comes from our readers in the form of a subscription or a donation. And that gives us a totally different set of incentives, and a totally different group of people that we are accountable to, because it’s not shareholders, it’s not Rupert Murdoch, it’s not even a well-meaning billionaire like a Jeff Bezos, it’s you.
And that gives you, gives us, gives you a newsroom that serves you, that can go and do things like send a reporter to work inside of a private prison and find out what’s really going on in these for-profit jails and prisons and detention centers that a lot of people, especially black and brown people, are locked up in.
And when you do that kind of journalism, it—again, because it is so threatening to the powerful, it’s threatening because it has impact. In this particular story that we published, the Obama administration then responded by saying, okay, then we’re going to have to scale back on use of these prisons. Now the—We know how this story ended, literally the day after the election in 2016, private prison stocks went through the roof. But the arc of history bends slowly, and the story is not done yet.
I wanted to address one thing that I do hear a lot right now, which is, okay, but we have these great national newspapers that are doing all this amazing investigative work. How many do we really need? Like The New York Times and The Washington Post are getting at a lot of the stuff that I want to know. And they are doing really amazing work, and I am very happy that there are 1200 people working in The New York Times newsroom, but you don’t want a situation where two elite news organizations, or three or five are the gatekeepers for what news gets gone after and what news you should see. And as an illustration of that, I wanted to show you what happened on Halloween in 2016, which was the day when The New York Times published the story on the left, and Mother Jones published the story on the right. And had—That to me is a real illustration of how you want many different voices and many different perspectives.
And the great news is those are starting to happen. That collage, look, Mother Jones is just one of the tiles over there on the right. There are now more than 200 nonprofit news organizations all over the country. I’m sure there’s one where you live. There are ones focusing on particular issues, there are ones focusing on particular communities, there are ones that have two journalists, there are ones that have 20. There are in total 2,000 people now working in nonprofit newsrooms all over America, and this movement is [APPLAUSE]—Thank you.
You can find them if you want at the Institute for Nonprofit News, INN.org, and you can look at what they’re doing, whether there’s one in your town. They all do fundraising at the end of the year, so there are ways to get involved at any level you want. But the great news is this is a movement that’s spreading. It’s actually spreading around the world.
At this conference that I was at, there were nonprofit news organizations in countries where journalists are killed and imprisoned, and yet they are coming together and making this happen. And you can easily see, from 2,000 to 20,000 is only a factor of 10X. That’s nothing in Silicon Valley. That’s something that could happen over a period of five or 10 years, and then we would have replaced a lot of the capacity that we lost, but we would replace it with something much more democratic, accountable, transparent, and diverse, and we would have replaced it with something that serves you.
And I think she would be proud. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] Thank you so much.
Our weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.
Join us, hear from those who are uncovering Pathways Forward, and be inspired.