Mother of All Bureaus  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   December/January 2008

Mother of All Bureaus   

Mother Jones moves to augment its investigative output and Web presence with a new seven-member Washington bureau.

By Kelly Wilson
Kelly Wilson (kwilson@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.      


In July Stephanie Mencimer got something that used to be a commodity outside her grasp: a press pass. Not to mention access to LexisNexis, hot coffee and a desk to put it all on.

In the past Mencimer, like almost all of Mother Jones' writers, was part of a network of freelancers. Now, with the opening of the San Francisco-based magazine's Washington bureau, she and six others have a permanent home.

But common newsroom toys like Mencimer's were just the beginning of Editor Clara Jeffery's work in Washington where, with the occasional help of a few others, she spent June sorting out "everything from bureau chief to making sure the phone lines worked."

Opening the bureau is part of an effort to update and expand the publication's tradition of investigative reporting by producing more material than the magazine can print on paper, both in length and quantity. It's something Mother Jones Publisher and President Jay Harris, who pleads guilty to having a flair for the dramatic, calls vital to democracy itself.

Besides giving writers the time to make all the contacts and dig up all the documents they need, creating a staff means having a team truly committed to the magazine. As Communications Director Richard Reynolds says, "When somebody is reporting for us, you're going to get their best stuff and full attention."

That enables the magazine to focus more attention on the Internet, where its previous presence was much more limited and editors produced the content. For a politically themed outlet like left-leaning Mother Jones, timelier investigative pieces and live blog entries from more writers should prove tremendously valuable.

The full-time staff can also afford to risk chasing leads that may not pan out. "If you're going to freelance an investigative story, you kind of have to be sure you've got it," Jeffery says. Having a staff, "you know the people you're working with are capable of pulling off the kind of digging around required. If you're a free-lancer, it's not going to be profitable for you to be going down rabbit holes."

That type of reporting, what Editor Monika Bauerlein calls the "franchise of the magazine," was responsible for the beginning of the D.C. staff story back in the summer of 2006, when Josh Harkinson in San Francisco and Dan Schulman and senior correspondent James Ridgeway in D.C. were the magazine's I-team.

The office as it stands today came through the addition of Mencimer, Bureau Chief David Corn, Laura Rozen (formerly a senior correspondent for The Washington Monthly and The American Prospect), Jonathan Stein (former assistant Web editor and editorial fellow for Mother Jones) and Bruce Falconer (staff editor at the Atlantic for almost six years). Mother Jones still keeps Harkinson on the West Coast, but he is the extent of the magazine's reporting staff outside the D.C. bureau.

"Around the time I came on, the editors really wanted to make a bigger investigative push and get into the conversation," said Schulman, now associate editor at the bureau.

More than just getting into it, Jeffery says, Mother Jones wants to be able to steer the conversation and draw the mainstream media's attention to stories that might otherwise slip through the cracks. "We don't want to just follow," she says. While she freely acknowledges "there's no way we can compete with the New York Times or the Washington Post on a daily basis on every front," she says the magazine can "stay on stories longer and dig up the documents those stories require."

And naturally Mother Jones also hopes to get noticed by the readers who, along with the Foundation for National Progress, fund the independent bi-monthly. "It's a larger journey of taking the magazine from a very fine bimonthly publication to a news organization that still creates a very fine bimonthly publication but is also much more of a presence in readers' daily lives," Bauerlein says.

Despite the advantages of having a D.C. staff, the magazine continues to see freelancers as its main content producers, particularly for the print version, which has a circulation of 231,000. Because of the volume of material freelancers contribute and their different areas of expertise, the editors consider them indispensable. "It's not like we're going to become just a staff-driven magazine," Jeffery says. "We're not going to split that baby."

That pool provided Mother Jones with many of the hundreds of highly qualified applicants whose résumés Bauerlein says she and Jeffery sifted through to find the missing five pieces of the bureau. After weeks of correspondence, interviews and lunches, the new staff members were selected based on their interest in public affairs and their commitment to investigative reporting. "In each of their cases it was just a stellar reporting background, a history of good writing and an interest in developing in writing as well as reporting," Bauerlein says. "Complicated and weighty topics are better told in good prose than bad prose."

In fact, she says, much of the bureau staff ultimately came from former Mother Jones freelancers, including Bureau Chief Corn, former Washington editor of The Nation.

She says the magazine's leadership had known Corn for some time before offering him the position; he was on a sort of "dream list" for the magazine because of his strong reporting abilities and "sharp analytical voice." He was also an early and enthusiastic blogger, Bauerlein says, which made him an ideal candidate because of the magazine's Internet ambitions.

As bureau chief, Corn would like to reunite the Internet and serious reporting after what he feels has been a long estrangement. He sees the blogosphere, once a promising place for serious commentary, as more the home of gossip than a forum for fact-based journalism.

"What technology hasn't done in many ways is produce new reporting and actual journalism," he says. "Blogs have done a good job of celebrity coverage, but it hasn't led to a flood of new reporting in Washington."

The timing of the expansion is unusual in an era characterized by budget cuts and staff reductions. Mencimer says she was glad for the opportunity to get a full-time position in the capital at a time when retrenchment has led to a feeling that it's not a great time to be in journalism. But Reynolds says Mother Jones is optimistic about its new venture. After all, "We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think we could keep it open."

The key to survival for print publications, Mother Jones included, is high quality, Publisher Harris says. "You can't be so-so," he says. "People have too many choices. There's no room for mediocre print."

###