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O Mother, where art thou?

American bimonthly title Mother Jones shows that public-service journalism isn't dying.

On 23 September, the Guardian journalist David Leigh put forward a proposal to “save newspapers”: a £2-a-month levy on everyone with a broadband connection, to be “redistributed automatically to ‘news providers’ according to their share of UK online readership”. The £500m a year raised, he explained, would safeguard public-interest journalism, and stop the decline of print leading inexorably to an internet dominated by “the timid BBC on the one hand, and superficial junk on the other”.

Leigh’s plan received what are known euphemistically as “mixed reviews”: Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford called it “bonkers”, noting that the Mail and Sun would both collect large sums, even though they are already profitable. Others baulked at the idea of paying for content they had never asked for.

What no one disputed, though, was that if we believe that labourintensive, expensive investigative journalism is a public good, we need to think hard about how it will be funded in the future. Newspapers usually bundled together the highbrow and the low, and made buying them a reflection of who you were. (No one knew you skipped past the leader page straight to the racing results.) But the internet has broken that compact and removed the incentive to cross-subsidise the tough stuff with the fluff.

And yet – put away the blackedged hanky, because all is not lost. The past few weeks have shown that exactly that kind of journalism can survive in the marketplace and we don’t even need a broadband tax to pay for it.

You may not have heard of Mother Jones, but if you follow American politics, then you’ll have seen the fallout from its scoop. Addressing supporters, the presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said: “There are 47 per cent who are with [Obama], who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims” and who would “vote for him no matter what”. Mother Jones’s Washington bureau chief, David Corn, found the video online and beat the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim to track down its owner and verify its contents. It brought more than two million visitors to the magazine’s website in the first 12 hours of the story – double the number it would normally get in a month. Not bad for a tiny, independent magazine that has been declared dead several times – particularly when it was up against the HuffPo, which has the full corporate financial power of AOL behind it.

Heart of the Amazon

So what is Mother Jones? Founded in 1976 and named after a trade unionist and opponent of child labour, it is a bimonthly title dedicated to unfashionable causes and undercover investigations. In March this year, its reporter Mac McClelland wrote “I was a warehouse wage slave”, about an online-shipping company that sounded suspiciously like Amazon (it was not identified in her piece). The conditions experienced by the temporary workers were brutal: 12-hour stretches running around a cold, cavernous warehouse, with every trip meticulously timed through a hand-held scanner; lunch breaks of “29 minutes and 59 seconds”; limited access to the overcrowded toilets and constant reminders that “there’s 16 other people who want your job”.

At least the workers at the packing factory weren’t suffering the fate of those in “The spam factory’s dirty secret”, from the July 2011 issue. Mother Jones revealed a catalogue of abuses driven by our relentless demand for cheaper meat, summed up in the standfirst like this: “First, [the owner] gutted the union. Then it sped up the line. And when the pig-brain machine made workers sick, they got canned.”

Although Mother Jones enjoys First Amendment protection not available to British publications – and neither does it face our harsh libel laws – this sort of journalism is still costly to produce. The magazine is owned by the nonprofit Foundation for National Progress, and its work is partly funded through sales of the print magazine ($12 a year, circulation 240,000) and partly through a “Donate” button on its home page. Only a third of its revenue comes from advertising.

The Mother Jones model is not the only option, though. The highbrow US magazine the Atlantic has gambled its future on revenue from branded events: a recent New York Times story described its future as “digital first and last, with ancillary revenue from conferences”, the print product’s role being to “bring lustre to digital assets”. The New Republic, another rarefied and precariously placed publication, also seems likely to survive. It was bought in March by Chris Hughes, whose decision to share a room at college with Mark Zuckerberg means he has $700m of Facebook fortune to invest.

Here in Britain, the sales of Private Eye – which smuggles in much investigative work after the gossip and jokes –were up 10 per cent year on year in August. So even if David Leigh is right and newspapers soon can’t or won’t be able to do public-service journalism, the form isn’t dying.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special