Here’s How Magazines Like Harper’s and Mother Jones Stay Afloat

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A long time ago, one of my first jobs out of college was working as managing editor of the American Prospect, which had just launched with support from a handful of foundations and major donors.

Among my responsibilities was helping oversee the direct mail campaigns to enlist subscribers, and soon enough, TAP had some revenue flowing in from its readers. But neither these subscriptions nor advertising income ever amounted to enough revenue for fully powering the magazine. Instead, the Prospect has remained heavily dependent on donors.

That’s also the case for many other magazines of ideas and opinion, which is hardly news to anyone who has hung around this world. Now, a new study offers a better sense of how much funding has been flowing to this media niche in recent years.

The report, "Funding the News," by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy and Northeastern University, focuses mainly on the largest flows of foundation funding for media, documenting support to public radio and national news nonprofits like ProPublica. But it also looks at funding for 25 magazines and journals over a six-year period, between 2010 and 2015, which totaled $80.7 million. 

The results only offer a partial look at philanthropic support for these publications, since the study just tracks foundation funding. But the numbers are still illuminating for anyone who’s ever wondered how outfits like Harper’s and Mother Jones stay in business, much less the New Criterion.

Harper’s pulled in the most foundation money during the period analyzed, $23.7 million, with all of that coming from the Roderick MacArthur Foundation. The namesake of this foundation was the only son of John D. MacArthur, who left the bulk of his fortune to endow the big MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. But some wealth also went to the foundation bearing his son’s name, an entity which was sometimes known as “little Mac.”  

Roderick died in 1984. His son Rick is a journalist and author—and also president of Harper’s, which explains how the magazine has survived over the years. 

Second on the list of top grant recipients is Education Week, which raised $14.4 million from foundations. We’ve written before about this funding, which has mostly come from major grantmakers working on K-12. It’s problematic that the top magazine covering the education world is supported by funders like the Gates Foundation that have a specific agenda. On the other hand, there aren’t a lot of other viable revenue models for publications like this besides taking interested money—while putting in place policies to ensure editorial independence. A newer media site on the K-12 journalism scene, The 74, is not included in the Shorenstein study. But it’s received substantial support from some of the top funders of charter schools and education reform groups.

Mainly, though, the magazines that win philanthropic support are focused on ideas and opinion, and attract donors who share their worldview.

Mother Jones has been a top beneficiary of philanthropic support, getting $6.5 million between 2010 and 2015. As a leader in progressive muckraking journalism, the magazine is a regular recipient of gifts from donors on the left. For example, last year, the tech entrepreneur Rob Glaser made a $250,000 grant to support a Mother Jones investigation of the Trump-Russia connection. Between 2013 and 2015, the magazine reported over $20 million in charitable contributions—a reminder that the Shorenstein study only documents some of the philanthropic dollars that have lately flowed to nonprofit media. More than many publications, Mother Jones has cultivated a substantial base of small donors, and as with other liberal organizations, such support surged after the 2016 election.

Two other progressive media organizations, The Nation Institute and the American Prospect, also rank high on the study’s list of top recipients of foundation funding, pulling in $5.5 million and $4.1 million in grants respectively. Again, these numbers don’t convey the full scope of charitable gifts to these entities. That’s also true regarding another publication on the opposite side of political spectrum: the National Review. While the Shorenstein study lists just $266,060 in foundation support over a six-year period, tax records for the National Review Institute show over $13 million in charitable contributions between 2013 and 2015 alone.

Other ideologically aligned magazines that are largely kept afloat by philanthropy include: the New Criterion, the American Spectator, In These Times, Boston Review, Reason Magazine, and Democracy. Meanwhile, other publications—like the New Republic and the Atlantic—have often been run at a loss by their owners.

The funding levels in this world tend to be pretty small compared to top nonprofits. But magazines can have a big impact by helping promote ideas and also through investigative journalism. Funders have long recognized that, and so the money to this influential niche keeps flowing.