Roger Cohn has been editor-in-chief of Mother Jones since April 1999. Under his leadership, Mother Jones won the award for General Excellence at the 2001 National Magazine Awards. In January 2001, Mother Jones also won the 2000 Alternative Press Award for best magazine from Utne Reader. Before coming to Mother Jones, Cohn spent seven years as executive editor of Audubon Magazine, and more than 10 years as a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer. Cohn, a 1973 graduate of Yale, has written for the New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, New York Observer, and Outside. One of Mother Jones' first big stories was an expose on the design defect in the Ford Pinto that caused the gas tank to explode in rear-end accidents. Recently the magazine has had pieces on the pitfalls of for-profit online education and the increase in mass-market TV ads for prescription drugs. Cohn spoke with JournalismJobs.com about his efforts to revive Mother Jones.
Roger Cohn: We did it by trying to get the magazine back to its roots, with strong reporting and good hard-hitting journalism. I felt when I came in here that the magazine had gotten too predictable, and had become too oriented toward commentary and attitude, and did not have enough of the good hard reporting that had always made Mother Jones best in the past. I thought that was something that was needed and readers wanted it, and that this was a time when there was a need for that in journalism more than ever.
The magazine is still focused on issues relating to social justice, fairness and equity in society. But we explore those issues not through rhetoric, but through the reporting that we do, the kind of stories that we do. Readers have responded. Our largest growth is among young readers in their 20s. The magazine has always had its base in the baby boomer generation, who were young when the magazine started. I think those readers have responded well, too. They appreciate what we are doing. Our circulation was something like 132,000 when I got here, and it's 185,000 now. It's giving them stuff that they're not getting elsewhere. There are plenty of liberal opinion magazines, but we're not that. We're a reporting magazine.
JournalismJobs.com: What inspired you to leave Audubon Magazine, which had already achieved great success, to move from New York to San Francisco to run a non-profit magazine struggling to recapture its glory?
Roger Cohn: Audubon Magazine had moved away from the kind of journalism that I wanted to do. That wasn't something I felt comfortable with so I had actually left a year before joining Mother Jones. Why did I come out here? Here was an opportunity to take over a magazine where the mandate was to do good journalism. There are no commercial pressures. Yes we have advertising, yes we want to sell magazines and sell ads, but we're a non-profit dedicated to focusing on the kinds of issues that we care about through our journalism. Here was an opportunity to take over a magazine, do the journalism, not have to be influenced by commercial pressures of what sells, and just do the best stories that we possibly could. That was a challenge very few editors get handed to them. We're still building here. I think we're getting better with each issue. To me this was an opportunity of which there were very few like it in American journalism.
JournalismJobs.com: Was there too much commentary in Mother Jones before you took over, and did that contribute to its downfall?
Roger Cohn: I don't know that there was a downfall of the magazine. I think the magazine was not thriving, and a new formula was needed. In the case of Mother Jones, the new formula was the original formula, which was the focus on strong reporting. The journalism you see in Mother Jones -- yes, we have an attitude -- but it's good strong reporting done by serious journalists, not advocacy journalism. The subjects that we cover show what we're concerned about.
JournalismJobs.com: At the 2001 National Magazine Awards, you beat out some very tough competition in Harper's, Texas Monthly, Saveur, and Nylon for the top honor in the 100,000 to 400,000 circulation category. Did you ever envision this happening when you took over, and so soon?
Roger Cohn: I was thrilled and stunned by that kind of recognition, that fast. It was really based on the first full year's work that was done here after I came. I brought in a fine group of new editors and a great new art director, Jane Palecek. I knew we had made great strides in improving the magazine, and I was proud of what we had done. Did I have the hope that we would get to that point? Absolutely. But I did not expect it that soon. It was sweet and thrilling for all of us here. Jane Palecek and the team of editors worked really hard in that first year. The competition, with magazines like Harper's and Texas Monthly, was so strong.
JournalismJobs.com: Mother Jones has always had a liberal, activist image. Yet in a CNN interview this year, you characterized many of your readers as conservative. Why is there this misconception that your readers are left-wing?
Roger Cohn: I don't think I said exactly that. Most of our readers are liberal, progressive in their politics. But our readers are more broad-based than that. It's a sophisticated group of readers, which includes a lot people who consider themselves politically conservative, or moderate, or conservative on some issues, who don't consider themselves particularly progressive, but look to the magazine for unbiased, hard-hitting, straight reporting. What I was trying to say in that interview was we're not some monolithic, left-leaning readership. A lot of our readers span the political spectrum and look for the reporting in Mother Jones that they don't get elsewhere.
JournalismJobs.com: Has the George W. presidency been a shot in the arm for the magazine?
Roger Cohn: Both the George W. presidency and the events since September 11th have created an environment in which people are hungry for news and more in-depth coverage of things. That's good for us. In the case of Bush, I think pre-September 11th people were concerned about things his administration might do since it was a total change from the Clinton years. They were looking for in-depth coverage -- coverage that might be missed by the more mainstream media. I think post-September 11th people are hungry for all the good reporting they can get.
JournalismJobs.com: It seems that when Mother Jones wasn't as popular, Clinton was in office and so the issues that you covered were already being reinforced by his administration. But now with Bush in office, Mother Jones seems to be more popular because his policies contrast with what you're writing about. Is there a correlation?
Roger Cohn: There's no question that what the Bush administration is doing is fertile ground for Mother Jones on a number of fronts. But I don't think it's as simple as Mother Jones is going to thrive when there's a bogeyman Republican administration in there and it's not going to thrive when there's a Democratic administration, or a liberal-Democratic administration. This magazine had its best year -- or one of its best years -- in 2000, and Bill Clinton was president.
JournalismJobs.com: Doing quality investigative journalism takes time and money. How are you able to do it on a non-profit budget?
Roger Cohn: We devote the bulk of our resources toward our reporting. We are a non-profit, but we do have revenue from our circulation and advertising and general contributions from readers and donors to the magazine and that combined gives us an adequate budget that we focus on our reporting. We're a pretty streamlined operation here. We have a small staff. We try to keep things tight and modest in every area so that the resources we do have are channeled into the reporting. And we've been able to do it.
JournalismJobs.com: Given that most of your stories are long-term investigative pieces, how many of them make it into the magazine, and how many fall through the cracks?
Roger Cohn: We've had a pretty good track record in not having to kill too many stories. Truthfully, I don't have a big enough budget to afford to kill too many stories. So we work really hard with the writer, and when a story needs work, we work with the writer to get it done. There are plenty of times where we work with a writer to check out the situation as to whether there is a story there, and then decide there is no story. We have writers we work with and quite a number of times where we talk with them about a story, check it out, and decide mutually that there's no story. That does happen.
JournalismJobs.com: How does Mother Jones distinguish itself from The Nation and other magazines in your genre?
Roger Cohn: Well, I don't know what our genre is. Yes, we're a magazine that comes out from a liberal or progressive bent, but unlike The Nation, we are a magazine that is most focused on reporting, not commentary. I admire The Nation tremendously, but I think we're different from them in that we're focused on the journalism and the in-depth reporting. They certainly have some of that in The Nation, and they do a good job with it. But the focus of The Nation is on commentary, and I think The Nation is much-more opinionated by intent. I don't mean this as a criticism; it's trying to be more opinionated. Now with Mother Jones, yes we have opinion, yes we want to be provocative, but the core of our magazine is driven by the reporting.
JournalismJobs.com: As a whole, is the media industry doing a good job with investigative journalism?
Roger Cohn: I think that with budget cuts and tight profit margins, in the past decade the media has cut back dramatically on in-depth investigative reporting. Having said that, there's still a lot of great in-depth investigative reporting being done. I think there's not enough of it. My friends at other publications express their frustrations about that all the time. One of the things that could come out of September 11th -- and I think it's already started to come out of it -- is a sense that Americans are more interested in serious journalism and real news, and hopefully that will carry over long after this post-September 11th period.
Media companies in general will feel that people are hungry for good reporting and in-depth stories. And I think they are. I think it's an insult to the intelligence of most Americans to assume that they're not. If it's done well, if it's packaged well, I think people are receptive to it. Look at what Time and Newsweek have been doing in the last few months -- there's been some great stories there. There's been a total focus on news in a way we haven't seen in years. My hope is that there's more balance -- obviously there will be more room for features once we get out of the post-September 11th period. But I hope the balance will change more permanently where we'll see more hard-hitting reporting and more focus on news and looking behind the headlines with in-depth stories. In a period when we're focused on Monica and OJ, this stuff falls between the cracks and nobody covers it. I'm hoping we're going to see a change in that.
JournalismJobs.com: But will this be bad for Mother Jones if other media outlets start doing longer, investigative pieces and copying your model?
Roger Cohn: I think there's more than enough good stories to go around. We have our own niche, and I'm proud of that. I don't think more magazines doing more in-depth reporting stories will have any effect on us. In fact I think it might help us. It helps create a climate where people are tuned in and turned on to good journalism. We'll just be doing our thing, and we'll keep doing it better. We always try to find the stories other people aren't doing no matter what period we're operating in. We have our own niche in the sense that we are interested in different stories that have underlying them issues that relate to social justice, environmental issues, issues that relate to fairness and equity in our society -- those are our underlying issues. That's always going to be our focus in the reporting that we do.
This magazine, some of its best years in the past happened in the periods when investigative journalism was much more prevalent in the media than it had been in recent years. This magazine was founded in the post-Watergate period, and made its mark in the late 70s with the expose on the Ford Pinto. I think there are plenty of good stories to be done.
JournalismJobs.com: Journalistically, are you the most happy now?
Roger Cohn: Oh, I've had a lot of good times in my career. As a journalist, I'm thrilled right now. It's a great seat to be sitting in and to be able to do the kind of journalism we're doing. I've had the thrill of being a young reporter with Gene Roberts' Philadelphia Inquirer, and I've had the thrill of being a rookie reporter out of college at the Torrington Register newspaper. Those were two times in the past where I was thrilled with my work. This is a great opportunity, and I'm having a ball here.
JournalismJobs.com: Are you going to stick around?
Roger Cohn: Oh yeah.
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