‘What’s bad for the nation is good for The Nation

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the visibility of far right-wing outlets like Breitbart has risen—but what about their counterparts on the far left? Columbia Journalism School’s George Delacorte Professor Keith Gessen sat down with Sarah Leonard, a senior editor at The Nation, and Jacobin Founding Editor and Publisher Bhaskar Sunkara on Dec 7 to talk about their publications’ roles in the age of Trump.

While disappointed by the election results, Leonard and Sunkara said the media isn’t to blame for Trump’s rise. “I think there is this idea that the media is responsible for what people think to a larger degree than is true, and I think that’s really presumptuous and often on the part of journalists, really smug,” said Leonard. “It’s not the media’s job to set anyone’s tone. The media’s job is to provide information.”

Leonard emphasized her left-leaning publication’s history of educating readers about politics, which she hopes will motivate them to organize. As a nonprofit, Jacobin does not endorse political candidates, but it does offer readers a wide array of political voices on the left. “It’s the best time to be a socialist in the United States since the 1970s,” Sunkara wrote in a recent piece for the Brooklyn-based quarterly founded in 2010.

Jacobin has seen remarkable growth in recent years. In 2013, Sunkara told The New York Times that the magazine had about 2,000 subscribers and 250,000 online visitors per month. It now has over 25,000 subscribers. A print and digital subscription costs $29.95, while digital only is $19.95. Institutions can pay a flat rate of about 60 bucks for either deal.

Print is a key aspect of the publication’s success, Sunkara told the Delacorte audience, as revenue based solely on website impressions is hard to sustain. “That’s where you end up with content mills and you burn out your writers,” Sunkara said. “You pay them poorly, and it’s partially because the economics of it is so bad. It’s not because these people are all terrible.” Jacobin also relies on universities to subsidize some of its content. He explained that the magazine often publishes adapted excerpts from academic dissertations, which saves money and resources.

“I just want to underscore the…shockingness of what he just said,” Gessen told the audience, “which is that in order to survive as a small publication, you need to have a print component you can actually sell.”

Leonard did not give specific numbers, but explained that most of The Nation’s funding comes from subscriptions, its donor base, and fundraising. To encourage additional subscriptions, the magazine uses a meter system with a cap on the number of articles that can be read without paying. She noted that while the magazine does carry ads on its website, they don’t generate big profits.

While much of the lecture focused on political activism to counter the results of the election, both magazines are also seeing a post-Trump increase in subscribers and Web traffic. Jacobin had nearly five million pageviews in the last month, Sunkara said. Leonard added that The Nation’s subscriptions normally jump during Republican presidencies, noting that the magazine saw its highest rise in subscriptions during George W. Bush’s presidency. 

“What’s bad for the nation is good for The Nation,” Sunkara joked in response. 

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Carlett Spike is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.