For the January/February issue, regular subscribers at home got a cover featuring Mac McClelland’s piece “Aftershocks,” a difficult and important investigation into Haiti’s post-disaster rape crisis. (CJR previously praised the article here.) “GREETINGS FROM HAITI,” declares the text on the cover. “Disaster profiteers, AWOL aid, Rape gangs, & the badass women who are fighting back.” The cover photo depicts a small child looking up at his mother. Up in the high right corner of the cover is smaller text, “Pot Goes Wall Street.”
That refers to another long feature in the issue, “Joint Ventures,” by Josh Harkinson; it’s a story about two “righteous business dudes” who “want to leverage California’s lucrative ganja industry.” And that’s the cover story on the version of Mother Jones that sat out on newsstands. The newsstand cover photo depicts the two dudes in question, with the text “WEEDMART. Marijuana superstore. Wall Street IPO. Reality TV shot. Meet the cocky entrepreneurs at the vanguard of the pot boom.”
The editors explain:
Mother Jones is not immune to the pressure of newsstand sales: Sure, we’re a nonprofit, but we supplement readers’ support with every extra penny we can find. And that means getting casual browsers about to board a five-hour flight to pick up this magazine. With that in mind, we agonized more than usual about this issue’s cover options.
The Haiti story, while compelling, is “a tough sell on the newsstand ..rape gangs are pretty heavy stuff to hit a new reader with on our first encounter.” The pot story, on the other hand, was an entertaining read, but the editors were afraid it might “reinforce musty clichés of MoJo as a counterculture relic.” Unable to choose between the covers, they decided to run both. They hope that casual newsstand browsers will be grabbed by the light fare and then get pulled in to the magazine’s signature harder-hitting stuff, while regular readers have already demonstrated that they can stomach the “bummer stories.”
It’s a pretty smart experiment, to pull in different audiences with different methods. And along the way, in explaining the decision-making process, Jeffery and Bauerlein also encourage their readers to congratulate themselves. You’re in the club, they are telling you. You want the real reporting, the—as they put it—“visceral, non-sugar-coated journalism.” In fact, the headline of the editor’s note reads:
You Can Handle the Truth
Media pundits say tough stories drive readers away. Thanks for proving them wrong.
It’s not a new idea for news organizations to think about what their readers expect, and to try to give them what they want. These are the kinds of conversations that go on every day in newsrooms, of course. But the case of the Loughner mugshot and the Mother Jones double-cover experiment show that the context, the medium in which the readers are accessing the content changes those expectations, too. The sharpest, most agile newsrooms will be the ones that keep those shifting expectations in mind.