Mother Jones‘s first issue of 2003 sold 29,000 copies at the newsstand—at the time, a personal best. Jay Harris, publisher of the liberal monthly, would like to tell you that it was, say, Barry Yeoman’s investigation into the perils of school lunch that propelled the magazine to new heights. But Harris knows that if there’s a thank-you note to be sent, its address should read 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s because Mother Jones‘s January/February cover features the 43rd president in full cowboy regalia, blindly waving a pistol and riding his steed straight off a cliff. Boys and girls, meet the new cash cow for lefty publishers—President George W. Bush.
“We have a good magazine and smart promotion,” says Harris. “But what Bush did was turbo-charge the moment. The only period roughly comparable was when Newt Gingrich became Speaker.”
In the world of partisan political mags and opinion journals, it goes without saying that when the opposing party is in power, the underdog’s publications generally benefit. Victor Navasky, publisher and editorial director of The Nation, is fond of quipping that what’s bad for the country is generally good for The Nation. But in this particularly contentious political clime, in which Dick Cheney displays his colorful vocab and Iowa senator Tom Harkin dismisses the veep as a coward, lefty rags have found President Bush to be the ultimate weapon in the subscription war. “I felt motivated when I got here in 1978,” says Navasky. “I felt motivated under Clinton and under Jimmy Carter. But I think there was a moment of opportunity that Bush has provided, and also the mainstream press because they’ve been going along with the administration for so long.”
It’s an opportunity that publications like Mother Jones have eagerly capitalized on. In 1998, the Left Coast glossy had a paid circulation of 132,000. As of June 2004, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, that number had ballooned to 236,000. Mother Jones‘s success has been mirrored by that of its kindred publications. Under Bush, The Nation‘s paid circulation jumped from 94,000 in December 2000 to 165,000 in June 2004.
The American Prospect cites a circulation jump of 112 percent during the Bush presidency, from 27,000 in 2000 to 58,000 in 2004. Tracy Van Slyke, associate publisher for In These Times, says the print run there has nearly doubled, from 12,000 a year and a half ago to 23,000 now. “The pattern has been that when there are Republican administrations, numbers go up,” says Van Slyke. “But this may be our most dramatic increase.”
The boon in circulation has also paid dividends in the form of ad revenue. Ellen Bollinger, vice president of advertising at The Nation, says revenue from direct-response ads—the ones that encourage customers to mention the publication—has doubled, and overall ad revenue is up 30 percent. Last year, The Nation‘s general rate for a full-page ad, in black-and-white, was $6,627. This year it’s been able to raise that to $7,800. “I hardly get a chance to prospect because there is so much business coming in,” says Bollinger. “I have to scramble just to stay on top of the people who want to buy ads—knock on wood.”
All of this looks disarmingly familiar to folks who live on the other side of the tracks. In 1995, William F. Buckley’s National Review harvested rage against Clinton to the tune of over 200,000 subscribers. “There’s no magic formula. There’s no proof as to why, but I do believe that negativity is a strong motivating factor,” says associate publisher Jack Fowler. “Our circulation didn’t start to grow under Clinton; it started to grow under Bush I. There was significant conservative disappointment under him. John O’Sullivan called it the Bush-Clinton era, and that’s when our circulation did grow.”
As conservatives have garnered more power in Washington, National Review‘s numbers have subsided to 155,000 paying subscribers. “With Gingrich and the gang taking over Congress, it was happy days are here again and I’ll get my conservatism on C-SPAN,” says Fowler. “I certainly think there is a strong anti-Bush animus on the left, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that their circulation is skyrocketing. They’re tapping into a mood. We tapped into it 10 years ago. Churchill himself, in his autobiography, talks about how hate is a motivating force. I wouldn’t call it hate, but the negative gets people moving.”
But while Bushwhacking has been good for business, opposing a presidency doesn’t always guarantee an influx of subscriptions. Harris notes that at Mother Jones, paid circulation “declined significantly” during the Reagan administration. “Certainly Reagan was seen as a significant threat to the values of liberals and progressives,” says Harris. “But friendly, avuncular Ronald Reagan didn’t seem to be quite the extremist that George Bush seems.”
Perhaps more importantly, during the Reagan era, Mother Jones didn’t have the Internet. Publishers of political journals across the ideological spectrum say the Web has become a big source of new readers. In the August 30 issue, In These Times ran a cover story titled “They Knew,” which asserted that the Bush administration knew the case for war in Iraq was weak. After the article was posted online, the magazine received around 70 subscription requests in three days, up from an average of 15 to 20 a week.
With the Internet wind at their backs, and partisan rage peaking, could we see growth for liberal magazines of previously unimaginable proportions? Don’t bet on it. Fowler points to The American Spectator, whose circulation peaked at 300,000 during the Clinton years and has since shrunk to about 60,000. “It’s easy to get them in the door. The problem is keeping them in the house,” says Fowler. “Any magazine could wildly inflate its circulation: Just sell subscriptions for one dollar, watch circulation go through the roof, and watch us go out of business. The goal is to get them to not only test the product but get them to renew.”