Personal news: I am no longer editorial director at Mother Jones. You need to find new reasons to pretend to cancel your subscriptions.
I was hired at MJ in July of 2013 as their engagement editor. In that role I was one of the first people to recognize some of the ways of gaming Facebook. Our audience grew quickly and in time it changed many parts of the publication. Eventually a team grew under me and I became a senior editor and then eventually an editorial director. I’m immensely proud of those audiences, that team, and the recognition we received.
At the same time however I was also growing my own audience on social media and developing my own brand, which, at times, collided with Mother Jones. It would be silly not to admit that. Fundamentally, my job at MJ was not a public facing one. It was about editing and strategy and though I wrote often for Mother Jones under my own name, it wasn’t what I was being paid to do. I also was 100% not being paid for my personal tweets, which I promise you everyone at Mother Jones would have been thrilled if I just stopped sending.
But I’m a writer. Whether it’s tweets or blogs or newsletter or television shows Hollywood for some reason doesn’t make, that’s the thing I do best.
As a writer, Mother Jones never would have hired me. Mother Jones doesn’t hire people to write about Love Actually and SoulCycle. They don’t even employ “staff writers.” They have “reporters.” I used to think that the distinction in titles was just house style. But it’s not. Mother Jones is an organization dedicated to progressive investigative journalism. I learned a lot about that work on the job, but I never wanted to be a reporter, and to the extent that I was able to help shape those stories it was about how to frame them to make them sell to normie readers. Because, well, I’m a normie reader.
I have bragged hyperbolically in the past that no one has tricked more people into reading about climate change than me. And that’s not literally true in two ways: someone probably has done it more, and trick is sort of a winking cutesy description. It was really just finding angles that resounded. And it’s not just climate change, right? I use that as an example because climate change is famously difficult to get people to read about. I’m really proud of that work. I also found that I enjoyed the game of it. Every day was like a puzzle.
My life changed in 2011 when I was hired at CNET to run their twitter account. It wasn’t supposed to be a career. It was supposed to be a gig. But I learned something amazing in that job: running social media accounts for a brand is an excuse to learn about people. All the social platforms offer so much data that you can see how people read and how they respond. You can A/B test things until your heart is content. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It made me a better writer and a better thinker. It made me more empathetic. It’s like the difference between doing theater and doing a film. When you shoot a film, you do your scenes and then wait a year to find out if the audience likes it. When you do theater you can feel it in the moment and adjust your performance accordingly the next night.
But it’s also impossible to stay romantic about it if you do this for so long. You recognize the cognitive biases that everyone shares that makes them vulnerable to this type of optimization. I don’t know how people can spend a lot of time online and become more strident in their ideological affiliations. Everyone is crazy—me included, me most of all—and people act crazy in groups.
Things have changed a lot in the last 8 years. I had a nervous breakdown in 2016. Like, a real proper one. In part it was because I was getting so strung out on internecine online politics. I left the mental institution four days before Trump won, and I then spent four years watching as the world became just as strung out on it as I had been.
I have become less political, not in terms of my beliefs, but in terms of my appetite.
I promised myself in 2019 that as a personal wellness thing I would stop following politics obsessively after Trump was out of office. I was obviously very invested in his catastrophic presidency and I had to see the storyline through, but once it was done, I needed to step back. After election night in 2020, I told my bosses that I wanted to go on leave at the start of Biden’s presidency to work on a book proposal about these dynamics. I’ve not actually stopped following politics everyday and caring about it because it turns out I do care about it more than I want to admit. But I definitely don’t want to define myself by it.
It goes without saying that there is inherent privilege in that statement. I’m a straight white man born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Not thinking about politics all the time is something not everyone can do. And I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that the specific way in which we are all following politics online is unhealthy and toxic. I know it is for me. I think it is for everyone, but you might disagree.
In 2020 I took over the Mother Jones newsletter program and relaunched it, and found myself writing in a medium that was new to me. And it was fun! The most fun I’d had at work in a long time. And then, even better, it was a great success. So I’m going to spend the next year writing a newsletter independently. Starting in May I’m going to relaunch my Substack in a more formal way, with a regular publishing schedule. PLEASE SUBSCRIBE I BEG YOU.
And maybe it won’t work! Maybe in a year I’ll need or want to go back to solving puzzles at a publication or an ad agency or something. Among other things I’m incredibly apprehensive about not having colleagues and an office community. I’m incredibly apprehensive about this whole thing to be honest. I’m terrified. To borrow a line from a film about a shark, “I got no spit.”
But you have to take your shot when you can and I would never forgive myself if I didn’t take this opportunity to make a go-of it writing for myself, as myself.
Mother Jones is a wonderful publication, not because of its past or its namesake. It’s wonderful because of the flesh and blood people who make it up today. And I really am going to miss them all very much.
Two final things: 1) please subscribe and please tell your friends to subscribe and please tell people who want to sleep with you that you only sleep with people who subscribe, 2) give me feedback! If you hate something, tell me! If you want something, tell me! I want this to be good and I want this to be successful and I want to make this marriage work. Think of our children.