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155 years of innovation at The Nation

Amid the screaming headlines and provocative tweets that accompany American politics at the moment, The Nation has remained a publication that steadfastly refuses to sensationalise. It’s an approach that’s clearly working with America’s leading source of progressive politics and culture enjoying record traffic and subscription growth, new heights in direct-sold advertising and unprecedented fundraising success in recent years.

Guiding the 155-year institution into a new era is President Erin O’Mara who sat down for a fascinating discussion at FIPP’s World Media Congress 2020 during a time when the weekly is launching into more change including a redesign, frequency change and adding more pages to each issue.

“We are really proud of our history and our ability to change with the times because change is key to survival,” she said. “We’ll continue to grow but the one thing that hasn’t changed is that we get the facts right and we don’t sensationalise. I believe there is value in media that has been trusted over time and in the times that we are in, that is even more valuable.

“We are not overly subject to the political and cultural clickbait moment. And while we have stayed true to our founding, mission and community we are always looking forward and always thinking about how the world is changing and how we need to change with it.”

We are not taking the bait. We do not cover Twitter – it is not a primary source for news.

Not rising to the bait

Given that The Atlantic recently gained 20,000 subscribers after President Trump dismissed them on Twitter, it must surely be tempting for The Nation to stir a bit on controversy every now and then. But while O’Mara admitted it would “make her day” if President Trumped trolled the publication, she said The Nation would stay true to what it is.

“Who we are is in our DNA and we have responded to this moment by not responding,” she said. “We are not taking the bait. We do not cover Twitter – it is not a primary source for news. What we’re doing is covering the policies and decisions and the things that are happening behind all the chaos that really impact people’s lives.

“Our community expects us to shine a light on the issues they need to know about. And quite frankly, the news is sensational enough, we don’t have to add to that. We don’t chase eyeballs, we focus on engagement. And an engaged community is really meaningful, not just the way they interact with us but also how they can be ambassadors for The Nation.”

Easing readers’ pain

To encourage the sort of deep reader engagement that sustains The Nation, the publication has launched a serious of verticals that align well with its mission and community. This includes a stable of newsletters read by 500,000 “engaged community members’. One such newsletter was inspired by the result of the 2016 presidential election.

“After the election there was a lot of pain and a need to do something,” explained O’Mara. “It was almost paralysing there was so much pain. We realised that we were feeling this paralysis and felt overwhelmed and that our community was probably feeling that as well. So what’s come out of it a weekly newsletter called Take Action Now in which we curated all the ways to make a difference and broke all of those options down based on the time you had. Very quickly we had 50,000 people on that newsletter.”

Unsurprisingly, The Nation is looking towards the next presidential election with great interest. “In all things we’re doing we are working on the ‘what ifs’ because how this election turns out is deeply meaningful to our community, staff and content,” said O’Mara. “We are looking at all the possible outcomes and expecting that the election won’t be decided on election night. It will be a slow unroll.”

Through its website The Nation has discovered it’s having great success attracting people between the ages of 25 and 34. “Younger people are not only finding our history relevant but our present relevant,” said O’Mara. “We are able to do that by developing engagement, thinking about the verticals that might matter to them and building on a history of truth telling.

We started taking people to places where there is lot of misunderstanding and confusion and we are a subject matter expert.

Exploring new horizons

One of the most innovative ways The Nation has branched out is its group travel programme. Picking countries that have received a lot of coverage like Cuba, Russia and Iran, the magazine organises trips with ‘nation subject matter’ experts, with proceeds supporting journalism. Currently there are 15 destinations on the list.

“It’s not an obvious extension but it’s deeply on point and in line with our mission,” said O’Mara. “We started taking people to places where there is lot of misunderstanding and confusion and we are a subject matter expert. We’ve also done some domestic trips like a civil rights tour of the south. We really explore our history of violence, injustice and the striving for civil rights. We were able to bring school-age kids and that has led to a documentary we hope to launch in the Fall.”

The Nation has also moved into education by launching an internship, using their archive to mine for a curriculum for high school students with a student and teacher portal and setting up programmes that give aspiring journalists a platform to launch their careers.

“We believe securing the future of public interest journalism is vital and the way to do that is to educate people when they are young,” said O’Mara

Breakfast is served

In terms of staging events, The Nation has “failed into success”, according to O’Mara. After finding little traction for 22 years in raising funds trough events outside a seminar cruise, The Nation started small monthly breakfasts with about 20 guests paying to have a conversation with the magazine’s editorial director and a thought leader. When the pandemic hit, the event became a free Zoom breakfast, with 180 people signing up to the first one.

“It was good, it showed us there was a seed here. But we took a revenue hit in the pandemic so these needed to be paid,” explained O’Mara. “We decided to charge a nominal fee – $10. And people came, so we quickly set up a whole slate of weekly conversations. It’s become bit of a revenue stream and a real morale boost.”

The Nation has been able to absorb the financial impact of Covid by having a very diversified revenue platform including about 50 per cent from subscriptions and 25 per cent through fundraising.

“Fundraising is an extraordinary and powerful source for us,” said O’Mara. “We have about 16,000 small donors who put $10 in an envelope and send it to us and say, ‘hey, I’m income insecure but I want to support your mission’. Those are the people who expect impact from us and believe in public interest journalism and who I think about every time I spend a dollar of our money.”

Pierre de Villiers

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