How We Became a Web Company

In the last few weeks it has become obvious that we must cease publication of the print magazine. The November–December issue was our last printed issue. January–February 2011 was a digital-only edition, and the March–April issue will be as well. And with the March–April edition, after 35 years, we will cease publishing Mothering magazine altogether. We are now a Web-only company.

 

Our founder, Addie Vorys Eavenson (now Cranson) could never have imagined the web back in 1976 when, inspired by the birth of her first daughter, she started Mothering. Addie recognized that there were few resources for new, natural mothers, and that there was no publication for women in which the art of mothering was celebrated. The first issue of Mothering was put together in the summer of 1976 by members of the Montrose Natural Childbirth Class and other volunteers at the old Fort Smith Saloon, in Ridgway, Colorado.

 

 A year later, during a visit to Albuquerque, I was lucky enough to find a copy of the second issue of Mothering in a natural foods store, and was astounded that there was a magazine that so well articulated my own beliefs. As soon as I got back home, I sent Mothering an article I’d written, “In Defense of Motherhood.”  Both New Age (now Body and Soul) and Redbook magazines had rejected the article, but Addie accepted it immediately, as well as my poem, “There Will be Time.”
 

In early 1978, Addie called and asked me to be an editor. I was ecstatic. Fortunately, our family was already planning to move to Albuquerque where Addie had recently relocated the magazine. I worked on a couple of issues but soon quit—with three kids under five, I had my hands full.

 

At my son Bram’s first birthday party, in 1979, Addie told me that she wanted to sell the magazine. Of course, I wanted to buy it, but was unable to borrow the $5000 for the down payment. Instead, Addie sold Mothering to Canadians Rolf and Wendy Priesnitz, founders of Natural Life magazine, and announced the sale in Mothering no. 14. As it turned out, the deal with Rolf and Wendy fell through, and my husband, John McMahon, and I were able to buy Mothering in 1980 for no down payment, and by making monthly payments for five years. At the time, Mothering had a circulation of 3,000.

 

Our first issue was no. 15. The cover photo of the dad was tender but did not reproduce well, and the purple I had chosen for the cover type was difficult to read. I had no idea these kinds of mistakes could happen; it was a steep learning curve. (See my letter from that issue announcing our new ownership.)

 

Mothering grew rapidly; natural-living pioneers were hungry for the information we provided. Our circulation grew to 60,000 by the end of the 1980s, and in recent years to 100,000.

 

In those early years, our coverage was five to ten years ahead of the mainstream press. We were the first magazine to cover parents’ questions about vaccinations and circumcision, the first to publish articles questioning the validity of the then-new diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the first to publish articles questioning the effectiveness of repeated doses of antibiotics, the first to publish articles on vaginal birth after cesarean, the first to publish possible treatments for children with autism—the list goes on. In fact, we have so well seeded into the culture the principles of natural family living that every new parent now at least considers these ideas. We have become part of the mainstream.

 

In 1995, an old friend of mine in Sausalito tried to explain to me the World Wide Web and strongly recommended that I get a domain name. I followed his advice and registered www.mothering.com. Three years later, we launched a website devoted to customer service for subscribers, and in 1999 our discussion forums, MotheringDotCommunity, were born. Thanks largely to the efforts of web director Cynthia Mosher and our dedicated volunteer moderators and ambassadors, MotheringDotCommunity has grown dramatically—from 1,000 members in 2001 to 160,000 members today. We have been ranked by Big Boards as the most active community for parents on the Web, and have achieved all of this while devoting less than 30 percent of our staff resources to our online content.

 

All along, the print magazine has been our mother ship. It has required a complex team of customer service representatives, designers, editors, and contributors, and until recently this all worked. But two perfect storms have come together to become the mother of all storms. First, since 2008, our community has moved increasingly to the Web. Forty-two percent of people now check Facebook before they check their e-mail. When we asked our subscribers why they did not renew, 35 percent said they are too busy to read. The second perfect storm is the decline of the industrial model of production. Printing is a complex and costly process that requires expensive equipment and specialized knowledge. The cost of printing one issue of Mothering is approximately $100,000. Even to produce a digital edition, the cost is approximately $60,000.

 

In 2009, magazine subscriptions saw their steepest decline in 40 years. The venerable magazines Gourmet and Reader’s Digest ceased publication. After three years of decline in advertising sales, subscription orders, and newsstand sales, with the March–April 2011 issue we saw our ad sales drop to their lowest point in 10 years. In a single year, from March 2010 to March 2011, we lost one-third of our print advertisers.

 

Many of our advertisers have been hard hit by the economy. Toy manufacturers have been burdened by the cost of complying with the new regulations of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). Many of our sling and baby-carrier advertisers experienced declining sales or went out of business altogether in 2010 as a result of loss of sales due to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalls of infant carriers.

 

Like all of us, our subscribers, too, have been tightening their belts. Nearly 50 percent of our readers are stay-at-home or work-at-home moms. According to a 2010 Gallup poll, “The recession and financial crisis have resulted in a significant change in the way many Americans feel about spending and saving. Six in 10 Americans (62%) now say they more enjoy saving than spending—while 35% say the reverse.” In addition, nearly six in 10 Americans (57 percent) say they are spending less money in recent months than they used to. Thirty-eight percent of all Americans say this reduced spending will be their new, normal spending pattern, while 19 percent say their cutbacks are temporary.

 

But even cutting our page count to 68 would not allow us to keep up with these declines in our subscriptions and advertising sales. If we were to continue to print the magazine, we would lose money on every issue.

 

When a magazine ceases publication, it is customary that its subscriptions be fulfilled by another magazine. When I thought about which magazine is most compatible with Mothering, I remembered Rolf and Wendy, who have published Natural Life Magazine since 1976, the year Mothering was founded. Natural Life covers green living, natural parenting, and lifelong learning, and describes itself as “The original natural family living magazine. . . . Reader supported and trusted by thinking people around the world who want positive alternatives . . .”

 

Natural Life will fulfill Mothering subscriptions beginning with their May/June 2011 issue. If, for example, two issues remain on your subscription to Mothering, you will receive the next two issues of Natural Life. I hope that you enjoy Rolf and Wendy’s magazine.

 

While this change is a crisis for those of us who love the print edition of Mothering, it is also an opportunity. It forces me to ask myself, “Am I in the magazine business or the information business?” If I am in the business of providing information and inspiration to parents, then does it ultimately really matter what forms that information and inspiration take? If I am serious about providing this information and inspiration, then is it not my responsibility to go where my community goes? Our online community is more than 15 times larger than our print or digital community. Mothering magazine currently has a bimonthly circulation of 100,000—but Mothering.com receives 1.5 million unique visitors a month, and is ranked by Quantcast as one of the top 2100 sites online. This means that while we are a niche print publication, we are a major Web presence.

 

We also have an unusually strong social-media community, with 35,000 Facebook fans and 75,000 followers on Twitter. It was inevitable that our young, hip community should move to the Web. New families breathe social media and online community, and they are pressed for time. While everyone loves the comfort of reading a magazine or book, most of us now spend the majority of our reading time online.

 

Recently, when my son and daughter-in-law wanted to know about when to start feeding their baby solid foods, they didn’t want to wait; they wanted to know immediately. The efficiency of the Web is essential to sleep-deprived new parents who need information fast.

 

If you haven’t already, please join us at mothering.com. We have extensive articles, blogs, podcasts, videos, wikis, product reviews, and friendship. Become part of MotheringDotCommunity (MDC) where you can have conversations that you can’t have anywhere else. We have nearly 50 different forums and hundreds of sub-forums on such topics as Gentle Discipline, The Family Bed and Nighttime Parenting, Postpartum Depression, Unschooling, Mindful Home, News and Current Events and dozens more. And, our popular Finding Your Tribe forum facilitates members meeting in real time for picnics, potlucks and get-togethers of all kinds.

 

If you’re new to MDC, we offer a concierge service. One of our forum leaders will be your buddy on MDC and show you how it works. If you’d like this service, please email Cynthia Mosher, our web director. If you want to help us make the transition to a web only company more smoothly, please donate. We are turning many of our most important articles into digital reprints so check out our plentiful resources at The Mothering Shop.

 

Thank you for all of your good will and support for the last 35 years. We have always been a company that has been led by our community. Go to MDC and tell us how you feel.  I look forward to the next 35 years, when your generation will see the values of natural family living become the norm in our society.