Columns and Commentary

Media Movers: Mother Jones’ James West

April 5, 2023

Posted by Dawn Wotapka

Mother Jones’ James West

Many years ago, I interned at a magazine and learned that my attention span did not permit spending months on a story. Then there’s James West, who thrives in such an environment.

This deputy editor is, as he put it, a journalism lifer who loves nothing more than digging into a meaty story that may require a significant amount of time and work. That effort, however, can pay dividends: His team’s 17-minute documentary about women being imprisoned in Oklahoma longer than their abusers won the prestigious National Magazine Award. Specifically, the film explored the story of Kerry King, a Black mother of four who is serving a 30-year prison sentence—12 years longer than her abuser—under Oklahoma’s “failure to protect” child abuse law. The award demonstrated his publication’s commitment to exposing racial injustice and the problems plaguing the U.S. criminal justice system.

I talked with West, who has degrees from New York University and the University of Sydney, about his team’s recent award, what he does for fun and why he wants to pinch himself.

Dawn Wotapka:  Tell me about Mother Jones (1.45 million unique visitors per month, per Muck Rack). Who are its readers?

James West: Mother Jones’ readers come from all walks of life but are united in wanting to make a difference. They vote. They make their communities better. They get involved. I love working for them because they are smart—and funny. You only need to take a look at our thriving Instagram community to get a taste (follow here). It’s raucous and I always learn something new. People who subscribe to our newsletter, the Mother Jones Daily, are especially active, weighing in on the most consequential stories, and the silly ones, too. We don’t have one audience. We have many. Some readers who follow us on social media and read our website have never held our physical magazine, and vice versa. Some audience members follow us because they like our videos, or newsletters, or photo essays. But each time I meet an audience member in real life, the reaction is the same: Their eyes light up and they lean in, saying, “That’s so cool.” I agree.

Dawn: The documentary about women being imprisoned in Oklahoma longer than their abusers won the prestigious National Magazine Award. Congrats. How did this come about?

James: Like all long-form investigations, this was a labor of love. Senior reporter Samantha Michaels has a tremendous record of unearthing disparities in America’s criminal justice system. She first heard about so-called “failure to protect” laws in 2019 while reading an article about Tondalo Hall, who was being released from an Oklahoma prison with a commutation after serving 15 years. Samantha was stunned to learn that Hall had been a victim of abuse and had been punished more harshly than the man who abused her.

A yearlong reporting journey began. She teamed up with data journalist Ryan Little. Their number-crunching was both innovative and groundbreaking: They found that a huge percentage of those who were incarcerated under the law were women, many of them survivors of domestic violence, and Black moms were disproportionately targeted. Senior editor Maddie Oatman and the entire crew knew very early on that we wanted to bring this story to life onscreen—hopefully as a documentary—so audiences could see up-close the damage that these laws can do to families. Mother Jones’ senior digital producer Mark Helenowski, a seasoned filmmaker, began collaborating with Samantha right away, building scenes as she gathered hours of archive and trial audio and they planned field trips.

Dawn: What lessons did you learn in the reporting and editing of this piece?

James: The big lesson of any investigative journalism like this is that it takes time and talent to get it 100 percent right—and to honor the trust people have in us to tell their stories. Samantha started compiling more than 25 hours of interviews with Kerry King, the woman featured in the reporting who is incarcerated, in 20-minute increments, per prison policy. After a protracted battle with state officials, she finally gained visitation access. “Though they would not let me enter the building with any camera or audio recorder or even a notebook, I was at last able to be in the same room as Kerry, to sit next to her,” Samantha recalls. “By then, I already knew much of her story, but finally putting a face to her voice and meeting her in person was one of the most meaningful parts of the reporting experience.” Meanwhile, Ryan was analyzing court records from a whopping 1.5 million cases. The documentary also involved meeting with Kerry’s children—a profound testimony to the trust Samantha had developed and to Mark’s filmmaking prowess. The resulting interviews with three of King’s kids are heartbreaking.

Dawn: In a broader sense, in what direction are you and your team working to take Mother Jones?

James: Journalism is facing some seriously strong headwinds. Advertising dollars are unpredictable, and the tech giants are twiddling with algorithms to our detriment. But our model is built to withstand storms, big and small.  As a nonprofit, we depend on thousands of donors to bridge the gap and sustain our operations because they trust us. Trust, it turns out, is the coin of the realm. That’s why, more than anything else, we’re doubling down on what we do best: holding the powerful accountable while adapting to reach new readers wherever they spend their time online. Our 185,000 print subscribers and millions of monthly online readers serve as compelling evidence that our approach is working.

Dawn: How has working at a magazine changed in the digital age?

James: Our dedication to old-school, hold-their-feet-to-the-fire journalism remains unchanged. Since our founding in 1976, we have been a scrappy and resilient newsroom, continually adapting to changing industry practices and reader sensibilities. In 1993, we were among the first news outlets in the country to move our content to a website. Six years ago, we brought on a Filmmaker in Residence, Mark Helenowski, who won the National Magazine Award that inspired this interview. Who could have foreseen that, at the end of last year, we would hire our first Creator in Residence—a role filled by popular TikTok and Instagram personality Garrison Hayes? Mother Jones readers are everywhere. Even if you haven’t discovered us yet, rest assured that we’ll find you—whether you’re swiping, clicking or scrolling.

Dawn: A lot of the readers of this column are PR professionals. How can they most effectively pitch you?

James: Thank you for pitching me. While I personally might be interested in your new skincare range, beauty tips are not exactly our bread and butter. The most important thing is to know whom you are pitching and what they are currently working on. I’m not a public relations professional by any stretch, but I do know my inbox is often overflowing, and a lot of releases get lost, especially when they feel impersonal. Taking a moment to read Mother Jones and look at our masthead can enhance the effectiveness of a pitch. We’re especially interested in hearing about authors or big thinkers, be they artists, activists, scholars, or change makers. Extra points for telling us why they are newsworthy.

Dawn: Let’s shift the focus to you. How did you get into journalism?

James: I’m a journalism lifer. I studied the craft at the University of Sydney and began my career at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a radio producer, cutting my teeth on breakfast radio, talkback, field recording, and overnight shifts. I became hooked on the thrill of deadline-driven broadcast news—an addiction I’ve never been able to break. I also learned the value of public-service (and audience-focused) journalism, something that remains at the heart of everything I do at Mother Jones.

Dawn: What would you say to someone who wants to get into magazine journalism today?

James: We need more journalists. The cratering of local news and the boom-bust cycle of media funding has created perilous times for news organizations that want to dig deep and report the truth. If you’re passionate and hard-working, there are so many (too many!) stories to cover. Check out our fellowship program if you want to get the best leg-up in the industry. You get to work with amazing editors and reporters every day of the week, on some of our biggest and most complicated investigations. Applications are open right now.

Dawn: Who mentored you in your career?

James: I’ve been fortunate to have several excellent journalists look out for me across my career, too many to name individually—including at Mother Jones. They are uncommonly patient and expert at their craft. They gently help me course correct if I accidentally swerve into oncoming traffic (which happens more than I like). They all also know the unique joy of sharing an icy cold beer after a complicated story. Nothing better.

Dawn: If you could do anything differently professionally, what would it be and why?

James: This sounds cheesy, but nothing. I adore having the daily opportunity to work with such talented people. I pinch myself sometimes.

Dawn: You have a master’s degree. So many people say that you don’t need one to succeed in journalism. Why did you get one, and has it helped you?

James: It’s tough to generalize. I see plenty of candidates with these degrees and without. Master’s programs can focus the mind, build cohorts of peers, and allow you to experiment with storytelling. For those coming from different careers, they can smooth the pivot. My own experience (at New York University) immersed me in the city and its media industry, which, as an outsider from Australia, carried its own value. I cherish the lifelong connections I built. Having said this, there is nothing—and I mean nothing—like learning on the job and experiencing the real-world stakes of your reporting. We know this at Mother Jones, which is why we provide an entry point for journalists to research and fact-check and report stories with real impact from the get-go.

Dawn: What do you do for fun?

James: I love exploring my adopted city in all of its extremes and variety—especially its neighborhood restaurants. Weekends spent exploring a nook or cranny always turn up something intriguing. Post-pandemic, I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy, once again, the incomparable delight of travel, most recently to Japan.

Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal who found happiness in PR. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can contact her at Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn

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