There is an old economic saying that "there is no free lunch." To get something out of an economy you have to put something in. Contrary to rumors, this holds for the Internet as well as for factories. To provide internet content takes labor, tools, and organization, just as providing shoes, food, or housing, and paying for it requires revenues. The real issue isn't should web sites be free or not, but rather how should web sites pay their bills for internet information delivery?
One option is to attract advertising. "Free" TV is supported this way, and so is "free" radio. I don't know anyone who extols television or radio, however, as intrinsically progressive anti-commercial institutions due to users not having to pay to watch Sixty Minutes, The Practice, or The Simpsons, or to listen to FM music. Everyone I know knows that advertising corrupts media content and that in any event, the public ultimately pays for advertising in the price of items we consume. What is odd is that this sophisticated awareness about TV and radio disappears for some folks I know when they think about the internet.
Where can progressive web sites get funds from? If we reject advertising on grounds that it perverts media motives, how about from our users? Of course, a particular person might have good reasons to reject paying a progressive web operation for information, but what isn't a good reason is a the belief that left sites shouldn't charge.
If online information distribution doesn't generate its own funds and even reduces funds available from sponsoring organizations such as Z, the Nation, ITT, the Progressive, or grassroots organizations, unions, think tanks or other left movement endeavors, not only by the costs of services offered, but by cutting into their subscription or member revenues, progressive online efforts will stagnate, and even print and other sources for online information may suffer.
It turns out, therefore, that arguing that leftists shouldn't ask for donations or fees for information is ill-conceived and counter productive. Here are two ways I react when I encounter such views.
(1) I point out that when people have in mind free in the sense of not having to pay. the juxtapositions free and just, free and fair, free and liberated, free and equitable, free and participatory, free and democratic, and even free and non-commercial, are not juxtapositions of synonyms or even of closely related terms. TV and radio are paid for by ads or subsidies rather than direct expenditures from viewers/listeners. Are TV and radio fair, liberated, equitable, participatory, democratic, or even non-commercial? Of course not, so why do would an advocate of social justice look at internet web sites either cluttered with ads or slipping into disrepair for want of funds, and disparage as commercial public entreaties to support dissident publishing, I ask.
(2) To hammer the idea home in a fashion that may irritate some folks at first, but may also seriously challenge and turn around mistaken assumptions, I then gently ask people to consider the juxtaposition of "free" (meaning demanding no fee and even no entreaty for donations) and "freeloader" (meaning someone who enjoys benefits from a good or service without sharing in its support and sustenance). These two terms, free (as in not paying) and freeloader (as in selfishly or ignorantly avoiding costs), are far more synonymous, I urge, than the more benign juxtapositions that many folks believe about their choices to surf free and cancel their subscriptions.
So please, if you encounter or are yourself someone who doesn't want to support Z, ZNet, and the ZNet Commentary Program and all the many services and projects you can imagine us doing with regular internet financial revenues -- that's absolutely fine, of course. Not everyone has to like Z's very particular content and services. But if you know folks who are getting a lot of information and political analysis from progressive and left venues, whether on the internet, in print, or in other venues, and if they support the existence of such efforts as essential to trying to move society in just directions, but in addition think that paying for information or giving donations is unworthy of them, please do consider trying to get them to understand that there really is no free lunch, even for leftists, so that opening their wallets in some progressive direction they choose isn't succumbing to crass commercialism, but is, instead, fighting it.
And finally, returning to ZNet per se, we are more than happy to provide during January 32200 free update recipients the commentaries and zine and forum access, but, after that, we do hope you will consider becoming a ZNet Sustainer at whatever level you feel appropriate and consistent with your income and your taste for the material. If even one in five of you do that, the program and the site as a whole will only get better -- much, much better.