Upgrade Q & A
By Michael Albert at Dec 21, 2007
There have been numerous questions, from many directions, about the new Z Communications Upgrade. Here are some of them, with answers.
1. Why did you feel Z had to do the upgrade?
When ZNet was first born, the site was editorially but also technically innovative. In the past ten years, however, while we believe Z editorial has kept pace with the times, Z technology has not. The site has aged to the point where it is actually a bit retrograde in appearance and navigation - and, even more important, where it fails to positively utilize the many new possibilities of the internet for building community and participation.
We therefore did the upgrade firstly for the obvious reason of having a better site. We wanted more content, easier navigation, better display, and more multimedia. And we especially wanted more interactivity for users and writers.
But we had to do the upgrade, what you asked about, as compared to just wanting to do it, because it became apparent that without major innovations not only would the site become less valuable over time, it would also lose Sustainers. If that occurred, we would have suffered steadily declining revenues not only due to broad unavoidable implications of the internet, for example on print, but also due to waning support from those who really like and use our site. This dual loss would have sunk the site and all our projects, eventually.
Thus, we undertook to upgrade everything and to thereby catch up with the times as well as lay a foundation for years of more ambitious content and features innovation and development to come.
2. But why did the upgrade take 15 months instead of 3 months? And how expensive was the project?
Explaining the excessive duration is a little tricky. Part of the delay was that the programmers took a wrong turn the first time they addressed our spec list - opting to use a new programming approach (called Ruby on Rails) that they chose to learn for the purpose, thinking it would speed things up. Unexpectedly, Ruby did not work. About nine months were wasted pursuing that wrong path. Another part of the delay, however, was that software, whether online or not, is just damn hard. In fact, it is much harder than even many programmers realize.
Our upgrade project was actually very inexpensive, relative to broad market prices, in fees we had to pay. The total when the dust clears, for the programmers and some outside help and so on, will be roughly $60,000 in total fees, which sounds like an awful lot, but, in fact, is not so much for such extensive work.
Regrettably, howeer, the real cost to us didn't stop with the immediate price. Our bigger cost was losses we incurred due to the delay. We would have been in position - had things gone as we hoped and anticipated - about a year ago to begin enlarging our sustainer base of donors, increasing our online sales of videos and subscriptions, and doing a twentieth anniversary fund raising, not to mention doing a better job with content, politically, etc. But, it made no sense to push any of those steps when the new site was always just around the bend, and would greatly enhance such efforts. So we kept putting off the efforts, to gain the benefits of the upgrade, with declining revenues and rising costs worsening our situation a little more each month. The result was that we lost money - spending more than we took in - month after month while waiting for the upgrade, depleting all our built up assets, including having to again mortgage our house, which we also use as offices, for extra cash. Those twelve months of low revenues compared to what we would have had had the upgrade been done a year ago, constitute our major "expense," not the actual fees for the upgrade.
3. But why is it so hard to do programming updates or new programs on schedule?
There are so many details to any substantial project, each one of which can be deadly to outcomes, and in many situations the details are hard to even discern. More, you can't add people and then more people to a project work team, to speed things up. Everyone has to understand the innards, and adding a person usually takes more time in getting that person up to speed than the gains of his or her being able to work.
There are many factors affecting the difficulty of software projects, so to go deeply this would be a long discussion, but by way of summary let me at least note that it is quite typical, nowadays, for projects to be undertaken, for fortunes to be spent - even hundreds of millions or in some cases a billion dollars or more - and for literally nothing to be accomplished. All the work, energy, and cash are expended - and the result is nil.
Years back, for example, there was an attempt to upgrade the U.S. air traffic control system that led to no improvements, incredibly, after billions were spent. Just recently I was in Salt Lake City to speak, staying with a software engineer who told me about a project in his firm, scheduled to be completed in one year, it was now in its sixth year of work, and still unfinished. Things are so bad in software development, in fact, that whole groups of programmers, frustrated at their inability to successfully complete projects have formed into schools of thought working on their own, with no pay, on behalf of their profession, to try to develop viable new methodologies that can be shared and that will work. They are not trying to earn more, that is, but just to feel better about their labors by having more experiences of actually succeeding in their work. Obviously, as the above reveals, we didn't suffer as badly as we might have. We didn't have to pay exorbitantly and we do have an upgrade nearly to our initial specifications. More, the changes we are finalizing provide a foundation from which it will now be easy to enlarge and diversify our activities and offerings.
4. Getting back to ZCom, before exploring the financial issues, what is the new ZCom and why is there an intro/splash page for it? Isn't that sort of mid nineties design?
ZCom or Z Communications is our name for our overarching operations. It includes various components, so to speak, such as Z Magazine, ZNet, Z Video Production, Z Media Institute, and the new ZSpace online facility.
The "Splash Page" at www.zcommunications.org is a place where we can briefly introduce the whole operation and each component, providing a little summary about each part and links to each. Most users will, after getting used to the site, bookmark and go directly to sections they are most interested in, such as ZNet, ZMag, Videos, Interviews, ZSpace, or whatever. But the splash page conveys to new users a little about all the components, in one place, without a lot of links confusing that minimalist opening message.
5. Can you briefly explain what each main component is, and maybe where they are headed?
Z Magazine is our monthly print periodical, also available online. It is about to celebrate its 20th birthday. It comes out monthly and addresses all sides of social life. It tries to highlight activism, vision, and strategy. As to where ZMag is going, we are unsure. On the one side there is the growing difficulty that print has in the internet context. On the other side, we don't know how our overall upgrade will enhance our finances. If the financial picture gets much better, as we hope it will, Z Magazine will diversify and innovate. But, if we don't attract new funds, cutbacks will result.
ZNet is the basic comprehensive website. It is about to celebrate its tenth birthday, even though it is hard to pinpoint ZNet's date of birth, earlier incarnations being LBBS, Left On Line, and Shareworld. The ZNet website, like the print Z Magazine, addresses all sides of life and highlights activism, vision, and strategy. In ZNet, of course, via the upgrade, we are already innovating in a host of ways. Where the site is going overall, we hope, is toward generating far more community and interactivity among its users, with far more facility to work together, including enhancing information resources, debate and discussion, etc.
Z Video Productions has generated over 60 Z filmed and produced videos which try to convey the same kind of content as Z Magazine and ZNet, but in a more engaging video format. Like for ZNet, it is also hard to pinpoint an origin date for ZVideo, but it is about eight years old. Where our videos are headed is toward a large increase in numbers and relevance, on the one hand, and wider distribution, including online, on the other hand. Quality will go up, but as with everything else, the extent of expansion and innovation will depend on responses to the upgrade, particularly on new people becoming Sustainers or current Sustainers raising their donations.
Z Media Institute is perhaps Z's most unusual project, a summer school held yearly in June, which has graduated about 750 students who are active all over the left community, and particularly in left media. ZMI Content focuses on media skills and philosophy, and on organizing skills and ideas, with emphasis on analysis, and especially vision, and strategy more broadly. ZMI is in good health and will likely not innovate too much except perhaps to be implemented a bit more often. The real innovation we are looking toward regarding education, is an addition. We want to add an online school to Z's offerings. We are calling this project ZEO, for Z Education Online. It would have a broad faculty, fine facilities, etc. And we might even do a high school version as well, if revenues permit. We also hope to start publishing short books about vision and strategy for all sides of life - ZBooks - to be used in coordination with ZMI, ZEO, and other facilities.
Finally, ZSpace is an entirely new component of ZCom, born with the recent upgrade. ZSpace seeks to be a venue for progressive and radical users to interact with one another and with our writers, to display their insights, art work, writing, etc., to debate, comment, cajole, meet/socialize, and even to organize together. ZSpace, is very rich and deep in blogs, forums, group facilities, uploading all manner of content, friends facilities, etc., already, at roll out, and much more is coming. And just as ZSpace means to be a kind of Left MySpace but with serious content and activist-centered facilities, so too, revenues permitting, we will generate an online cyberworld of sorts…with online venues to habituate for films, lectures, poetry readings, concerts, and more - there will be more news on that in coming months.
6. How are the new web operations politically different from the old web operations?
They aren't. That is, they are informed by the same underlying commitment to the simultaneous prioritizing of race, gender, power, and class, rather than prioritizing one or another focus alone. They are informed, as well, by the same urgency about vision and strategy, rather than just bemoaning problems in the present. Editorial inclinations to seek gender balance and race and class balance, though all three prove very hard to get, are unchanged, too. What is different is the appearance of the site, its navigation, its display of content, its increased multimedia, and especially its new elements of user-driven content and user-based interactivity. What is new, therefore, is an infrastructure and technology that adds many features today and also greatly simplifies adding more features in coming months and years. The underlying political aims, however, are unchanged.
7. So what are the political goals and ambitions of the upgrade?
Speaking for myself, my life is organized around winning social change, not around advancing any particular project. So I don't think of what I am trying to do as building Z Magazine, or ZNet, or ZSpace, etc. I think of it as trying to contribute to changing society and the world. That's always the driving goal that takes precedence over narrower concerns. The reason for risking our current condition as staff at our various projects by seeking growth and not just stability, for example, is because affecting social progress requires more than just standing still on a plateau. Having a comfortable project has its benefits, but having an evolving and enlarging and diversifying project is what social change requires.
Maintaining a project in a stable condition gives a sense of worth and even a job, in our case - but it simply isn't enough. Our goal isn't feelings or worth or a job. Our goal is winning change, and for that, we must continually become better, reach more people, sustain and nourish the people we do reach more effectively, add new insights, add new facilities, foster new connections, all oriented to winning change. So that is what we are trying to do, even at the risk of losing that we have built to date. We want to win change. To do that, we have to go forward, not stay still. It is as simple as that.
Maybe I should say a little more about this because the issue is central to our choices and hopes, and for what it is worth, it also reveals my greatest frustrations.
On the one hand, people can approach new ideas, innovations, and projects they news of, with an attitude of hope. They can test proposals and possibilities to see their merits. They can hope with passion that the new efforts will prove viable. They can even try to assist. That is what people do when they are optimistic that feeling hope and offering aid will be worth their time. Good things will result.
Or people can be so jaded, cynical, hopeless, or even just habituated to things lacking value, that people a priori assume that each new effort that others make is not worth a look, is not worth hope and passion, is not worth trying to assist - because, ultimately, nothing works, nothing helps.
My own experience is that the self defeating mindset - I guess it is what some people call always seeing the glass half full, or even seeing it totally empty no matter how full it actually is - is not only present in the broader society, though there it is certainly incredibly deeply rooted and an immense obstacle to overcome if we are to progress. Rather, the defeatist mindset also exists in ourselves, in the community of people who are critical of injustice, and even among those who are anti capitalist. In fact, this kind of defeatism is prevalent, I would dare say it is dominant, even overwhelmingly dominant, in our community. Many of us, that is, have great awareness about social ills, but no real hope of eliminating them. We don't have passion that there are good acts to engage in, good structures to build, good efforts to support. We do not get excited when we hear someone is undertaking a new project. We do not feel we should give it a chance, even help it out. We do not hope for its success, and lend a hand, if we have means to do so. Instead, we assume failure, and of course our assumption, perhaps more than anything else, often helps bring failure to fruition.
Bringing this tendency back to our upgrade, it could be that the upgrade, even refined over a few weeks or months in light of insightful ideas and diverse requests from our users, will lack value. Maybe we erred in thinking a new kind of site would benefit activism, etc. and so maybe it won't deserve support, or even use. But I think a far more likely scenario - as has occurred with so many other undertakings - won't be that the upgrade isn't good, that the effort is irretrievably misconceived or mis-implemented, but instead will be that everyone simply yawns, simply assumes the new site will offer nothing much beyond the old one, feels they don't have time to even look, or whatever, and thus don't even look, don't try, don't support the effort with ideas and materially too. In that case, the problem would not be people judging the upgrade unworthy, but the problem would instead be people assuming it unworthy, or not even assuming anything about it - but just reflexively not looking at it, not hoping it would mark a gain, not trying to assist it, because that's just what we are used to doing - tallying defeats. In fact, of course, a great many people are already looking, assessing, enjoying, the new site, and helping as well. But will as many do these, as might?
I hope I am being clear. I don't want to be misunderstood. What I am saying is that many projects that have great merit and potential, projects that could be highly and even hugely beneficial, instead fail, but that they do so not because people carefully assess them and reasonably decide they are irredeemably flawed, but because people don't have any hope at all about anything, and so, jaded, don't even give new projects a chance. Projects we have worked on, for whatever reasons, have succeeded, for thirty years, twenty years, ten years, and nearly ten years, respectively. But, things can go sour anytime and so we must keep pushing. And, more, many other worthy efforts have in fact failed, which could have been highly beneficial to social change, had people given them a chance.
Here is another way to say all this. We on the left need to get a sparkle back in our eyes. We need to assume the best, not the worst, of one another - of our capacities, motives, and efforts. We need to hear about new projects and feel elated that innovative attempts are being made, and then if we can do so we need to give them a little time and attention - even taking that time and attention away from reading the daily mainstream papers, or watching tv, or what not. We need to nurture new efforts, trying to refine away problems, if not all the time, then certainly when we have direct ties to the efforts and relevant insights to offer. How can we possibly think we are going to win significant change much less a new world if we keep acting as though nothing any of us does has any hope of taking us forward?
8. The site feels more automated than before. Is that good, or is it less human?
I feel the same tension between automation on sites, and humanity inside them. But suppose you are going out to dig a little hole in the back yard for a tiny flower. You might perfectly sensibly use your hands, or perhaps a pocket knife, or a table spoon. Very human and hands on. But suppose you are instead planting a big bush or a small tree. Now you will use a shovel, and using the pocket knife, a spoon, or your hands, while it might be possible, would be horribly unwise. A little less human and hands on, but not much. And now, finally, suppose you are putting in a swimming pool, or you are putting in a hundred of them throughout a town - clearly it is better use a backhoe, even if it has an engine, than a shovel, much less a spoon, even if it is less hands on.
Our situation is sort of similar. I like manually doing the top page of ZNet, and whatever other faults I may have when I do so, I am way more flexible than any existing automated system - but you reach a point where the pleasures of entering content directly on the top page for me, or the somehow palpable human presence that some users feel from that, is simply overweighed by the benefits of using a better tool, in this case an online backhoe - the database.
So, using the automation you refer to in your question is good because of its tremendous efficiency, because of the far greater reach in display options that it permits, and for the foundation it gives for other changes too, as we develop. But I agree that on the downside the automation is less human in some respects. So, to not only get the technical benefits of the automation, but also offset the losses in human touch, we inject more humanity in other ways. That way we can have better tools, and more humanity, too. That's the goal, at any rate.
9. Do you think the bells and whistles are worth it - their creation and their maintenance - or that they are beyond what anyone will utilize and benefit from?
I worry about this issue too. There is no question that almost everyone, me very much included, uses software that has many features we never touch. Sometimes this is sensible because the features would waste our time and the learning curve wouldn't prove justified. Other times the features would benefit us greatly, if we even noticed them and took a little time to learn them, but we don't.
I just recently learned that I could hold down my ctrl key and roll the scroll ball on my mouse to smoothly enlarge or shrink my entire browser display of any web page, and that I can could do it settling on one size in one tabbed window, and on another size in another window. My eyes are rather bad and this is actually a fantastic resource for me. But I have used computers, really extensively, for about two decades, and this is a feature I could benefit from that I was ignorant of or had simply failed to register and try. So that's an example.
On the ZCom site there are features I won't use, or you won't use, but which others will use - and vice versa. I think the main features - blogs, forums, commenting all over the site, multimedia, ubiquitous display of links, clever tools to give easy access to content, watch pages, topic pages, a fine search facility, and so on, aren't really bells and whistles but are, instead, essential offerings. I guess you could say the tabbed menu is above and beyond essential, or certainly the fancy technology of the left menus is, but many people will make great use of these tools, even as others largely ignore them. Our task was to provide features people will benefit from, but without those things getting in the way of people who won't need them.
And in fact there are actually many more bells and whistles coming, such as very extensive RSS feeds available to users by author, topics, places, and types of content, in any combination - diverse user controlled display of preferred content on people's ZSpace pages, an online school, and, we hope, a complex system of online venues facilitating meeting people, socializing together, etc., plus organizing tools, etc. One person's bell, in cyberspace, it turns out, is another person's backhoe. Another person's whistle is a third person's cane or jet plane. If the features that some benefit from don't obstruct those who don't use them from doing what they desire, no problem incurred.
10. What's with the pictures of Sustainers on the top page - does it make sense to give space to that in place of having more links to real content?
The top page, if you use the arrows on the left menu, actually has way more content on it than the old to page. And I am wondering, why are you are worried about database functionality reducing humanity on the one hand - but you don't want pictures of people on the other hand? Just teasing - but, really, in part the pictures provide a little human touch. We don't yet know if it is worth the space allotted on the top page or not. But beyond a little humanness, it also informs visitors, quite unavoidably, that there is something special here, beyond just the text, video, and audio. There are people participating in a growing online community, and maybe it would be a good idea to find out what they are up to. That's the idea, anyhow. We'll see if it makes sense. Early returns suggest it does. We may change what appears from most recent to join, to most recent users - in which case the pictures would constantly cycle and alter.
11. What's with the book preferences? Is that going to be useful?
Again, the proof will be in the pudding and only there, but we hope so. The idea is to build up a massive database of books - title, author, publisher, etc. - and indeed it is already rather large. Then we want to have lots of reviews appended to titles, by users and by our writers too. Users will also register preferences, publicly, which lets people know a bit about each other's tastes, and, cumulatively, tells something about what books are appealing to people in ZSpace. Displays of such content will be widespread, including, for example, on author's ZSpace pages, as links in author's content, etc. We are going to have author interviews accompanying books, too. We will have excerpts, in time. When possible, whole books will be linked online, as some by Chomsky and myself already are.
The idea of all this is pretty simple. In the current world it is very hard for left books to get noticed by audiences who would benefit from the books if they only knew of them. We aim to help by providing books more visibility. Also, in the current world, reviews are sparse and often abstruse or otherwise unhelpful. We aim to provide more visibility and more discussion, more accessibly. And finally, perhaps most of all, writers rarely address each other's work. We aim to try to alter that situation too, with the tools and some prodding! And soon, reading groups, online sessions with authors, etc.
12. What's the difference between user generated content and ZCom writer generated content?
The user generated content is anything users upload or add. This includes blog posts, forum comments, comments on articles and other site content, lyrics and quotes in the respective databases, book, film, and site preferences, and also users' own articles and poetry, audio and even video.
ZCom generated content is of the same broad types, and a few more, but is generated by regular Z writers and, if it appears, has been accepted and published by Z staff.
The user content will appear on user pages, in the user blogs, in the forums, appended to content, on the ZSpace page, etc. The ZCom generated content will appear similarly, but wil also appear on the site top page, on the watch and topic pages, etc.
13. What is the design philosophy? What is the logic of all the new features? What are you hoping to accomplish with all this?
I think we have covered it above. The design philosophy is to look nice. Be accessible. Have the tons of content effectively distributed and displayed. As to hopes, we hope to incorporate users in all facets. Expand education. Expand ties and tools. And build consciousness, commitment, and community.
14. Okay, now let's return to the financial issues. Can you summarize, first, the future that you saw for Z operations if you didn't make changes? And also, more generally, the situation for alternative media more broadly?
This, in the rough, isn't complicated. Without changes we would have inexorably run down and collapsed. It might have taken some years, it might have been quicker, but it would have happened. And the reason is connected to the second half of your query.
The current situation of alternative media isn't quite desperate, but it is certainly very difficult and getting worse. The problem, to put it bluntly, is the internet and also some associated attitudes.
(a) The internet reduces people's inclinations to read print text and this is seriously undercutting print publications and publishers. Periodicals with audiences who are on average quite old aren't so hurt - and this includes many progressive outfits like the Nation, the Progressive, ITT, etc., who have, on average, quite elderly audiences. But even so, the effect will eventually hit everyone, as it is hitting Z, say, already, due to our having a much younger audience.
(b) The feeling many people have that they should get information without paying fees is another serious problem. In the absence of generalized financing of media as a social good, say, media in our society must generate funds to pay bills. If this isn't to be done by charging fees - it will be done by incorporating extensive advertising. The latter, however, is anathema for successful alternative publishing.
Though there is more to it, it is not at all clear what the solution is, for most. We have our Sustainer Program and to the extent that works well - though it is always at risk of declining due to the prevalent free content philosophy - we are okay. But many other projects are not in position to raise comparable revenues via donors, and it isn't clear what their solution can be.
15. How is your upgrade hoping to address your fiscal crunch?
We hope the upgrade will significantly increase both the number of people who become Z Sustainers and the average amount Sustainers donate. We hope this will occur mostly because people feel the project is worthy and is spending revenues well. But it is also fine that people do it, raise their donations, that is, for better premiums, or at least that they enjoy those benefits!
16. What do you say to people who feel that everything online should be free?
It depends on the mood they catch me in. I understand the underlying desire for information to be free to all, but I find the view in context of the realities we endure incredibly frustrating and even annoying - to be honest about it - as well as, well, I don't know how else to say it, quite ignorant.
So I might suggest to such a person that no one would say to us, you should make Z Magazine, the print product, or Z Videos, the dvds, free. To say we or others should make all online information free, however, is no different. Just because one thing is tangible, print on paper, or film on disk, and the other isn't tangible - info over wires - the latter nonetheless takes work and involves costs. There are less costs for conveying the same info electronically, yes, but costs nonetheless, cost of creation and delivery. When sites use ads for revenues they are not making their content free per se. They are selling audience, their users, to advertisers, and the advertisers are paying for access, and they are then passing the costs they pay on to their consumers. So providing something free to some audience, just means something else is being priced higher than otherwise. The issue for us isn't do we provide everything free, but do we provide some things only as premiums so that we can provide a whole lot with no fee.
But there is a bigger issue, I would likely continue. When people say information should be free in a good society, that is different than people saying it should be free, now. The former sentiment is perfectly reasonable, but we don't live in that good society now. And even in that good society, all it would mean is that society as a whole would be subsidizing information preparation and dissemination, not solely the direct recipients of it (like we do with public education, now, everyone pays not solely those who attend). Do people think that those who do valued information work should not get an income for their labors? That is surely absurd. Do people think bandwidth is costless, or office equipment, and so on?
Saying information should be free to the person accessing it is like saying health care or public education should be free to the sick person or student, and I agree. But saying this should be the case, when we win such changes, doesn't mean the people who do the associated work, or the firms that provide the items used in the hospitals or schools shouldn't get income. It means society as a whole, via the overall economic system or the government, should pay, not that no one should pay. If you don't have that collective payment - and we don't for health or for information - it makes no sense to say that without it doctors should not charge, or that publishers should distribute everything free. This would relegate each domain to being purely volunteer.
That is the general idea, I would say to the person urging that ZCom be entirely free to users, but I would add that there is a more upsetting aspect of the information issue when we are talking about left politics. The left needs diverse sources of information. Surely that is incontestable. What people need to do is support those sources, not try to find ways to rationalize not supporting them. I would say, for example, if you like the Nation and you feel it is critical to social change, you should support it. If you feel that way, more so, about ITT or the Progressive, say, fine, support one or both of those, instead. If it is Z you think is critical, or it is some combination of two or more sources, then act accordingly.
I think this whole discussion is related to what I tried to express earlier. If people on the left felt that there was a future of great and inspiring change out there waiting to be won, and that providing publishers they like with financial aid would help that change come about sooner, how could they not be acting on the belief? How could they possibly think to themselves, so and so operation is great (whether Z or some other)., it is an essential component of building consciousness and community, therefore, I will grab all the information and insights and whatever else they provide, and I will ignore their need for financial support, even considering myself clever for getting all that info for free. If people had hope, that now very prevalent stance would make no sense, except for what we might call a political freeloader. Many and perhaps most people would feel responsibility and desire to help what they found worthy, not just to take from it. But if instead someone is highly cynical about overall prospects, if someone accesses the info more like a chore or for amusement or as a duty, but not to actually be part of a process of winning change, with hope that it will be successful and energy to apply to it, then the dismissive approach makes more sense. It isn't freeloading, in that case, but just going through the day with fewer expenses. Cynicism lurks all over our choices, is my impression.
17. What do you say to people who say that it is fine to ask for donations, to fund existence, and even to give premiums, t provide incentives and show thanks, but any donor should get all premiums, so that being able to give more doesn't get someone extra benefits, or, put in reverse, being able to give only less doesn't reduce someone's benefits?
I understand the sentiment and respect it. I often go to bed nauseous because we can't give away everything we have online, so I really do understand. For that matter, I'd like to have the print version of Z Magazine be free, too. And South End Press books, also. And so on. But this is just not an option. If we did it, within weeks there would be no more magazine, no more books, etc. And, the fact is, regarding the Sustainer program itself, people look at the benefits and gauge their donations in accord. The truth is, we give most everything in our systems entirely free. And we give a whole lot at the lowest donor rates. And the additional stuff that comes with higher levels of donation actually costs us a lot to provide, so if we gave it away at lower levels, it would actually hurt our overall balance of income, not improve it. Yes, if everyone who uses the site - say a half million people over the course of a month - did any kind of donating at all, say a dollar a month, minimum, we could not only give every donor everything we have to offer even at lowest level of donation, but we could do much much more, as well. Incredibly more. But, so far, that hasn't been the case.
We inhabit a culture of resistance to donating to outfits, resistance to taking the time, mostly, and resistance just to the idea of it - so it isn't so much about the funds, per se, for many. This culture of fiscal reticence is something that needs to be overcome, broadly, and not just for individuals.
18. Do you think the upgrade changes will solve the financial issues? If not, if you don't generate a big jump in income, what would be the effect on Z Operations? What more can you do - what more will you do, to raise more funds and avoid those effects, if the current plan isn't sufficient?
I don't know what the financial outcome will be. We hope more people will become sustainers and the average sustainer donation level will also rise. If both these things happens, we will keep growing and diversifying. If they don't happen, we will have to reduce costs, perhaps dramatically. There aren't many ways to reduce costs - fewer staff is one, but that means less work getting done, less product. Not printing as much or perhaps even at all, in another way to cut costs, but again, the impact on our offerings would be severe.
Here is the odd thing about all this - what makes it incredibly frustrating. My guess is that if the roughly 500,000 people a month who use our online systems were all assembled in some kind of massive gathering place and Z Staff and some supportive writers got up and made a clear and concise plea for people to become Sustainers on the spot, and we gave people a button to push to enter their donation level, easily half and maybe more would do it. Many, lacking means, would do it for just a dollar a month, say, but many others would do it for more, and often a lot more.
Our difficulty, in other words, isn't so much a lack of willingness to support left media or left activity per se, it is instead doubt that doing so, individually, will matter, and reticence at spending any time making it happen alone, one person at a time. How to overcome that self fulfilling mood is the big fund raising question we continually face.
19. Suppose, instead, that the changes in ZCom do work, not only in enlarging audience and building community, but also in greatly increasing cash flow. What will come next, in that case?
See the link for "What's Coming" in the little yellow box at the top of the new ZNet top page. I think it would be a stable and steadily innovating online operation with growing content. Much more multimedia in all forms even then we have already begun adding to the new site. A four semester a year, very inexpensive, but very high quality online school (see ZEO, on the new site) that will be available first for adults and college level students, and then, later, in another incarnation, for high school students. A publishing operation of short books, emphasizing vision and strategy. An enlargement of our summer school operations, including additional sessions over the year. Major innovations for online socializing and organizing. Various content innovations - such as more on popular culture and news, a site on the election, etc. Major increases in development of and display of vision and strategy. And, finally, ZTV. Beyond all that, I don't know. We are eager, of course, but at this point what matters is the current upgrade and trying to induce needed support - not planning projects that aren't, as yet, possible.