The Greatest Media Revolution Since Gutenberg?


Let me introduce myself: I was one of the co-founders, in 1977 of the South End Press book publishing collective. After working at SEP for many years, in 1988 I co-founded, with Michael Albert, Z Magazine. We had both been part of a time of incredible social change that began in the late 1960s and continued through the mid-1970s. 

Because a new left “totalist” politics had developed during that time, our mission when we started Z Magazine (and South End Press, as well) was to create a media institution that would not only critique existing society and institutions, but would relate this new politics to existing movements, to those just becoming radical, and to a larger public. Otherwise, it would be ignored, revised, or misrepresented by mainstream media outlets. We also wanted to create a left media institution that was self-sustaining and that reflected in its collective structure our values—for peace and justice and against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy politics. We hoped that this non-hierarchical structure would serve, eventually, as one possible model for activists in their vision and strategy for a better society and the institutions that might foster more humane values. 

As staff of Z Magazine (print), I have, since 1988, been part of a collective of two (later three when my 21-year-old son joined the staff in 1989), that designs the magazine, decides what goes in it, copy edits, proofreads, picks the graphics, and prepares it in a desktop publishing program for the printer. In addition, we enter subscribers’ names in our computer database, prepare promotional pieces, shoot and edit video (since 1996), do basic office work, handle customer service issues, and prepare materials for (and teach at) Z Media Institute (founded in 1994). In the mid-1990s, at the urging of younger ZMI students, ZNet was created (with one staff member, later two—plus volunteers). That’s 20 years of work, thousands of articles and graphics, hundreds of free ads for worthy movement organizations, projects, and media productions—not to mention many hours of worry about financial survival, the state of the left and the state of the world. 

Thanks to the many wonderful birthday messages published in these pages, and others we’ve received throughout the years, it’s clear we have been making a contribution, with your help and support. We appreciate your best wishes for the next 20 years. However, if you’ve kept up with the growing concern among media people about the future of print, you know that its total demise is being predicted—some say in the next decade, others say by mid-century. So it’s depressing to think that our 20th year may be the last for Z Magazine in its current form. 

The Future of Print 

In researching what the mainstream has been saying and doing about dwindling print circulation, I came across a comment by Dirk Ippen of the Ippen Publishing Co.: “The internet is a serial murderer and for mass media both a danger and a major chance; the greatest media revolution since Gutenberg 550 years ago.” For those who don’t know, the Gutenberg Bible was printed by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, Germany  in the 15th century. Although it is not, as often thought, the first book to be printed by Gutenberg’s new movable type system, it has iconic status as the start of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and the “Age of the Printed Book.” 

Later, after further research, I read a statement by Bill Gates to the effect that in the future paper will become a thing of the past (they’ve already developed e-paper, consisting of polyethylene spheres embedded in a transparent silicone sheet suspended in a bubble of oil) and there will be no textbooks, no magazines, no newpapers. Instead, we will all carry what Gates calls the tablet (being marketed in 2007 as Tablet PC), a slim inexpensive” wireless device like a clipboard where we can download everything we might want. We can even write on it and have that writing turned into digital text. Says Gates, “The tablet is the place where it can all come together” as he imagines “screens on the walls of our homes that will recognize our voices and take commands.” He also says companies will be able to “target the ads and it will be important to have ads that the consumer doesn’t skip over,” plus, with the new mobile phone technology (more than 800 million new handsets expected to be in use worldwide), “screen imagery is being improved and this will revolutionize our lives within a decade.” 

I don’t know about you but it’s sad to think that 550 years from now, when people visit, say, the British Library, where one of the 180 or so copies of the Gutenberg Bible resides, that in the glass case next to it there will be a Tablet PC with a screen image of—what? The Gutenberg Bible? A photo of Bill Gates? A blinking, zooming ad for Viagra? 

Clearly, I am a fan of print, particularly books, I also  use the Internet, mainly work-related. I don’t see why both print and the Internet can’t exist in Gates’s future world. (He, himself, admits he prefers reading the Sunday New York Times “offline” as he calls it.) As a radical, there are other things I’d like this media revolution to affect. For instance, I’d like fundamental changes in society’s institutions, including the mainstream media  that currently provides us with misinformation and, frankly, a lot of crap.

Mainstream Print Chat 

The discussion of the future of print and the material available about it on the Internet is too vast to cover at length here. But, since Z Magazine is one of those print media in jeopardy, we need to be aware of some of what’s happening. 

Newspapers: The general feeling is that news-oriented media, delivered in newspaper format, are in serious trouble. Most newspapers now have print and online versions. The online material is free, in most cases. Until late 2006, newspapers made on average 20 percent of their income from sales, 80 percent from advertising in the print version. Newspaper ad revenue has dropped this year, down as much as 14 percent for some outlets. Staffs are being cut, foreign bureaus are closing. Sales are dropping, in some cases, by half a million. Some newspapers are charging for specialty content such as stock reports, archives, and the like. Some random facts: 

  • In 1985, 62 million Americans subscribed to a daily paper; in 2005 45 million did. 
  • In 2005, nearly one-third of the U.S. population (43 million people) visited newspaper websites in one month. 

Some of the predictions for future media: 

  • The Washington Post will not be a newspaper company, but a “text, picture, and video news provider.” 
  • CBS News will not be a broadcaster, but a “text, audio, and video news organization.” 
  • Most people will not get info from print at all but from TV news or news as video report from hired journalists and/or “participating” readers who update news, comment, or submit through personal blogs, etc. 
  • News will be “consumed” on computers, TV sets, PDAs, iphones, and the like. 
  • TV, computer, etc will become one interacting piece of equipment; while the print replacement that people take with them will be in tablet form or PDA form or Kindle or e-readers. 
  • Readers will choose what they want to read: magazines will become my-gazines downloaded to electronic devices 
  • People riding the subway to and from work may turn on their phones and watch a network anchor deliver the news “on demand.” 

Magazines: the situation is similar. Subscriptions are down, ad revenues are down, corporations that own and publish a host of magazines are folding some of them and selling off others. Most magazines are offering both print and online versions and charging for some or all of the content online. Internet ad revenues have increased this year by 25 percent. Industry advice to those who want to start a magazine now is to start online, then offer a print version later, as a premium. Predictions are that in the coming decade, only magazines available at supermarket checkout counters and specialty, high-end, graphic driven magazines will still be around. Comments and surveys maintain that: 

  • In the next 25 years, only 10 percent of the European and US paper-based magazine industry will remain kept alive by connoisseurs, aficionados, and aging Luddites. 
  • We will download the daily news, sports, or business info from a vending machine and read it on a piece of e-paper which is already being test-marketed. E-paper looks like color newsprint, is tough and flexible and very thin and you can change the image every two seconds for a year using a triple-A battery. 
  • Innovation in long-form magazine journalism online is coming in the shape of audio podcasts, on the scene video blogs, and essays on weblogs in academic and professional realms. 
  • In depth magazine pieces that once took a reporter months to amass might one day be accomplished by an online community that has a strong interest in the subject, with a reporter or editor prodding them on. 
  • Magazines will print custom versions of their issues using new printing technologies. 

Books: Book publishing has so far withstood threats to its survival from the Internet, although Amazon.com has affected revenues by selling used books (even current ones) for almost nothing. The Sony e-reader hasn’t done that well in spite of improvements in its screen readability. With Amazon’s release of Kindle, their version of an e-book, you can not only download and read and store hundreds of books, you can also subscribe to magazines and newspapers which Amazon will download to your Kindle on a weekly or monthly basis. 

Media Survey 

We need to take note of the fact that radio took 38 years before 50 million people tuned in; TV took another 13; the Internet crossed that line in four years. Which brings us to what the pundits and Bill Gates and those who are positioned to make huge profits off the sale of computers and other delivery devices for news and entertainment are predicting. 

So, as you have probably surmised, media producers are doing their best to offer both print and web until they can no do so longer (ad revenues dry up). Meanwhile, they are creating websites to attract what is being perceived as a new preference for video news and entertainment; and for the time when our TVs and computers merge into one delivery system (which, by the way, people are used to paying for). 

As you can imagine, there was no substantive criticism among mainstream media producers about the politics, content, and structure of current media—both print and Internet—although they have to be worried about the fact that 51 percent of all respondents to a survey on media democracy read and watch online content created by users. One article depicts a future where there will be two Internets—big media where multi-platform news organizations deliver news on demand to large audiences worldwide; and an open Internet of bloggers and “clamoring” citizens in their chat rooms and grassroots organizations, creating movements and confounding the establishment.

In “The State of Media Democracy” (2007), they report on the results of a survey about media preferences, based of classifying people in the following age groups: Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000)), Generations Xers  (born between 1964 and 1980), Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), and Matures (born before 1946). Their results showed the following: 

  • 1 in ten Millennnials actively upload their own videos; 53 percent of Millennials would download more videos if speeds were faster. 
  • 51 percent of all respondents watch/read content created by others. 
  • One-third of online content viewing is done on user-generated sites. 
  • 52 percent of Xers are visiting TV show Internet sites. 
  • One in four would pay for online content vs. being exposed to ads. 
  • 64 percent want to easily connect their TV to the Internet for viewing videos and downloading content. 
  • 60 percent want the ability to move their content to any device they own without any problems. 
  • 57 percent want an entertainment and communications device that lets them do everything. 
  • 49 percent want a computer or similar device that will be the center of their household media experience. 

Other Concerns 

We shouldn’t leave out one of the arguments many people make for “killing” print now, forever, because it will save trees, which it will, of course, if the owners of over 250 million computers worldwide don’t all print out millions of Internet articles; and if we deal with the environmental effects of computers whose replacement rate seems to be, on average, every six months to a year. According to “Study tallies environmental cost of computer boom”: 

  • The average 24 kg desktop computer with monitor requires at least ten times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals to manufacture—and is much more materials intensive than an automobile or refrigerator which only requires 1-2 times their weight in fossil fuels. 
  • There are dcumented long-term health effects on workers, families, and neighboring communities due to chemical exposure and emissions from production stages such as microchip fabrication. 
  • The high-tech nature of computer manufacturing makes it extremely energy intensive and therefore significant for climate change and depletion of fossil fuel resources; the combination of a high-energy manufacturing process and a short lifespan raise its lifetime environment-related energy impacts to about the same level as a refrigerator, which is one of the more energy-intensive appliances in the home. 
  • Monitors, and to a lesser extent computers, contain significant quantities of heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium, which pose potential health risks to production workers and environmental risks to water supplies near landfills where they are eventually dumped. 
  • There is evidence that exposure to electromagnetic radiation are a risk factor for both childhood and adult cancers, including brain tumors, acoustic neuromas, and Alzheimers. 

Z’s Dilemma 

What relevance does all this have for Z, one of a number of producers of radical, alternative, non-profit, non-ad-driven media where we don’t think of readers as consumers or a marketing-category? 

First, it’s important to realize that Z Magazine print has always lost money, partly because we started it without investors or advertising income and without the start-up budget of two to three million dollars many said was needed to start a magazine in 1988. Plus, the cost of finding and keeping subscribers, of paying printers, and salaries and fees to writers and cartoonists, with income generated solely from subscriptions and newsstand sales, has required that we raise around $60-$100,000 every two or three years since 1988. 

Since we have always seen ourselves as activists, who produce media (not media professionals), and since we see the many Z projects now under the umbrella of Z Communications as a contribution, hopefully, to activist efforts for social change, our response to the changing technological “revolution” and challenges to print has been to try and use all forms of media that we can afford to produce, to “spread the word.” So besides the magazine, we have video, a school, and a website. They, in large part, do not replicate each other but provide different kinds of content. 

So far our response to the future of print discussion is to try and keep print alive, as we think it is a valuable contribution to the left—in content and as a physical, rather than virtual, part of a left media institution. Actually, it’s not just the changes in media “consumption” preferences that have affected us, it’s changes in the left. Without infrastructure—bookstores, radical reading rooms, left political organizations with loyal active members, and visible growing movements—we don’t have a built-in activist distribution mechanism that can bypass mainstream outlets that are tightly controlled. 

To address the financial losses, we initially created our website’s Sustainer Program as a way for Z supporters to contribute to the entire Z operation. A year ago, we decided that we needed to upgrade our ZNet website to keep in tune website with people’s preferences, influenced by You-Tube, blogs, myspace, and other Internet developments. We anticipated that this would take five months or so and cost around $40,000. Once the new site was in place, we anticipated, with the popularity of the “old” ZNet, the new Z Communications site would attract enough new Sustainers to cover current losses of around $12,000 a month. The upgrade would expand to include lots of video and audio, participatory stuff, educational features, and an expanded Z Magazine Online. It’s been  more than a year now with more money being spent and our hope is that the new site will be up by the time you read this.

Meanwhile, those of us who produce the print magazine keep being shown the “writing on the wall” so to speak. We hear depressing comments like, “we love the magazine, but we don’t read print (except what we print off the Internet)” or “we don’t subscribe because we don’t have time to read”or “we read a friend’s copy” or “we get our information from ZNet and other sites because it’s free.” 

So, like everyone else, Z Magazine continues to lose subscribers to all the offerings on the Internet. In addition, although we have always had more than enough article submissions to Z over the years, the in-depth articles and topic variety that we used to get in our first 12 years or so have been whittled down to a group of mostly male writers of 900 word commentaries on a narrow range of topics with a short-term “shelf life.” Often, most of this material is already online at ZNet (although we try to avoid duplication), at other progressive sites, and at the writers’ own websites. It seems to that within the next few years, the content of print will become sort of a “digest” of the best of the Net. 

So how low do we let subscriptions drop before costs are too high and we must abandon print, and/or a magazine format altogether? After all, our website is a kind of huge global magazine in its totality—so does an edited, magazine format even make sense ? Here are some of the things we are thinking about and it would be good to get readers’ input on them during the coming year. 

  • Keep Z as it is. Problem: We have to hope that the upgraded website helps increase subscribers in print and online or gets enough new Sustainers to cover deficits for some time to come. And this has to happen quickly.  
  • Keep the same magazine length and format, but save on printing, postage, and, and writers/graphic fees by going to a bi-monthly magazine, with a monthly version online. Problem: Will writers be willing to wait two months before their work sees the light of day? Or will Z become a digest of articles from the Internet? Will that lose us more subscribers? 
  • Keep the monthly magazine, but cut costs by cutting length and eliminating writers/graphic fees. (If they are willing to be published for free online, why not in print?). Problem: How does this help improve the dwindling number of in-depth articles or improve the diversity of writers submitting work? 
  • Abandon the current magazine format altogether and move to a quarterly journal that might focus on one theme per issue. Or begin production of short books directed more toward movement strategies and visions. Problem: If these are available online, will they lose money in print and we end up back where we started? 

Whose Revolution? 

The title of this piece is “The Greatest Media Revolution Since Gutenberg?” Mainstream media pundits seem to feel that the sheer fact that the Internet allows millions of individuals to create media, signals a more democratic media.  But an undemocratic, capitalist, sexist, racist, classist society will be reflected in its media institutions—their content and structure and decision making. Those who read newspapers or magazines or books online are still going to be reading the same old content that reflects the same old disinformation, sex objectification, stereotyping, and media organized in a way to ensure that the maximum numbers of “eyeballs,” in ad-speak, see massive amounts of advertising. 

The left will still have the problem of getting their critique, content, and organizing efforts to new audiences amid an ever more technologically sophisticated mass of material. Further, since younger leftists seem to feel that Internet content should be free, it’s not clear how left media institutions can survive or writers can keep writing unless we have external financial support. 

Will this media revolution, with all its predicted access to information and democratic participation, move us toward a revolution in economic, social, and cultural institutions? Or will it be an easier, more efficient, cheaper way to, as Chomsky notes, “keep the rabble in line. To make sure that we are atoms of consumption, obedient tools of production, isolated from one another, lacking any concept of a decent human life?” 

Will the Internet be a way to increase the level of commercialization which in the U.S., in particular, predominates our entire culture to the point where individuals, through their clothing, are shills for corporations and everything in life is an opportunity to sell something to a population that spends huge amounts of time on the Internet, not reading news or serious content, but looking for sex or playing (and watching others play) incredibly misogynist computer games whose level of sexist objecti- fication is beyond anything we endured prior to the 1960s/70s feminist revolution? Finally, will it just be an easier way for governments and advertisers to locate us through huge databases, video footage, RFIDs, etc. 

To me, the answer for the left is that: if we develop infrastructure, which we don’t currently have: if we continue to create varied forms of media—text, video, audio, games, etc.—produced by a more diverse set of people, on a global scale, for all ages; if we prioritize the participatory democratic discussion of strategy and vision for a real revolution; if we find a way to grow within the so-called Internet “democracy” touted by pundits, using the web aggressively as our personal left distribution system, the kind we’ve never before been able to achieve, then perhaps the Internet will be the greatest media revolution since Gutenberg’s Bible. 

Z