The Greatest Revolution, Part 2
I’d like to thank readers for their inspiring birthday messages and reassuring responses to my editorial “The Greatest Revolution Since Gutenberg?” in which I wrote about the various predictions regarding the future of print media. I offered some options we are considering for Z Magazine, as print subscriptions and newsstand purchases continue to drop, appraently in favor of online reading of all the “free” material on offer and audio/visual options.
Almost all those who responded (see “Letters" in this issue) have preferred the monthly format and feel an affinity for print (admitting to being in the mainstream survey category of “Luddite”). They see an advantage to having the physical magazine arrive in the mailbox or to seeing it in a bookstore or library or a table at an event. Not many touched on the issue of paying writers—Frank Pitz commented that “not all writers need the money. If one is truly committed to the fight, the financial position should be secondary.”
It is true that those who contribute to Z can’t live off what they earn from their Z articles and graphics, so we are depending on their generosity. Unfortunately, that limits the diversity of the left writing pool to those who have the time (mostly white males connected with an educational institution). And, of course, it’s unfair not to pay people for their work. We have paid writers and illustrators since our first issue. On occasion we have had to “owe” them, but have paid them back within six months. (The complex and serious issue of what happens to writers and illustrators is something for a future article on the writers’ strike, etc.)
The letter from Michael Nolan had some concrete suggestions for how to help Z (print) Magazine. These included a network of Z Clubs that could help get new subscriptions, increase newsstand sales, raise money for library and school subscriptions, publicize activities related to Z’s mission, etc. These are good suggestions and always welcome. We have tried to solicit distribution and promotion help over the years: including gift offers, indivudal distributors, promotional copies at conferences. Z readers and Z Media Institute graduates have helped with this (for which we are extremely grateful), but these efforts alone are not on a large enough scale.
I was interested in Nolan’s suggestion that people publicize local activities related to Z’s mission—which means that Nolan thinks Z has a mission. And he’s right, we do. Z’s Mission has always been to provide critical information and analysis, but also to push the debate about what kind of society we want—not as an academic execise, but to contribute to activist efforts to build mass organizations that can effect systemic changes. To quote our founding brochure, mailed to potential subscribers in July 1987: “Z will convey new ideas about politics, culture, economics, and international relations; examine the race, sex, class, and political dimensions of each person’s life as fundamental to understanding and improving their circumstances; and present lively debate to promote a better future.”
Our mission was also to challenge the structure of the existing mainstream and left institutions. The usual approach to beginning a progressive media project was to criticize mainstream publishing and then structure a media project by mimicking the mainstream media world. If that seems strange, it ought to. It is testimony to a lack of confidence in our own analysis. That is:
- the mainstream media world is an alienated, propagandistic mess;
- we will create our own better media institutions;
- we will do it by designing them to look like mini-mainstream institutions;
- but they will be better because we will be in charge.
What is the result? If you plop down inside the operations of many, not all, progressive media projects, you find typical hierarchies, restrictive divisions of labor and decision-making structures, and so on. So we structured our workplace to reflect our politics and values. If you look at the inside front cover, for example, you won’t see any hierarchical decision-making structure or division of labor.
Over the 20 years of Z, we have received lots of wonderful comments from our readers. These often include the comment, “Z keeps me sane.” On the other hand, we have also received our share of “hate mail.” Surprising- ly most of these have come in response to mailings to progressive lists. They come in the business reply envelope so we have to pay postage on them. The “hate mailer” will stuff the envelope with shopping coupons, pornography (graphic), or religious literature. Others will include the order form with “commie” or “idiot” or something unprintable scrawled where the name and address is supposed to go. These are depressing, nauseating, and yet, on occasion, mildly entertaining in their level of creative venom.
The ones that really get us, though, are the people who identify themselves as leftists, who then accuse us of ripping people off or lying or being like the capitalists we criticize or of being too liberal. One even said that our descriptor (at our website flash page) “the spirit of resistance lives” is wimpy and why aren’t we doing more than just resisting. We usually ignore these, as they don’t seem to describe Z at all, but sometimes I wonder if they reflect the fact that, although we have a mission, it isn’t being expressed clearly or directly enough in what we publish. Does it make people deepen their commitment to not only taking a moral stand, but to seriously wanting to win the changes we write and teach? As Dave Shukla comments in his birthday message, “I don’t want to just fight a good fight, I want to win. I want to bring about the future society in all its required totality out of the shell of this world.”
Shukla, of course, wrote the above based on his experience at Z Media Institute and not solely from reading articles in print and/or online. This is one of the reasons we have expanded Z to include Z Media Institute, Z Video Productions, and ZNet—with more projects to come if finances allow. Which brings me back to the role (and ultimate survival) of print.
The question of how people become radical and why they stay committed has always been a part of decisions we make about what we publish. I appreciated Fred Glienna’s letter in which he wrote, “the message is more important than the medium, but alas how we read bears some uneasy relationship to what we read and how deeply we read.” As one of the three people who has produced Z for years, I‘ve tried to see that each issue was put together with Z’s mission in mind—so that the sum (style, tone, humor) of its articles was as important as each individual contribution. I see each issue as part of a trajectory of information, consciousness raising, inspiration leading toward organized movements for change.
In the first year or so, we were able to ensure diversity of content because we had contracts with 25 or so writers who had a schedule and we were working with 112 pages. This allowed the magazine to have a range of topics whose totality per issue would reflect a broad new left politics, edited to eliminate sexist language and jargon.
To this day, although the magazine is half the length, we still look for articles that will give activists needed background information in their organizing efforts and we try to arrange the articles so that the there is a totality about the reading experience of what’s in a given issue—including the placement of cartoons.
Since I believe that a structured, edited, designed print magazine is read more deeply, at least for now, by a certain generation, I have argued in our Z meetings to keep the print magazine alive as an important part of Z’s mission. But clearly, other generations prefer other formats. I would still argue for those other formats to be organized in a way that enhances the totality of the material and for how things interweave and support or debate each other.
In "The Greatest Revolution" (Z January 2008), I listed the various options we were considering for the print magazine (which appears online around the same time as people get it in their mailboxes). These included:
- Keep Z as is and hope the Sustainer program covers Z print’s deficits
- Publish Z six times a year—as Ms Magazine, Mother Jones, and others have done
- Keep the monthly format but cut from 64 to 48 pages and cut writers/cartoonist fees.
- Abandon the magazine format for a quarterly journal.
At the moment, we have decided to proceed as follows: we will keep the print magazine alive for as long as we can. However, since we need to cut costs by around $12,000 a month, we are going to cut Z to 48 pages and reduce writers and graphic fees, except in the case of extreme need. At the same time, we will expand Z Magazine Online to include three or four additional articles that are “online only.” And we will begin using a cheaper paper, starting with the March issue.
Once we know what kind of regular income we can expect from our new website’s Z Sustainer Program, we can decide if these changes are still necessary or if additional cost- cutting is required. If response is over the top, frankly, we’d prefer to return Z Magazine to its original 112 pages, with regular writers and illustrators under contract, and with significant raises in pay. We’d also like to expand print offerings to include Z Books and to bring back the quarterly Z Papers (on vision and strategy). These would, of course, have an online component.
As we continue to consider solutions to the print dilemma, it is important to note the many ways our Z Communications website can and will contribute to our mission of a radical restructuring of society’s repressive institutions. To that end, the website will allow for more interaction with and among activists. We are also going to offer online video satire and we have plans for an online school.
In our introductory brochure we wrote: “It is in the spirit of life that we launch Z, a magazine dedicated to resisting injustice, defending against repression, and creating liberty.”
We hope you will join us in this mission in whatever way you can—by writing, by organizing, by financially supporting all attempts to build left institutions (including media), and by joining in the much-needed discussion of concrete alternatives.
To Help Support Z
UPGRADE STATUS: Our upgraded website is in place, finally. Z Magazine Online (ZMO) is available to everyone free for the next month or two, until the kinks in our new Z Communications site are worked out. At that time, the most recent five issues of ZMO will be only be available to online subscribers, as before, and to print subscribers who sign up or renew online (Z Magazine archives are still free). Current ZMO subscribers will automatically become Z Sustainers for the time remaining on their subscription. This will give them access to Z Sustainer’s many features.
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