New Site Q&A

There have been numerous questions from users, from many directions, about the new Z Communications Upgrade as well as our financial situation, aims, methods, etc. These questions have been more than reasonable, and patient, especially given that we are asking for people’s support and given that Z is a political project and therefore responsible to a broader community and movement.


Below we try to offer full answers that take your concerns seriously. To see if you are interested in reading further, or if you want to skip down or around it, the twenty questions we address are …


1. Why did you feel Z had to do the upgrade?


2. But why did the upgrade take 15 months instead of 3 months? And how expensive was the project?


3. But why is it so hard to do programming updates or new programs on schedule?


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?


5. Can you briefly explain what each main component is, and maybe where they are headed?


6. How are the new web operations politically different from the old web operations?


7. So what are the political goals and ambitions of the upgrade?


8. The site feels more automated than before. Is that good, or is it less human?


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?


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?


11. What’s with the book preferences? Is that going to be useful?


12. What’s the difference between user generated content and ZCom writer generated content?


13. What is the design philosophy? What is the logic of all the new features? What are you hoping to accomplish with all this? Why do you think it will increase the number of users, or the political impact on those who do use the site?


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?


15. How is your upgrade hoping to address your fiscal crunch? How much more income do you need? Will this get it?


16. What do you say to people who feel that everything online should be free?


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 to 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?


18, What do you say to people who say you are sending too many damn letters, each of which is too long – seeking help? Cut it out!


19. Do you think the upgrade changes will solve your financial issues? If not, that is, 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?


20. Suppose, instead, that the changes in ZCom do succeed, not only in enlarging audience and building community, but also in greatly increasing cash flow. What will come next, in that case?




1. Why did you feel Z had to do the upgrade?


When ZNet was born, the site was editorially and technically innovative. In the past ten years, while Z editorial remained innovative, the presentation technologically aged to the point where it became retrograde in appearance and navigation. Much more damning, the failed to incorporate many new internet features for building community and participation.


We upgraded seeking more content, easier navigation, better display, more multimedia, and especially more interactivity for users and writers.


We not only wanted to upgrade, we had to because without major innovations not only would the aging old site become less valuable, it would also lose Sustainers. Without innovation we would suffer waning support even from those who really like our site. We wouldn’t attract new people either. The dual loss would have sunk the site and all our projects.



2. But why did the upgrade take 15 months instead of 3? And how expensive was the project?


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), thinking it would speed things up. Unexpectedly, they failed to master Ruby and so about nine months were wasted pursuing that path. Additionally, however, software is damn hard.


The upgrade was actually relatively inexpensive. The total when the dust clears, for the programmers, outside help, and so on, will be roughly $60,000. It sounds like a lot, but, in fact, is modest for such extensive work.


Regrettably, however, our cost didn’t stop with the immediate price but included 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, etc. But, it made no sense to push any of those steps when the new site was always just around the bend, since its completion would greatly enhance such efforts. So we kept putting off the funding efforts, to gain the benefits of the upgrade. Meanwhile, declining revenues and rising costs were depleting our bank account 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. This depleted all our built up assets, including needing to again mortgage our house, which we also use as offices, for extra cash. The twelve unexpected months of low revenues compared to what we would have had if the upgrade been done a year ago, constituted 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?


I don’t know. Lots of reasons are given. 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 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.


Many factors delay or even entirely subvert efforts, but by way of summary let me note that it is quite typical, nowadays, for projects to be undertaken and fortunes spent – even hundreds of millions or in some cases a billion dollars or more – and for 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 after billions were spent. That sort of puts our travails in perspective.


Just recently I was in Salt Lake City to speak, staying with a software engineer friend 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 general, my Salt Lake City friend told me, that whole groups of programmers, frustrated at their inability to successfully complete projects have formed into schools of thought that work 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. Interestingly, they are not trying to earn more, that is, but to feel better about their labors by having more experiences of actually succeeding in their work.


As the above reveals, we didn’t suffer as badly as we might have with our upgrade. We didn’t have to pay exorbitantly and we do have an upgrade completed nearly to our initial specifications. More, the changes provide a foundation from which it will now be easy to enlarge and diversify our activities and offerings as users will see in coming months.



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 a mid nineties design?


ZCom or Z Communications is our name for our overarching operations. It includes various components such as Z Magazine, ZNet, Z Video Production, Z Media Institute, and the new ZSpace.


The "Splash Page" at www.zcomm.org is not just a vestibule before the substance, therefore, but 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 for direct access 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, 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, which is 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, Z Magazine will diversify and innovate. If we don’t attract new funds, cutbacks will result.


ZNet is the basic comprehensive website. It is about to celebrate its tenth birthday, though it is hard to pinpoint ZNet’s date of birth, earlier incarnations including LBBS, Left On Line, and Shareworld, so we could also say it is nearing fifteen. The ZNet website, like the print Z Magazine, addresses all sides of life and highlights activism, vision, and strategy.


In ZNet, via the upgrade, we are already innovating. Where the site is going 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, multimedia, networking, etc.


Z Video Productions has generated over 60 Z films 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 Z Video is headed is toward a large increase in numbers and relevance of offerings, on the one hand, and toward 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 user responses to the upgrade, particularly on new people becoming Sustainers or current Sustainers raising their donations.


Z Media Institute, perhaps Z’s most unusual project, is 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 focuses on media skills and philosophy, and on organizing methods 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. The innovation we are looking toward regarding education, is an addition to our operations, an online school we are calling ZEO, for Z Education Online. ZEO will have a broad faculty, fine facilities, etc. We also hope to start publishing short books about vision and strategy – ZBooks – to be used in coordination with ZMI, ZEO, and other facilities and to have small groups of folks do mini ZMIs year round.


Finally, ZSpace is an entirely new component of ZCom, born with the recent upgrade. ZSpace is a venue for progressive and radical users to network with one another and with our writers, to display their insights, art, poetry, articles, photos, etc., to debate, comment, cajole, and meet and socialize, and even to organize together. ZSpace, is very rich and deep in blogs, forums, group facilities, facilitating uploading all manner of content, with friends facilities, user customization, and much more coming.


As to where ZSpace is going, it means to be a Left MySpace or Facebook, but with serious content and activist-centered facilities and no commercialism. In fact, revenues permitting, we will even generate an online cyberworld of sorts…with online venues to socialize in and share for films, lectures, poetry readings, concerts, and more.



6. How are the new web operations politically different from the old web operations?


The new operations are informed by the same underlying commitment to simultaneously prioritizing race, gender, power, and class, rather than prioritizing one or another focus alone. They embody the same urgency about vision and strategy, rather than just bemoaning problems in the present. Editorial inclinations seek gender balance and race and class balance, as in the past, though all three prove hard to get.


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 is an infrastructure that adds many features now and greatly simplifies adding more features in coming months and years, all to enhance political affectivity.



7. So what are the political goals and ambitions of the upgrade? Why might they fail to be met?


Speaking for myself, my life is organized around winning social change, not advancing any particular project. I don’t think of what I am trying to do as building Z Magazine, or ZNet, or ZSpace. I think of it as trying to contribute to changing society and the world. That’s the driving goal that takes precedence over narrower concerns.


In that light, the reason for risking our current situation as staff at our various projects by seeking growth and not just stability, for example, is because affecting social progress requires more than just perching on a plateau. Having a comfortable project is nice, but having an enlarging and diversifying project is what social change requires.


Our goal isn’t feeling comfortable. Our goal is winning change. 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. 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.


Maybe I should say a little more about this because it is central to our choices, and also reveals my own greatest frustrations.


On the one hand, you and I and everyone can approach new ideas, innovations, and projects with an attitude of hope. We can test proposals to see their merits. We can passionately hope that the new efforts will prove viable. We can even assist efforts. But doing all this requires that we feel hope that our offering aid will be worth our time, that good things will result.


Or you and I and everyone can be so jaded, cynical, hopeless, or even just habituated to new projects lacking value, that we 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, we believe that nothing works, nothing helps.


We all know that the latter self defeating mindset is present in the broader society, where it is an immense obstacle to overcome if we are to progress. Rather, sadly, however, and perhaps even more urgently, I feel that the defeatist mindset also exists in ourselves, in the community of people who are critical of injustice, and even among those who are most radical.


In fact, I think this kind of defeatism is prevalent, and perhaps even dominant, in our community. Many of us, that is, have great awareness about social ills, but exhibit 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, or perhaps even help it out. We do not hope for its success, and lend a hand, if we have means to do so. Instead, we anticipate failure. We nay say, as if that is a sign of sophistication. Maybe we aren’t self conscious about it, but it is still rather habitual, and of course our defeatist posture, perhaps more than anything else, often helps bring failure to fruition. For that matter, most of our actual projects, particularly media but others too, once they are stable, if they overcome doubt to get to that point, then tend to get "conservative" in the sense of trying just to persist, to preserve themselves, rather than remaining "radical" in the sense of trying to enlarge and diversify on the road not to mere persistence, but to social victory.


Bringing this observation back to our upgrade, it could be that the upgrade, even refined over a few weeks or months by insightful ideas and diverse requests from our users, will lack value. Maybe we erred in thinking a new kind of site would benefit activism and in taking the risk of trying to create it. If so, maybe it won’t deserve support, or even use. But I think a more likely failing scenario – if I must delve into negative possibilities – won’t be that the upgrade is irretrievably misconceived or mis-implemented, but instead will be, as has occurred with so many other excellent undertakings, that too many people simply yawn, simply assume the new site will offer nothing much beyond the old one, and so feel they don’t have time to even look, and thus don’t even look, don’t try, don’t support the effort.


In that depressing case, the problem would not be people judging the upgrade unworthy, but people assuming it unworthy, or not even assuming anything about it at all – but just reflexively not looking at it, not hoping it will mark a gain, not trying to assist it, because that’s just what we are used to doing, We so often tally defeats while circling wagons. In fact, of course, a great many people are already looking at the new site, assessing, and enjoying, and helping as well. But will as many do that as we need? Will as many do it as would like it? We don’t know.


I hope I am being clear. I don’t want to be misunderstood. For one thing, these concerns are less applicable to Z’s efforts, which garner relatively great user support, then to many others. What I am saying is that many projects that have great merit and potential, projects that could be highly and even hugely beneficial, 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 don’t give new projects a chance. Various projects we have worked on, for whatever reasons, have succeeded, for thirty years, twenty years, fifteen years, and nearly ten years, respectively. But  given audience reticence such success require almost herculean persistence and things can go sour anytime, and so we must keep pushing. And many other projects, undertaken by us and by many others, have failed over the years – and often we would all be much better off had they gotten a better shake, 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’s capacities, motives, and efforts. We need to hear abou

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