Note: Any remarks regarding general bugs and suggestions should be restricted to the permanent Bugs & Suggestions thread.
As some of you are probably aware, the rising readership of our webzine led Google’s advertising representatives to contact us a month or two ago, suggesting that we begin running their ads to monetize our traffic.
I’d always been very reluctant to run advertising in the past, regarding it as too intrusive and also a waste of valuable screen-space, but I finally decided to give it a try. Numerous commenters were hostile to the idea, and since the ads annoyed me as well, I discontinued the project after a few days. Anyway, most of the revenue is generated by clicks, and I doubt that the less-than-mainstream readership of this website would have much interest in the various rather mundane services and products that seems to be their advertising mainstays.
But that experiment and the resulting discussion in the comments, led me to spend a little time analyzing our website traffic and consider other, perhaps more suitable means of having our tens of thousands of daily readers cover some of our operating expenses. In particular, I was surprised how heavily some individuals frequented our website and how much time they appeared to spending here, and began thinking that it would be quite reasonable that they should correspondingly contribute financially to paying for our various writers and other costs. But first let me recapitulate the origins of our website and its recent trajectory.
When I originally launched this webzine around five years ago, I encountered considerable skepticism.
My intent was to provide convenient access to a mixture of alternative perspectives drawn from both the Left and the Right. This approach was quite contrary to that of nearly all other such publications, which almost invariably focused on either one ideological camp or another, so naturally there were many doubts that such an unorthodox publication would attract any significant readership. But since my own interests and reading had always been quite varied and eclectic, I decided I might as well produce a website taking a similar approach, especially since one of my initial goals was to create a possible venue for my own future writings.
As it happened, I was preoccupied with other projects during the first couple of years after our launch and was unable to do much writing of my own, although the website and its readership grew steadily from a standing start. Then over the last two or three years, I substantially expanded our coverage and columnists, while also finally returning to writing of my own. My dozens of articles have totaled some 200,000 words, and most of these have been part of my American Pravda series, often drawing upon the extensive reading and research I had undertaken since the early 2000s.
Partly as a consequence of these factors, our traffic has grown to fairly substantial levels, now far exceeding that of various other much more established but narrowly-ideological alternative media outlets such as Counterpunch or Takimag. Indeed, to my enormous astonishment, our recent readership has roughly matched or even surpassed that of such venerable and influential opinion publications as The Nation and The New Republic, as well as such prominent newcomers as Jacobin Magazine. Twenty years ago, I had been immensely proud and gratified when one of my articles appeared as an especially long cover-story in prestigious Commentary; but these days our traffic exceeds that of Commentary by a factor of four or more.
Our webzine motto has always been to provide “Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media,” and I think we have fulfilled that mission, thereby benefiting from the growing climate of intolerance and censorship afflicting so many elements of the traditional media and even its Internet offshoot.
I think another crucial aspect of our success has been our decision to generally moderate comments with a very light hand, usually allowing discussions and controversial perspectives that would rarely be allowed elsewhere. Indeed, with more and more publications eliminating comments entirely or exercising severe censorship, the relatively free speech that we offer has become an increasingly scarce commodity.
Despite our light moderation, my impression is that we often attract far more thoughtful and substantive commenters than those of many other websites, whose threads often seem to devolve into trivialities or meaningless flame-wars. One cause of this might be the extreme ideological variety of our articles, which may irritate and repel rigid thinkers who prefer a comforting and uniform narrative of either right-wing or left-wing punditry.
I also think that the commenting system I have developed is a particularly flexible and powerful one, avoiding some of the severe disadvantages of such industry-standards as Facebook or Disqus. This framework allows threads of many hundreds of comments to remain viable for continuing meaningful discussion and debate, a situation rarely found elsewhere. As a result, extended discussions running even two or three hundred thousand words—the length of a long book—have been possible. If we exclude the doubtful or worthless commentary, what remains is often of very considerable value, with the important and detailed information in some comment-threads not infrequently far exceeding that of the original article.
And the total volume of this ongoing user-generated comment-content has been enormous. During a typical month our website averages close to 50,000 published comments totaling well over 4 million words, a figure probably far higher than that for publications with vastly larger daily traffic. In effect, our website tends to bridge the gap between a simple opinion webzine and an online Internet forum. Although many commenters leave remarks of little value, some of our most thoughtful and knowledgeable participants have produced many thousands of comments, sometimes amounting to a million words or more, a figure exceeding the contributions of most of our columnists and other writers.
Our tens of thousands of regular readers obviously benefit from this platform, but I think our writers do as well, given that we offer them a popular venue for views and ideas that might otherwise struggle to receive any significant public visibility at all.
The overall intent of this website was always to serve as a content-distribution channel and commenting platform. Although perhaps three-quarters of our articles and posts are original, the remaining one-quarter are republished under licensing agreements with a wide variety of different bloggers, columnists, and webzines, thereby bringing this diverse material to the attention of many individuals who otherwise would never have encountered it. Left-wingers may discover surprising or disturbing right-wing ideas, and right-wingers do the same with left-wing notions. Probably these encounters are usually fruitless and merely reinforce existing stereotypes, but perhaps sometimes they produce surprises and some minds are changed.
Most of the writers and thinkers that we feature are willing to take bold and important public positions, whether correct or incorrect, and these make it impossible for them to earn a living our mainstream “Media-Industrial Complex” of fainthearted or compromised publications, thinktanks, and academic institutions. But we provide a primary or supplementary source of income to a couple of dozen of these individuals and organizations, helping them continue their important work, which some of them might otherwise need to curtail or even abandon.
Over the past couple of years I’ve often been told that that our website/forum is almost unique on the Internet for the breadth and variety of the “Interesting, Important, and Controversial” material that we are willing to publish and the free-wheeling debate that we allow. At first I was rather skeptical of such flattery, but our traffic reveals some striking figures.
Many of our readers seem to spend a remarkable amount of time on our website each month, 20 hours, 30 hours, 40 hours, even reaching 100 or more hours browsing or reading our material, totals that completely astonished me.
In a few cases, these are the same commenters widely considered “trolls” and possibly even drawing a paycheck for cluttering up our threads with their nonsense. But the overwhelming majority of such heavy users seem to be fully legitimate participants. A website able to regularly absorb forty hours per month of someone’s life, let alone one hundred, must be providing unusually attractive offerings, not easily found elsewhere.
Time is a reasonable measure of value, and these sorts of totals provide a possible metric for assessing the value of the content of this webzine for such readers.
Suppose we assume that our readers could earn $10 per hour in their regular jobs. Then obviously every hour they devote to this website is costing them $10 in the time-value of their free activity, which for those heavy users might reach $400 or even $1,000 per month. And if someone seems to be valuing our content at $400 per month, I think it’s reasonable for them to pay a small slice of that amount in direct website support.
Some of these readers may be individuals living in reduced circumstances, who possess much more available time rather than money. But I think that a much larger number are highly-educated professionals, who would typically earn far more than $10/hour, suggesting that the above calculation should actually be scaled up accordingly.
The underlying principle is simple. If you spend a great deal of time doing something, then you have empirically demonstrated that it must be worth the hourly value of your time. And it hardly seems unreasonable to financially contribute a small additional fraction to help support the iconoclastic writers who are providing that service.
Restricting access to our webzine to casual or ordinary readers would defeat our entire purpose of widely disseminating important and controversial material. But I think that our heavier website users, perhaps those who spend more than 5 or 10 hours per month here, should be encouraged or even required to support it. A stepped-fee somewhere in the range of $1 per hour seems fairly reasonable, and such a figure would go a long way toward covering the payments to our existing writers, allowing for further expansion, and helping to make this website self-sustaining. I doubt that a charge of $1/hour would strain many budgets given that it’s much less than the cost of a cup of coffee or most daily newspapers.
A substantial fraction of our heavy readers are probably ideologically-committed individuals, who might welcome a chance to support writers and thinkers whose content they often admire and whose writing may rarely be found elsewhere.
Perhaps the handful of irritating “trolls” possibly employed by various hostile organizations will be annoyed at having to request an expense account payment to cover such costs, causing them to effectively subsidize the distribution of ideas they abhor and would eagerly censor. But I think they deserve such a fate, and if they choose instead to permanently depart, I doubt they will be much missed.
The exact details and payment methodology will need to be determined, perhaps involving Patreon or other similar systems as an option. But I thought I’d first open on a discussion on this general topic and see what thoughts or suggestions our readers had.