Steve Trinward, one of the Smith2004-discuss mailing list regulars and an editor for Rational Review News Digest, complained recently about the difficulty RRND and other libertarian sites have in getting financial support from those who receive their regular e-mailings.
RRND is a compilation service, collecting links to newsites around the world of stories and commentary of interest to libertarians, at least according to the judgement of its editors. RRND offers its services for free, funding itself with a combination of small grants from libertarian foundations, a bit of banner advertising, and appeals for donations (RRND chief honcho Tom Knapp prefers the term “contributions”) from recipients of its e-mailings and visitors to its website.
RRND (along with affiliated sites and its parent site, The Rational Review) is a quality service which has great track record of consistency since it was launched, and yet it has barely scraped by financially, earning its editors less than minimum wage for the time they spend scanning web sites and compiling links, and other tasks supporting the site.
This quite naturally irks Steve Trinward, who notes that of the approximately 6,000 people who currently receive the e-mail version of the news digest, only about 500 have ever contributed cash to support their efforts.
Steve has compared this situation with the classic “free rider” problem of providing “public goods.” A “public good” is defined as a product or service that people can use without being required to pay for it, the typical example being city streets, which are impractical to meter useage of for the purpose of exacting tolls.
Libertarians typically argue in such cases that if a product or service is really needed or desirable, it will be provided in some fashion despite the fact that many will “ride for free”. Trinward argues that the case of RRND argues against this, that even libertarians won’t support a project that clearly supports their goals, if they are not forced to do so.
On an emotional level, I can relate to this. I have drawn several dozen editorial cartoons supporting libertarian ideas and positions on topics of the day, and have received mostly positive comments about them from all over the world, and frequently find them displayed on other web sites, and yet to date I’ve received an average of about $1.27 per cartoon in my electronic tip jar over the past four years. I can’t even buy a cup of coffee for that these days.
On an intellectual level, I know that I view a great deal of content on the Web, and if I were required to pay as much as a dollar per view, I would need to curtail my Web browsing considerably. I also know that RRND and sites like it do not pay the sites they link to, despite the fact that their compliation of links does generate a small amount of cash for them.
Such is the reality of the Internet. As I replied to Steve on the Smith2004 list:
All purveyors of Internet content, whether it’s original content or a
compilation service, face the problem that only between one and ten
percent (usually closer to one percent) of the people who will accept
the content for free, will chose to pay for it if a subscription is
If this seems immoral, somehow, consider that people only have so much
time in the day and even to view free content they have to “spend” some
of their limited, non-renewable time doing so.
In the print media, daily newspapers and magazines charge subscriptions
but those subscriptions only barely cover the cost of distributing the
newspaper. The reporters, editors, photographers, artists, compositors
and printers are paid from money generated through advertising.
Newspapers and most magazines would not be able to function in anything
like their present form if they financed themselves primarily via
subscriptions. Neither would broadcast radio or television.
Similarly, many Internet content providers (e.g., World Net Daily)
charge no subscription but generate revenue via a combination of banner
advertising and merchandising (selling t-shirts etc with the company
logo or other appealing graphics). Salon has an interesting method, offering
a choice of subscribing or obtaining a “day pass” by
sitting through an animated advertisement before proceding to the
content. Some providers, such as LewRockwell.Com, depend almost entirely
on deep-pocketed donations; others, such as FMNN, rely on donations from
both deep pockets and appeals to content consumers. RRND relies mainly
on donations from content consumers, with some supplements from
advertising and merchandising, and subscriptions for “premium” content.
The Internet is a young medium, one which was originally designed only
to facilitate communications among universities and military
establishments, and which rather suddenly morphed into a communications
tool available to nearly everyone. We are still working out ways of
making this work commercially, and are still in what should be
considered an experimental phase.
Banner advertising has had its ups and downs since the Web went commercial. It was over-sold in the beginning, and as lower-than-expected results became known, advertisers cut back on banner ads, or sought more intrusive alternatives (such as pop-up windows), or demanded payments based on documented click-throughs-to-sales. But in recent years banner advertising has been making a modest come-back, as rates charged have stabilized, advertisers have become more clever in ad design, and the Web “audience” has continued growing.
Content providers of all types, political/ideological or otherwise, are devising new business models and discarding or refining them based on experience. And the ease of communication afforded by the Web itself is speeding up the learning process. Unfortunately, a frequent consequence of being a pioneer as that you wind up with a bunch of arrows sticking out of your back.
Given time, suitable business models for providing quality content on the Web will be developed. I’m not sure, however, that the financial problems of people who make a profession of promoting unpopular causes will ever be solved. That is a problem that has existed long before the Internet came along.