Spring Donation Drive
It’s six in the morning here in Oregon City. The sun won’t be up for another hour. The west wind is rattling the windows. I hope a storm is brewing. We need the rain. Then I hear the tea kettle sputtering. The damn thing refuses to whistle. I make pot of Moroccan mint tea and settle behind my battered Mac. The new grandkid is already up, has been for an hour or so, gnawing on the ears of a stuffed toy grizzly that Kimberly and I picked up several years ago in Yellowstone. The once feral gray cat who has no known name is now curled up at my feet and the sleek black cat we call Baudelaire is standing on the table brushing his back against the screen. There will be no breakfast. There hasn’t been any breakfast in a year. I’ve been bamboozled into following an “intermittent fast,” which prohibits any food from 7 PM to 11 AM. I don’t recommend it.
I check the CounterPunch page to make sure all of the morning’s stories have posted, since they were edited and loaded into WordPress last night. Occasionally there are screw-ups, usually mine. All looks good so far. There are 15 new pieces today. An intriguing mix of stories ranging from the killing of Jamal Khashoggi to the tottering global economy, from the failure of Democrats to appeal to millennials to the torments of Gaza.
Then I grit my teeth and download my email. There are 612 new messages in my inbox since I last checked eight hours ago. The count is a little higher than normal because of the annual fund drive. Every morning starts with a purge, wiping out the spam and the advertisements, the duplications, the bounces, the latest alerts on crisis actors in Vegas and thermite at Ground Zero. That leaves 503 messages that need my attention. First, I scan for advisories from the CounterPunch team: Joshua, Becky, Nathaniel, Deva and Nichole. Becky sent a note about yesterday’s totals from the fund drive. We’re down from last year by about 25 percent, even though the number of contributors has actually risen. The economy is more brutal and unforgiving than anyone admits. The rising stock market only reflects how much wealth the one-percent has amassed at the expense of the rest of us. Many of our readers live from paycheck to payday loan.
There’s a note from Nichole about books for potential review that have landed in Petrolia. I pick out four or five titles to be shipped north. Nathaniel writes to say that the debate over “fascism” has flared up again on the CounterPunch social media platforms in response to a provocative piece by my pal Anthony DiMaggio. Deva says that a troublesome bug in the site’s shopping cart has been resolved. Josh sends a gloating email about the Dodgers’ big win over the Brewers and another about the four or five stories he’s editing today, before he assembles the email Blaster, which will be sent off to nearly 50,000 CounterPunchers in a few hours. There are several group emails about CounterPunch business. We are all brainstorming about ways that we can make the fundraiser more effective, less annoying and end as soon as possible. None of us are professional fundraisers. None of us like asking for money or sacrificing staff hours and space on the website for this annual ordeal. But we don’t have any other options. We won’t sell ads and we don’t get big grants from liberal foundations.
Not many outlets that take our line on the Middle East or the vacuity of the Democratic Party get grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts or the Rockefeller Foundation. That’s one big reason there aren’t that many sites like CounterPunch, frankly. Another, of course, is that they don’t have our writers. We’re funded by our readers and only our readers. Live by the word, perish by the word.
Thankfully one of our longtime supporters has stepped up this week and promised to match every $100 or more donation up to $25,000 total. The matching grant is landing right on time, but will only make a dent in our modest goal if our readers pitch in.
We seem to scrape by every year, though some years are leaner than others. This has been a very lean couple of years, partly because we’ve lost one of our largest donors, who had graciously supported CounterPunch for 15 years. He said that it’s time to see if we can swim against the current on our own. I told him we’re all taking swimming lessons and are intent on drowning as slowly as possible. But he was quite right. We now have more than two million unique visitors to the site every month. If each of them gave merely five dollars a year we wouldn’t have to run another fundraiser until 2030.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. Nearly three weeks into this annual fund drive we’ve received contributions from more than 2100 CounterPunchers. That’s a nice round number, but it represents only a tiny fraction of our readers. Even so, CounterPunch’s online edition remains a commons; it’s free to all who come and we intend to keep it that way as long as we can. If people like it, if they feel they need it, they’ll pony up the money to keep us afloat. We are compelled to survive amid the grinding swirl of the very market forces that we abhor and are seeking to undermine.
There’s also an email from Zach at AK Press saying that our new book, The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink should be getting into bookstores, those endangered spaces, sometime this week. It’s a big book with more than six years of reporting in it from some of the most battered places on the continent, such as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. It’s not just a book about the environment, but the defenders of nature–from the desert southwest and the Rocky Mountains to Flint and Standing Rock–and how those brave environmentalists have become the targets of the FBI, corporate goons and mysterious infiltrators. It’s an urgently written book with real blood on the pages.
Next, I scan in the inbox for any threatening legal letters. We’ve been sued in the past by a former CIA officer, a Saudi sheikh, two US senators and the nation of Qatar. To name a few. We’ve never lost, knock on wood. Still, the last time we were sued, the legal fees cost us $30,000 and the case didn’t even reach the deposition phase. Since the Gawker ruling, the situation for the independent press has become ever more perilous. Any aggrieved billionaire who sues over the slightest critique and litigates against cash-strapped media sites can force these outlets into bankruptcy. Trump, of course, is eager to lend presidential authority to this assault on the first amendment.
Fortunately, there are no demand letters this morning. But there was a torrent of hate mail, which is always more instructive to read than the rare herogram. “Why are you so soft on Putin?” “Why are you in Putin’s pocket?” “Your blind support of Assad is outrageous.” “Why did CounterPunch turn its back on the Syrian regime?” “ANTIFA are fascist scum.” “ANTIFA is the last line of defense against fascists.” “You guys are climate deniers.” “Why did CounterPunch abandon Cockburn’s critique of global warming science?” “You Bernie Bros are responsible for Trump!” “I’ve donated for many years, but not after St. Clair’s vile attacks on Bernie Sanders.”
I sympathize with the confusion. Unlike many political sites, CounterPunch doesn’t a have company line. The online edition of CounterPunch has always been a venue where different voices, on what can loosely be described as the “left,” can freely engage in fierce debates about politics, economics, war, movies, racism, music and political movements. We’ve tried to make CounterPunch free from dogma and cant, but to keep it open for writers with fresh points of view and vivid writing styles. The experience can perplex readers who are used to grazing in the usual media feedlots of processed prose and artificially-colored opinions.
The phone rings at 7:30 AM. It’s the first call of the day. There will be dozens more before it finally goes silent. As usual, those early morning calls remind me of Cockburn. We talked every day at 7 AM for nearly 20 years. I miss his friendship and his political voice. Alex would have had rich sport carving up Trump, his deranged adherents and his banal Democratic pursuers. This call, however, is for a radio interview about the 14 different ethics investigations into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
It’s Thursday, the busiest day of the week for Josh and me. This is the day we begin preparing Weekend Edition, which generally runs a slate of 45 stories. We’ve been collecting potential pieces over the week. Now the essays must be edited, the links inserted, photos selected, captions, headlines and sub-headlines written. We have to order the stories, write blurbs and load them all into WordPress. I usually edit about 20 stories on Thursday another batch early on Friday morning, waiting on some of our late-arriving regular contributors, such as the usually tardy but indispensable David Yearsley. Each story takes about 20 minutes to edit and load. That’s nine hours of steady work at the Mac. If nothing goes awry and something usually does.
After my first interview, I dive in. Yigal Bronner has sent a devastating piece from the West Bank, where he has been camped out in small village slated for demolition by Israel. It’s sure to unnerve some timid readers. The historian Jacques Pauwels has sent a piece on eating at the House of the Swan, 450-year old restaurant in Belgium where Karl Marx once hung out. The old Rousseau scholar Andy Levine sends a note telling me to hold a spot for his piece on the future of progressive politics in a party (the Democrats) dominated by neoliberals. Jason Hirthler, who is a tremendously gifted writer, has sent a new piece whacking the fragile pieties of our liberal elites. Paul Street tries to make sense of the Trump/Kanye West show. Ramzy Baroud writes a political obituary for Nikki Haley’s savage tenure at the UN. It should prove to be another rich palette of stories.
At noon, I take a break for lunch. The first protein of the day is a chunk of sockeye salmon I barbecued for dinner last night. It’s even better cold. I wash it down with a glass of apple cider (I’ve stopped drinking alcohol since the kid moved in with us) and skim the headlines of the New York Times, the Independent, London Review of Books and Ha’aretz. I take a walk in the rain and return soaked and cold. I write a few emails to writers reminding them of the deadline for the next print issue of the magazine and write some thank you notes for contributors to the fund-drive.
My wife Kimberly calls and reports that she’s got the flu. The library is always the first vector for the autumn plagues. I’ll go down next, as I always do. This is not good news and we’re fearful of passing it to the grandkid, who is staying with us for the next month, while his father is on assignment in Hungary. We’re damn lucky we have health care through Kimberly’s work at the university. So few American journalists enjoy this privilege, which should be a fundamental right for all. There are no sick days or mental health days (though god knows we could use them) at CounterPunch. The website must go up.
At 1:30 PM, I dive back into the editing and work steady until my interview at 3. Nick Pemberton tries to make sense of Chomsky’s voting strategy. Jill Richardson explores the consequences, political and cultural, of Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test. Ricardo Vaz writes from Belgium on Saudis’ genocidal war on Yemen. Dr. John Carter sends a painful piece from the wilds of Idaho describing the plight of Great Pyrenees guard dogs who have been abandoned by their owners. There’s a piece by the courageous Dr. Hakim Young from Afghanistan.
After the radio show, I work on a few more stories and then I am seized in panic. Damn. It’s 5 PM on Thursday and I haven’t written a word for my own column. I didn’t even have a topic. What the hell I am going to do? Becky temporarily distracts me with an update on the daily totals from the fund drive. Not awful, but not great, either. We’ve got to pick up the pace or confront a crisis. I quickly check the website traffic. It looks pretty robust. Patrick Cockburn’s essay on the Saudis and Greg MacDougall’s powerful report on the epidemic of suicides among indigenous people in Canada are still buzzing, being read and debated from Olympia, Washington to Cape Town, South Africa.
Around 6 PM I finish editing the last of the pieces for Weekend Edition and begin cooking dinner. I select a challenging but delicious recipe taken from south of France by the great Paula Wolfert called “Chicken with Red Onion Sauce.” As I quarter the chicken, I continue searching for an idea for a column. Kimberly rings to say she’s snarled in traffic. I grumble about my predicament. She comes to the rescue by suggesting that I write about a typical day at CounterPunch. Would that be cheating, I wonder? Nah. I scribble some notes as the chicken sizzles and the rice steams.
After dinner, I retreat to my office with my Macbook and a pre-rolled from Gnome Grown (the local pot shop) and start pounding out this journal entry while listening to John Coltrane’s “Lost Album.” Not wanting this to be an entirely fact-free column, I do a little research. In the last year, CounterPunch has published 5301 articles by 3050 different writers. On average, we add 12 new writers to the site every week. This year we published writers on every continent, including Antarctica, and from every state, including Alabama and Wyoming. The articles were read, posted, tweeted, re-tweeted millions of times by nearly 16 million individual readers. Those numbers are impressive, considering CounterPunch’s origins 25 years ago as a six-page newsletter published fortnightly for a few thousand subscribers. Many of those original subscribers stay with us to this day.
Over 25 years, I think we’ve proved our worth. We’ve built CounterPunch into an intelligent, combative and radical presence around the world. But we can only move forward with your financial support. There’s no safety net for us. CounterPunch is run by a dedicated skeleton crew. After all these years, against all odds we’re still here. We’re still a lean operation with no waste to prune. Every dollar you can manage is crucial to our survival.
It’s 10 PM when I finish this column-cum-plea for money. I download my email for the last time and shutter the Macbook. It’s been an exhausting but productive day. A gentle but steady rain begins to beat at the window. The black cat looks up at me. He’s an odd cat and usually follows me on my late night walks to clear my head, but he’s showing no inclination toward venturing outside into the Oregon drizzle tonight. Come on, Baudelaire, let’s take a stroll–even evil flowers need a little water to grow.
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