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The Wolf at the Door: Adventures in Fundraising With Cockburn

CounterPunch went online 20 years ago, just in time for Clinton’s war on Serbia. Clinton’s war was premeditated, our transit to the World-Wide Web was reluctant, at best. Cockburn’s relationship with computers was hostile. Mine was indifferent. I surfed the web, like anyone else, but had no idea how it would be useful for us. At the time, CounterPunch was a 6-page newsletter that we published fortnightly. We called it “fortnightly” because the word had a nice ring to it and no one was precisely sure how many days or even weeks a fortnight encompassed. But if we ran pieces online, who would pay to receive our newsletter? We remained stubbornly committed to print and our 5,000 or so subscribers. Still do. Where will the web be when the electromagnetic pulse wipes the slate clean?

The fact that we even had a domain name we owed entirely to the foresight of one of our tech-savvy donors, who told me that even though we were both too dumb to realize it now, we’d thank him for it one day. He reserved the CounterPunch domain in 1997. We didn’t start using it for another year, when the cruise missiles started shattering the night in Belgrade. The war went on for 78 days and nights, roughly four fortnights. The web allowed us to cover Clinton’s war in real-time. Cockburn said he was willing to try it as an “experiment,” fully expecting it to fail. He had just one condition: that he never had to learn how to post a piece. Thus management of the CounterPunch website fell into my hands by default. I used a primitive software program called Pagemill for the first few years and it looked primitive, like scribblings by Cy Twombley. There was no time to take any classes or seminars. “Just get it up as fast as you can, Jeffrey,” Cockburn said. “And no complaints.” I knew nothing then about html, hyper-links, analytics or even how to load a photo. I still don’t know much. I’d loved my archaic Pagemill program. It was web-design for simpletons. I threw a tantrum the day I was forced to give it up for the damnable Dreamweaver, which was far too complex for my sophomoric skill set.

Nevertheless, people came. Came by the thousands and then the 10s of thousands. They came from all over the world: Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand, Iceland, South Korea, India. By the 2000 presidential elections, CounterPunch had gone global. Even so, we had no idea how to make the website pay for itself or to help support CounterPunch. For years, we didn’t have a shopping cart or any way to take credit card orders or sell subscriptions online. We simply asked people to mail in a check to the office in Petrolia. In a couple of years, our readership had grown from 5,000 print subscribers to 15,000 viewers a day on the website.

But the funding base had remained pretty much the same. We were supported by our subscribers and by the extra money we raised from hitting them up once a year through a direct mail letter usually sent in November. Alex enjoyed writing the letters.

He told me once, he thought he could have enjoyed a great career in advertising or public relations, a fantasy fed by our friend and counselor Ben Sonnenberg, the longtime editor of Grand Street, whose father nearly invented the seductive art of public relations. And they were successful. Or successful enough to keep us afloat, though the coffers had usually been drained to a shallow tidepool by the time October rolled around.

Alex told me once that he was good at raising money, because he’d spent so much time avoiding debt collectors. He said he learned the finer points of this art from his father, Claud, who like most writers of radical journalism lived close to the margin most of his life. It was from Claud that Alex inherited some of his favorite phrases: “the wolf at the door,” “pony up,” “begging bowl.” (Of course, Alex loved all canids, wild and domestic, and would have gladly left out a shank from one of his pal Greg Smith’s lambs for any wolf on the prowl.) We used to joke about Alex’s six phone lines, one for each creditor. He also had a different accent for each creditor, once pretending to be his brother Patrick, who was reporting on the siege of Mosul at the time. Listening to these calls was hearing a master at work, like a character from one of his favorite novels, The Charmer by Patrick Hamilton.

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In those days, the CounterPunch staff was so small we could all squeeze into Alex’s Valiant, when it would start. After Ken Silverstein left for greener pastures, it was largely down to Alex, Becky Grant and me. We worked 11 months out of the year, taking August off, and a weeklong holiday during Christmas usually highlighted by a New Year’s Eve party at Alex’s house along the Mattole River. Those years can seem idyllic in hindsight. We worked hard and drank harder, often hard cider brewed by Alex and CounterPunch’s board chair Joe Paff. Still, we were fairly productive by almost any standard. We wrote three books together in four years, two of them (Whiteout and our scathing biography of Al Gore) were substantial works requiring months of research. We both wrote a column a week separately and one together (Nature and Politics). We wrote most of the copy for CounterPunch, 10 to 12 stories a month. We both had weekly radio shows, Alex in South Africa and mine on KBOO in Portland. We both wrote for the Anderson Valley Advertiser and occasional pieces for New Left Review, The Progressive, the New Statesman, and City Pages. I wrote for the Village Voice and In These Times and Alex had a bi-monthly column in The Nation. But CounterPunch was home base. It’s the journal that we felt the closest to and saved our best writing for.

Sometimes the bank accounts would evaporate even earlier. On September 11, 2001, for example. I was jolted from bed by an early morning wake-up call from Cockburn. “Jeffrey, turn on your TV and describe what you see.” He hadn’t paid his cable bill and they’d shut off his service. I spent the next several hours narrating the fall of the Twin Towers, the crash at the Pentagon, the panicky peregrinations of George W. Bush and Cheney’s tightening grip on the throat of the Republic. Our lives as journalists changed profoundly that day as well. From September 11 onward, we published nearly every day of the week, week after week, month after month, year after year. At first, we ran only two or three stories a day. (And to fill in those blank hours on the clock, we insanely decided to start a book publishing venture!) Now we publish 12 to 14 each day and 40 to 45 every Friday for our Weekend Edition. We were online for good, like it or not. No vacations, no holidays, no sick days. The web, we soon found out, waits for no one.

We were online, but we still had no idea how to make our web-based journalism pay for itself. We tried running Google Ads for a few months, but got banned for what Google imperiously declared was “clicker fraud,” even though we hadn’t been the culprits. Apparently, some over-enthusiastic CounterPuncher had repeatedly clicked on Google text links, for which we received a return of a nickel a click. We think it was a CounterPuncher. Of course, it might have been Alex’s cockatiel, Percy, who in addition to whistling the Internationale, took a fancy to Cockburn’s keyboard, battering it with his beak four or five times a day. At the time, a close friend of ours was dating a top Google lawyer, who to prove his devotion to her swore that he would have the ban reversed. He failed. She dumped him. But the verdict of the corporate algorithm is absolute. It tolerates no appeals.

Alex, a Luddite to the core, believed that every new feature of the cyberworld was an evil manifestation to be shunned, shamed and exorcized. Thus he continued to refer to CounterPunch as a “Twitter-free Zone” for nearly a year after Nat had set up the CounterPunch Twitter account, which now has more than 65,000 followers. No one had the heart to tell him the news.

Early on we tried writing a few grant proposals, but never got one we actually applied for-our position on Israel proving fatal to our aspirations for funding. It’s just as well. We weren’t going to dance to any master’s tune or be constrained by anyone else’s ideological strings. We weren’t going to saddle ourselves with ads, either. Partly this was owing to my own incompetence. I had no idea how to use Flash or any of the other plug-ins that ad companies demanded we deploy. But we also both deplored the way online ads intruded on our own reading experiences and didn’t want to inflict that on our readers, if we could help it. And so far, so good.

In the end, we’ve largely depended on the kindness of our readers to survive. And, though there have been some close calls, this simple and direct approach of appealing to those who know us best hasn’t failed in 26 years. Not yet, anyway. After Alex died, a woman approached me at the funeral and said rather smugly, “Well, I guess this is the end of CounterPunch.” I was angered at her remark and Alex would have been, too. This woman was part of the Nation magazine’s delegation to the funeral. She was married to a multi-millionaire and neither of them had ever given CounterPunch a dime. They even asked Alex to provide them a complimentary subscription to the magazine. My irritation with NationLady was only in part about how dismissive she was over my own contribution to CounterPunch, which had been substantial since Ken’s departure.

It stemmed more from the flippant disregard for our writers and tens of thousands of readers. CounterPunch was no longer merely a platform for our voices. It was now the home base for hundreds of different writers from across the country and around the globe. I checked this morning. Since going online, we’ve published more than 5,500 different writers. CounterPunch belongs to them, as much as it does to us. Still, Mrs. MoneyBags was right about one thing. We were more broke than we’d ever been the week that Alex died. But we published the day Alex died, the day he was buried and every day since. The readers came through, again and again and again.

We’ve grown in the seven years since Alex passed. The online readership is probably twice what it was in August 2012. We’re publishing more pieces each week and adding new writers every day. The website has been completely revamped into a more efficient and flexible WordPress design that even a Luddite like me can’t screw-up too badly. It even works on smartphones, where the analytics say nearly half of the site’s visitors read CounterPunch. To keep up, our staff (still tiny by most standards) has doubled in size, from three to six: Becky, Deva and Nichole in the business office and me, Josh and Nat on the editorial side.

That means our costs have nearly doubled. What hasn’t doubled, however, is the number of print magazine subscribers who used to be (and in many ways remain) the primary funders of CounterPunch. Everywhere, print is in decline, even here at CounterPunch. So we’re depending more and more on the community of online readers who utilize CounterPunch for free: no clickbait, no ads, no paywalls.

I remember a conversation Alex and I had on the night before the last fundraiser we did together in October 2011. He was sick then, sicker than any of us knew, but not showing it. He was impish, excited and anxious, as he always was this time of year.

“Are you ready for another shot in the dark, Jeffrey?” he asked.

“What if we fail this time?”

“Well, we can always do something else.”

“Do we know how to do anything else?”

“Of course, we do. We know how to make cider, go trout-fishing and listen to Chuck Berry. What more do we need?”

And now another October has rolled around and the old wolf, perhaps loping past the spirit of Cockburn in the pepperwood grove in the Mattole Valley, is back at our door. We humbly put forth our begging bowl, confident that CounterPunchers will once again pony up

Onward,

Jeffrey St. Clair

Donate today (PayPal accepted) or mail a check/call us at:

(707) 629-3683
PO Box 228
Petrolia, CA 95558

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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