Mac Musings

Value and Panhandling

Daniel Knight - 2001.06.11 -

The Grand Rapids (MI) Public Schools are hurting bad. The 2000-01 budget included $227.5 million in expenses, but only $218.9 million in revenue. The 2001-02 budget proposal projects about $240 million in expenses and $221 million in revenue, a deficit of roughly $18 million.

At the end of 1998-99, the school system had a fund balance of nearly $20 million. By the end of the coming school year, they may have a $10 million deficit. Whether this is due to the superintendent we've had since 1997, a push toward Windows computers, or just poor planning, it's a bad situation. (Grand Rapids voters are filling three spots on the Board of Education today. We expect a high turnout.)

One of our sons attends City High, a magnet school for gifted students. The proposed cuts at City include everything that makes the school special - debate, drama, music, etc. And City isn't alone in facing cuts; athletics may go to a "pay to play" system. But City parents are doing something about it. At an average of $240 per student, we can fund these programs, so work is underway to set up a foundation to support that.

Of course, our tax dollars are already paying for the education of our children, but we see a richer education as a worthwhile investment beyond the taxes we're already paying.

The Mac Web

Last Friday, David Schultz posted Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Click Here!: A Bad Omen for the Mac Web on As a fellow publisher and a philosopher, Schultz tries to grapple with the deep issues of Apple Computer, Mac users, and the Mac Web. He's written for Low End Mac, and we've published articles he's written.

Schultz discusses our financial situation and raises some good questions - a role philosophers should have in any society. For the most part, I agree with him. But then he accuses us and others of panhandling.

That hurts.

The Web

You can pretty much divide Web sites into three categories: well-funded sites by established businesses, personal hobby sites, and new businesses grown on the Web. Many sites in the third category, including LEM, began as hobby sites.

The ideas behind the Web are over a decade old, but the Web didn't really take off until about 1995. By 1999 every major corporation seemed to have a dot-com address prominently displayed in all their advertising.

But the Web is a new phenomenon; there as never before been anything like it.

The Web is like the printing press, which allowed inexpensive dissemination of words. But anyone with access to a computer can become a publisher and there's no physical page being distributed.

The Web is like radios or television, which broadcast information freely available to everyone with a receiver. But the Web isn't tied into live broadcasting like these media.

The Web is something new: part newspaper, part magazine, part television, and part different. Because of this, we're still learning how to make Web-based businesses work.

Remember the huge dot-com bust of 2000? Dot-coms are still melting down, but a lot of people with "good ideas" (and probably better sales pitches) and lots of money couldn't figure it out. Even, one of the great successes of the Internet age, keeps tweaking their model in pursuit of profits.

Some sites are free because the shill for Coca Cola, General Motors, Sony, or Nike. Others are free because they are trying to sell you something - and even then, some ecommerce sites have banner ads. Others are free because they are hobby sites served on free servers; they have no financial overhead.

Some sites are not free. Some require you to subscribe, sometimes at the cost of your personal information and sometimes at a cost to your wallet. Some put up ads to defray the cost of doing business, costing you a bit of screen real estate and a bit of your attention.

Some sites sell, while others provide information. wants you to buy books, CDs, or movies. wants you to consume Coke products. wants you to buy Apple equipment.

Low End Mac

Some sites exist to share useful information. This was the original goal of the Web; it is the goal of Low End Mac. We're not selling computer equipment; we're sharing facts and opinions. We began as a free hobby site in April 1997 and have grown as more and more of you have made LEM a regular stop.

We have tried to fund the site completely with ads, using the same model as radio and TV stations. From 1998 through 2000, it worked. We had minimal expenses, so it didn't take much to keep the site running. Because we believe the worker is worthy of wages, we pay most of our writers (a few have said, "No, I'm doing this for free") a modest amount. Until last September, that was our biggest expense.

Thanks to stellar work by BackBeat Media, the folks who handle ads for our site, I began to draw a salary starting last September. Truth be told, for a few months this site was bringing in more than my day job. Based on trends (growth in site traffic, ad rates, etc.), I incorporated Cobweb Publishing in January and quit my day job to publish on the Web full time.

We tried to fund the site completely with ads, and it almost worked. Almost.

By March we were starting to work with our local Apple dealer to move some old Quadras out of their back room. I didn't want to get involved in sales, but a bit of that would help tide us over. By the end of May, we were broke.

Well, not flat broke. We just didn't have any money. We did have over $8,000 in receivables, most of it owed us by one company. And we didn't have the cash to pay our bills.

In an unprecedented move, we asked our readers for donations. We believe we run a useful service; we hoped others agreed. If so, we might see several hundred dollars - maybe a thousand - come our way. We were wrong.

Never underestimate the Mac community. We received voluntary contributions ranging from $1.50 to $150 from people around the world. Money came via PayPal, the Amazon Honor System, and snail mail. And it's still coming in, along with comments from site fans:

It's humbling and exhilarating to know Low End Mac is so widely appreciated. My only goal in starting the site was sharing my knowledge of older Macs. I'm gratified to see such a response.


Back to David Schultz. Much as I appreciate his support and analysis of the situation, the word panhandling isn't complementary. I couldn't put my finger on it, but my wife did. Panhandlers ask something for nothing - give me some money for food or drink. They give nothing in return.

I don't think anyone would accuse LEM of giving nothing of value; we've been publishing valuable information on the Web for over four years. It's because of that value that dozens (and probably over 100 by now) have willingly contributed to keeping the site afloat.

The problem isn't the donations; it's Schultz's paradigm. We should either be a commercial site that survives on ad income or a noncommercial site that survives on donations. Black or white, but not gray. Running a commercial site and asking for donations is panhandling.

Is that a realistic assessment of things?

When I buy a magazine or newspaper, it has lots of ads, yet I pay for it. It's not black (100% ad supported) or white (100% user supported), but gray.

When I listen to pubic radio or watch public TV, I find out who their corporate sponsors and underwriters are, yet they feel free to ask for voluntary donations several times a year. It's not black or white, but gray.

When parents come together to raise funds for public schools, which are already funded by taxes, we again mix black and white to produce gray.

Of course, the whole idea is staying out of the red while providing the services your organization exists for. In our case, that's a site that tens of thousands visit every week.

When you visit our site, we receive a small fee because of the ads we display. It's a small fraction of a penny, and a smaller fraction than it was last year. Yes, the mere fact that you visit Low End Mac (without blocking the ads) supports the site to a small extent, and that should be enough to keep us going. That's our business model.

But our business model didn't include selling used computers, a bit of consulting, or asking for donations. That's all due to the financial crunch, which we hope will be behind us by the end of this week.

We still have over $8,000 in receivables, but some of that should come in this week and we have a promise of $1,000 a month from our past due sponsor. We have a check on the way for our Cube, which we used to keep the site going while our PowerBook G4 was in the shop. And BackBeat Media is sending us a check.

BackBeat will continue seeking out advertisers for the site, just as we'll look for new sponsors for our email lists. And we'll continue giving readers the opportunity to show their appreciation and support Low End Mac, but no panhandling. ;-)