Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Shadow and Substance

The USCF has been unable to balance its budget for a while. There’s no secret about why; we’re spending more than we’re taking in. Obviously, there are two solutions: increase income or reduce expenses. Increasing income means either getting more members (yeah, plant that money tree) or raising dues (probably self-defeating). As for reducing expenses, well, everyone is in favor of cutting the other guy’s programs.

USCF President Bill Goichberg has come up with an elaborate plan which purports to do both. The basic idea is to create a two-tier membership system: one for $29 without a printed copy of Chess Life (though it is supposed to include an undefined “electronic format” version), and one for $42 pretty much the same as what we have now. There would be a similar bifurcation for junior members receiving Chess Life for Kids. All members would receive a slim quarterly “bulletin,” intended to “keep them in touch” and presumably to contain TLAs. All this will be discussed and voted upon at the Annual Meeting in Dallas this August.

So far, I’ve been disappointed by the quality of debate. Unfortunately, one of the loudest opponents has been the egregious Sam Sloan, and his arguments are so bad that they make the proposal look good – and perhaps undeservedly. Consider the following hysterical outbursts. (All caps in original; I’m not the one who’s shouting.)

“Please note that Regular Members NO LONGER RECEIVE CHESS LIFE MAGAZINE.

(True in the sense that the current proposal calls the $29 membership “Regular” and the $42 one “Premium.” Since the “Premium” is identical to what is now known as “Regular,” this is semantic twaddle.)


(Hardly sounds onerous. Some of them are dead, and the USCF really ought to check.)

“Now, even as I type this, they are sitting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at a meeting in which they are contemplating the final destruction of the federation by stopping the publication of Chess Life magazine.”

(Aside from the fact that the EB can’t do any of this without a vote of the Delegates, it’s nonsense. Since memberships run for at least a year, and printing contracts run even longer, there would be no effect for at least two years even if everyone chose the no-printed-magazine option – which isn’t going to happen.)

Now, what are the real issues that ought to be addressed? I have three problems with the proposal:

1) Do the numbers really add up? Of course, if we get a lot of new members at the new rate, income will go up, but that’s the same kind of smoke and mirrors that got the USCF into the current mess. Let’s take the end cases. If no one takes the new rate – no effect. If everyone immediately takes it – the USCF would take a short-term hit, after which it would do very well if membership and tournament attendance remained the same. Neither of these is sufficiently likely to be worth considering. At some point in between, the cost of printing and mailing is supposed to go down more quickly than the income from the reduced membership rates. Where, and how fast? (If one person switches, you’re not going to be able to print one less magazine.) I’d like to see an analysis and graphs of this, by someone who understands the subject and has neither an axe to grind nor an ox to gore. That pretty much excludes all politicians.

2) The “electronic version” of Chess Life which the new membership class is supposed to receive is mentioned but not defined. This has been a problem with many of Bill’s past ideas – he’s much better at concept than implementation. Will it be a PDF version of the paper magazine? Easy for the editor, tough on bandwidth. (And murder on anyone still using dial-up.) Will it be encrypted? That’s what most e-book sellers do. Does the USCF know how? Will it be HTML versions of the magazine articles on line? That would increase the editor’s workload somewhat (an HTML page is not the same thing as a magazine page), and limiting access to members would be tricky to implement. (The current system, such as it is, involves sending a PIN number on the back of Chess Life.) This should be worked out in detail before debating whether to commit to it.

3) A more subtle objection is that the technology isn’t quite there yet. In another five years or so, when something like the Amazon Kindle is in common use, and you can have your magazine wirelessly transmitted to your tablet – maybe. If it’s tried now and fails, it’s going to be harder to try it again later, when it might have a better chance of success.


Adrian said...

Your essay is intelligent and I really responded to it.

Doug Grant said...

With respect to an electronic distribution -- the simplest way would be to create a .pdf version, ignore all aspects of encryption, trademark, copyright, etc., post it on the USCF Web site, and email "regular" members a a fresh link to a new magazine issue each month.

People who want paper copies can get them by subscribing.