Venezuelanalysis: 10 years reporting on the Bolivarian Revolution
Tamara Pearson interviews Gregory Wilpert
December 4, 2013 -- Venezuelanalysis -- Though activists, academics and other readers rely on Venezuelanalysis.com (VA) daily and weekly for contextual, thorough, on the ground, non-corporate perspectives on the Bolivarian Revolution, few people know the site’s story.
VA’s small dedicated crew of journalists live in Venezuela, are immersed in the country’s political struggles, write from home under hot iron roofs, meet every morning and weather the constant English-language media lies about our country then decide on news to cover and analysis to translate or write. We go to events to photograph them, report them and do interviews. Formed after the 2002 coup and currently depending on donations, how has the site survived for ten years? VA talked to one of its founders, Gregory Wilpert.
Why was Venezuelanalysis.com founded when it was?
Venezuelanalysis.com was founded in September 2003 in reaction to the massive English-language media onslaught against the Bolivarian Revolution. That is, the 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez woke me up to just how massively biased the international media (and of course the private Venezuelan media too) were against the government. I had witnessed first hand how the media distorted events in the lead-up to the coup attempt and of course during the coup. At that time I was mostly involved at the university, conducting research and not doing any journalism.
However, when the coup happened, I completely re-focused what I was doing and pretty much decided to become a full-time journalist about Venezuela for alternative media outlets. After about six months of doing this, writing for all kinds of alternative media, I got frustrated, though, because I felt like my work was being dispersed all over the place and people who wanted a non-mainstream perspective on Venezuela did not have anywhere to go, except to try to laboriously piece together the articles from several writers, dispersed all over the net.
So it occurred to me -- and independently and simultaneously to one of the founders of Aporrea.org, the main alternative news site on Venezuela in Spanish -- to launch an English-language website about Venezuela, which would provide in-depth news and analysis from a perspective that was sympathetic to the popular struggles in Venezuela.
I had previously done a lot of solidarity work with El Salvador and so my intention was to create a sort of solidarity website, one that would be in solidarity with the popular movement, not with the government. Of course, as long as the government supported the popular movement and they supported the government, it does tend to mean that Venezuelanalysis.com would also support the government. In other words, I always believed that journalism has a particular perspective, even while it can try to be as "objective", in the sense of being accurate and truthful, as possible. In this case the perspective is one of solidarity with the poor and excluded.
What was the logistical process of starting it up like?
As I mentioned above, the idea of founding Venezuelanalysis.com occurred to me and to one of the founders of Aporrea.org, Martin Sanchez, at more or less the same time. In mid-2003 a mutual acquaintance of ours had heard that both of us were interested in launching such a website and put us in touch with each other. Since Martin was a professional website programmer, living in the US at the time, he took over the technical aspect of writing the software for the site. Back then it was still rather complicated to put together a website. It's become much simpler nowadays, with all of the software tools that are now available. I took over the content side of things, but Martin also wrote many news articles in the beginning and Eva Golinger wrote many of our first analysis articles.
To get the word out about this new website we tried to get our hands on as many email address lists as possible, of solidarity groups, journalists, academics and others. Also key, I think, was making sure that the site was being indexed by the major search engines. The launch, which took place in September 2003, went rather smoothly, I think.
How has VA as a site changed over its ten years?
There have been of course technical or software changes as well as organisational ones. Where there hasn't been all that much change is with regard to the content. That is, in the beginning the technical side was based on the software that Martin had written and so the site was quite dependent on his on-going management of the software. Later, around 2008, when modular website software became available and also with Martin's declining availability for working on the site and with other organisational changes, we decided to switch the site's software entirely to a system known as Drupal. This was done with the help of a German compañero, Jan Kühn, who continues to manage the technical side of things now. But since this is a modular software system, it is relatively easy for others to learn and to make changes, making us less dependent on a single website programmer or webmaster.
With regard to organisational changes, VA was really at first led mainly by myself and Martin. Later we were able to hire additional writers, thanks to some financial support from the ministry of culture's program of support for a wide variety of activist and cultural organisations. We were basically organised in a traditional manner, with me as editor in chief directing a team of up to three additional journalists. When Martin became consul for Venezuela in Chicago a few years after the site's launch, he pretty much stopped writing for VA.
The year 2008 also represented a number of significant organisational changes for the site. For one thing, that was the year that I moved back to the US because my wife had been named consul general of the Venezuelan consulate in New York and I became absorbed with teaching activity at Brooklyn College. Also that year, because of the global financial crisis, we ended up having to rely entirely on financial support from donations. As a result of these changes, I decided to step back from my central role in editing and directing the site and to turn it into a tax-exempt non-profit organisation, which is formally run by a board of directors, but in its day-to-day work is run by the collective of journalists who write for the site.
What is the political role of VA now? What sort of support do we have?
I think the main political role of VA has been constant since its founding, which is to provide a source of information and analysis about Venezuela, written from a perspective that is in solidarity with the popular movement or grassroots struggles in Venezuela. This, obviously, is in contrast to the perspective that most people get through the so-called mainstream media, which is written from the perspective of private corporate news outlets. As such, I think VA is an absolutely vital alternative to the mainstream media.
A secondary political role of VA is that it shows that this type of journalism can actually be viable, without support from advertising, foundations or any government. True, we are constantly struggling financially, which is frustrating, but after 10 years VA is still there. Also, VA sometimes functions as a kind of journalism school for young and idealistic journalists, with more experienced journalists teaching the newer ones on the go. Over the years I think about 20 writers have been affiliated with VA, writing on a regular basis for periods ranging from one to five years (I think yours, Tamara, has been the longest tenure so far) and I think they were able to learn quite a bit not only about Venezuela but also about journalism from this experience.
In terms of financial support, it tends to fluctuate quite a bit and I wish we could have more, so that we could pay writers better and so that they could write more. Right now we have essentially a bare-bones budget of only about $10,000 per year, which is, I think, pretty much the minimum for keeping us afloat.
Our political support, however, is much larger than our financial base and is reflected in the declarations of support that are posted on the site.
What obstacles and challenges have we faced and do we face now?
The main obstacle or challenge that a site such as VA faces is financial. Most people have become so used to the idea that news should be free that they are very reluctant to pay for it. Of course, we also don't want to charge people for the news and analysis that VA provides since we are interested in getting it out there as much as possible. So, just as most news outlets, we are in this slightly contradictory situation of asking people to pay for their news but not requiring them to do so. The number of people who read the site thus far outstrips the number of people who donate to it. I think we currently have over 40,000 unique visitors per month, but the number of donors per year is no more than a few hundred.
The second obstacle is simply in getting the news out there. Unlike major corporate news outlets we do not advertise the site nor can we afford to hire well-known writers to write for us. As a result, getting the news and analysis out there is always going to be a challenge for us. One thing that helps is that we do show up in news searches of major search engines and so people do stumble upon our site and of course via word of mouth and via social media we also manage to get out there, but we probably could do more of that.
How are we hoping to improve and evolve the site?
Without either more volunteers or more money to pay people to work for VA, it will be very difficult if not impossible for VA to improve or expand. We are hoping to land a grant in the near future, which, if it comes through, would allow us to hire more writers or increase the amount of work that the existing ones do. It wouldn't be my decision any more as to what they would do, since VA is now a self-managed collective, but ideas that we have floated include adding a Spanish section of the site and simply increasing the number of articles we write, especially for the analysis section of the site. Also, with more resources it becomes more feasible to do more original reporting, of going to events or activities in different parts of the country and covering these directly, rather than relying on existing Spanish-language reports about these as we often do now.
[To help keep Venezuelanalysis.com going for another year: Donate here.]