"Hugely Liberating": Rajesh Barnabas On the History of Rochester Indymedia and Anti-Corporate News

ROCHESTER, NY--Feature contributor Leslie Hannon brings us another edition of the ongoing "Grassroots Media Spotlight" series, featuring interviews with alternative and grassroots newsmakers in Upstate New York. Hannon recently spoke with Rajesh Barnabas, a longtime contributor to Rochester Indymedia, about the history of that initiative and the importance of "instant publishing" and collaborative news production today.


Rush transcript

LESLIE HANNON: I'm speaking with Rajesh Barnabas from Rochester Indymedia, which is one of the first online independent media outlets in Rochester. When did Rochester Indymedia begin publishing and what was the original motivation for taking on the task of providing independent news to the community?

RAJESH BARNABAS: So I joined right around like '99 or 2000, right around that era. I think it was when George W [Bush] had stolen that first election, so there was a lot of people that were upset with the world right then, I guess is a little more so than usual. There's all different Indymedia chapters that started around that time, but it was a network. You know back then there was not really personal blogs, and Facebook was not really a place to publish news or anything like that. So this was an alternative new source for everybody. And I joined right around 2001. And Dawn and Andy--Dawn Zapelli and Andy Dillon--were really the kind of force behind Rochester's creation of it here.

LH: Your website states that you're a non-corporate, anti-capitalist collective. Can you explain what this means and why it's important to have these kinds of media outlets in a community like Rochester?

RB: Yeah, it's not funded by any major corporation. In fact, all the money was contributed by the writers themselves and readers supported. That's a unique model, because even alternative press is financed by the advertising. So this was definitely non-corporate, non-profit driven and that gave us a lot of latitude as far as what we could write. Obviously we weren't beholden. You know, journalists in the corporate media tell you that they're objective; they aren't. There's like self-censorship that goes on in corporate media, and even before that the people who make it into those positions already come from an acceptable mostly middle-class background and so they don't come with anti anti-capitalist perspectives. They've been groomed and bred through the capitalist education system, they survived it. And so that these are the people who go into mainstream journalism.

LH: It's transparent on your website that you've made changes to your editorial process as things like social media have evolved. Can you talk about how that publishing process has changed, and expand on what it was like when Rochester Indymedia began, and why instant publishing was so important at that time?

RB: Yeah, right now everybody has instant publishing, and they can get their word out through their Facebook page, on Instagram, or Twitter. But at that time, you know, the idea of instant publishing totally ran counter to everything that seems to be so curated and prepared and filtered that is journalism. You know, you only had a certain amount of outlets and if you couldn't get your word in in a certain format, in a certain narrative... and it took years! I tried to write a letter to the editor for the Democrat and Chronicle in the lead-up to the Iraq War and saying how basically was a horrible idea, the first war was built on faulty information, and this fellow George W. doesn't fall far from the tree--the apple doesn't fall--he's going to just bake up reasons to go in there. And so it was along those lines, it was very critical. And at that point, it was following 9/11 and no one was criticizing the lead up to the war, all the justifications. So anybody with alternative perspectives, were beating their head trying to get their letters in. It took me a whole year to finally... the essay came out one year after the war had already started, they kept on sending it back: "no, you need to edit this, you need to edit that, you can't say this." Finally it got into the mainstream. So the idea that you could immediately publish something, instantly, was hugely liberating. So instant publishing is huge, was huge back then and I think it's still... like it was a precursor to Facebook and different things.

LH: From what I gather you're not as active as a publication as you were, and from talking to you what I what I'm gathering is that just kind of the needs of changed with social media, with the technology, with you know, everybody having a camera in their pocket, it seems like the role has switched a little bit from what you know you guys do.

RB: I think actually, you know, your publication Reclaiming the Narrative has filled that void. But I think there's definitely a need for collective, leftist, or alternative journalism. You know like anybody can have their own blog and put out their eclectic outlook on the world. But we actually worked on articles together. We edited them together, one person did the photography and another person did art or whatever, and there was some synergy there. And I think there was also... there's also power in collective writing and a group of us all together supporting each other.

LH: When the money's not your motivator, passion has to be. And you know that's in my opinion when it comes to to this kind volunteer model here.

RB: Yeah we were definitely in it for the love of, you know, truth. Truth-seeking. And trying to get, amplify our perspective and narratives because they weren't being represented by the mainstream press at all. And still aren't, you know, I would argue that's not happening still.

LH: Even with the prevalence of the new technology and everything, it seems it's still difficult to get to some voices out there.

RB: Yeah, you know it's kind of like divide and conquer. There are tons of little niches, but see we had tons of eyes on Indymedia. We were the only game in town for a little while that was the alternative press. Because City Newspaper wasn't really doing it. The Black publications like Minority Reporter, they were still getting going. So yeah we were the only place where people could get a kind of alternative perspective. And from from a collective of people, you know, created by a collection of activists, people who actually had experience on the ground in the movement were writing, because the reporters from the press weren't covering the movement. You know, "Revolution will not be televised" so to speak.


LESLIE HANNON is a volunteer contributor for Reclaiming the Narrative. Other interviews in her ongoing series "Grassroots Media Spotlight" can be found here.