Welcome to Casa Jurnalistului – where Romanian reporters are rebuilding the media industry from the ground up
In an era of fake news, clickbait content, and cut-throat downsizing, it is no secret that journalism is undergoing a crisis. Although it is a global phenomenon, in Romania, the impact has been intensified by economic instability – 40 per cent of Romanians living under the breadline – and a corruption so rampant that the government is now decriminalising it. Frustrated at working in a climate where quality reporting was becoming increasingly difficult, Bucharest-based journalist Vlad Ursulean decided to take on what seemed like an impossible task – finding a sustainable alternative.
It all started back in 2011, when the industry found itself hard-hit in the aftershock of the financial crisis. “A gang of us reporters used to have barbecues and complain how our employers were very shitty. The media was already flimsy here, but it was taken over by moguls and badly run. They’d say f*** it – it’s either propaganda or churning out stuff. You had these amazing investigative journalists being either kicked out or forced to do hard labour and grind out total shit.”
Faced with the dilemma of having to sacrifice ethics or sanity to pay their rent, the group had an idea: “We thought – let’s just do a house with us journalists in it, a place where we don’t have to pay rent. We’ll have a fridge full of food and nice people – it’ll be kinda fun.” It wasn’t long before the journalists set to work making Casa Jurnalistului – Journalist’s House – a reality.
The building is located in a ramshackle area of Bucharest, populated with grand decaying villas, circled by moats of chaotic building work. The community consists of around 20 journalists, four of whom live on-site permanently. Leading through the vine-draped courtyard to the house, Vlad, a spindly 30-year old with a wispy moustache explained that the first place they moved into was essentially squat with no heating or running water. Conditions have however vastly improved since. A cluster of desks laden with computers, tripods and folders bursting with research, furnish a newsroom in the attic. While in the basement dwells a cave-like bar lit up in neon that hosts parties and community events.
With graffiti scrawled on the walls, a hodgepodge of furniture, and the visible remnants of the villa’s grandiose past (there’s a huge-shell-shaped sink in the bathroom), the house is filled with idiosyncrasies typical of their DIY approach. Slouching on a battered couch, Vlad played with Casa’s cat while gesturing to the visible progress – “we pretty much got everything from donations.”
At first, the group didn’t set out to work collectively, but to use the house as more of a co-working space. “We just thought ok, this is a place to do some freelancing, lay low and take it easy.” But then something happened that disrupted those plans completely.
Triggered by a controversial health-care bill which prompted the resignation of Raed Arafat, a popular high-ranking state official, Romania became engulfed by protests. Soon morphing into huge
anti-government demonstrations, the thousands that marched down Bucharest’s central Union Boulevard, were faced with a brutal police crackdown. “The streets were burning yet all the news around it was so heavily politicised. They were either trying to trash the government or call everyone hooligans. I wrote a report and it didn’t fit any of the narratives – and it just blew up. In the back of my mind I had this five year plan but suddenly everyone was like, you have to do something now!”
Vlad and his fellow journalists had no business model, only the certainty that they didn’t want to become another Vice-style millennial media outlet. “The gatherings got bigger and then we just realised that it was the right moment to give it a try.”
Initially, they hadn’t intended to run on donations. Selling independent reports to newspapers seemed like the most logical route to take. “But then we wanted to do a story in which we talked about corruption in Chevron and suddenly the newspapers weren’t interested. They were very pro-American and I basically got accused of being a Russian shill.”
They went on to chase a story on election fraud. Vlad sneered, “this also got rejected, under the premise that the newspapers already had it covered, as if such a huge topic can be completely ‘covered’”. Suspicious at its 184 per cent voter turnout, Casa reporters spent two weeks investigating the village of Coloneşti. The local mayor confronted the journalists in a bar. Among his justifications for the dodgy statistic, was that 400 tourists had stopped by the small remote village to cast their ballots. Casa journalists exposed and proved his
excuses false, and backed it up with a sociological overview of political feudalism in Romania. “We only asked for like 100 euro for the story but nobody wanted it, so I just made a website and we published the story ourselves.”
The house tried their hand at working for corporations and NGOs, but felt like they were always having to make compromises. They went on to cooperate with western media outlets working as ‘fixers’, but soon became disillusioned. “I saw that the corrupt mechanisms of Romanian media were echoed through foreign media. You would get some producer dreaming up some guy living in a sewer over here who did some nasty stuff and wants to move to England. The guy doesn’t have to necessarily exist, but you put 1000 euros on that head and people are going to find him, no matter what the recipe is.”
In the end, the house resolved to opt for crowdfunding as their main source of income. “It’s the cleanest way of doing things, although it’s not without its problems.” Vlad explained that donations can often come in waves, and can be dependent on supporters following specific stories and topics.
He tries to resist checking statistics, wary that it could impact what stories are chosen and how they are covered. The house itself naturally has become a community, a space that hosts parties, where anyone can visit. “But we try not to make a community of the donors, because it becomes hard for them to not have influence in some way.” Meanwhile the reporters have been careful to maintain a perspective of their own, unafraid to clash with its readers – who are typically young, university educated, urbanites like themselves.
An example of such a controversy was their coverage of ‘Blue Whale’ – a phenomenon that had been making headlines as an ‘online suicide game’. Carrying out a thorough undercover investigation, Casa reporters verified that the game was in fact a hoax, and that reports claiming linked deaths were fake. The disturbing reality uncovered, was that the hysteria and rumours surrounding the game, were being instrumentalised by online predators who would trick young girls into giving them information before blackmailing them. In their report, Casa published the identity of one such perpetrator. While they maintained that it was a public threat, they faced backlash over whether it was ethical practise, even getting in trouble with the police.
With social media call-out culture blurring the line between justice, constructive criticism and bigoted trolling, deciphering the ethics outside of a traditional framework can be tricky to navigate. Vlad reflected that it was a steep learning curve, “we realised how volatile public opinion can be in any social group”.
Casa doesn’t have a special style guide, and the methods in which stories are pursued and relayed are evolving with experience. What is clear is that it isn’t some churnalistic content farm. Stories typically take months, if not years to research. “We take a more anthropological approach to stories. We’re not even choosing them before we go out on the field. We research and talk to communities, then the stories are generated from there.” Research is fact-checked, but in regards to linguistics, reporters focus on the way in which subjects express themselves. “We are outside of the fiction of objectivity. People aren’t judging things on how true it is. They’re looking in terms of narrative. We have to not just relay it, but understand it and tell it back to them in the same language. You have to, otherwise the whole thing’s useless and they won’t hear you.” According to Vlad, the whole ‘not hearing’ predicament has become more common over the years.
In 2015, a tragic fire in a Bucharest nightclub left 65 dead. The incident sparked outrage, and fuelled a huge anti-corruption drive. To deflect from the internal corruption that has failed to subside, the ruling Social Democratic Party has gained a reputation for embracing conspiracy theories, from attacking philanthropist George Soros, to vilifying its critics, even accusing the opposition of starting the fire to stage a coup. Inevitably, as a result, the climate is tense.
Vlad lamented, a touch frustrated in his tone: “people have become more radicalised.” With manipulation tactics used to divide and fuel anger, such an environment breeds the tendency for people to refrain from addressing issues as systemic. “For example so many people in Romania live in poverty, but others will condemn them as lazy. So we try to push discussion onto that, to encourage empathy, to break down these barriers.”
“We’re social animals, and that was a bit of a wake up call. We’ve had some episodes where our standards are condemned and suddenly everyone is doing it.” To secure full confidence in their reporting, they are meticulous not only through the research process, but when it comes to editing too.
As the neoliberal model cuts through journalism, downsizing and outsourcing has changed the hierarchy of newsrooms over the years. The creation and editing of content are often merged into the same role, with the responsibility shifted onto the individual. Conversely, and perhaps terrifyingly for those contributing, Casa doesn’t have just one editor, but ten. “We have these awful collective editing sessions with all these people trashing your story and it’s pretty traumatic!”, Vlad laughed. However the process, and the debates it brings with it, ensures that thought and care go into the ethics of each story, both linguistically and ideologically.
Alongside this ruthless process, they have also been fine-tuning the technique of targeting stories in order to have maximum impact. It is through this that Casa exposed one of Romania’s most famous doctors, Gheorghe Burnei. A regular on the TV circuit, he’d been using operating techniques that were marketed as “innovative” on children. It had transpired that he had in fact left dozens mutilated.
“He was corrupt, taking bribes, and we started investigating. We gathered data and quotes from other doctors and institutions proving that these techniques were fucked up. We were scared of getting a media blockade because they had openly endorsed him, and it looked like we were accusing everyone of creating and enabling a monster.” With this in mind, Casa printed out posters and flyers with the report and distributed them at local hospitals. The story blew up and the doctor was promptly arrested. “Now he has like 10 lawsuits on his head and he’s basically done for.”
Some may define such methods as activism rather than journalism, but Vlad finds these comparisons irksome. “I think it’s just a reflex because Bucharest’s public space is covered in extremely aggressive advertising. People are used to this autocratic mix of corporate posters. Advertisers are almost like the referees of journalism because content is targeted with them in mind. It’s like it’s ok to live in an advertising dystopia but not ok to bring your story to the people most affected by it like those in the hospital.”
For Vlad, anthropological investigations and observations into how the psychology of how stories are digested are the most credible ways for journalists to bring about change. Terms such as free or objective journalism no longer hold any real weight. Wary of wrongly compartmentalising whatever Casa is, I ask what he would call the project. “I guess, the most accurate description would have to be ‘in-depth.’”
In a way, Casa’s decaying grand villa is almost symbolic of the deterioration of the journalism industry itself. But rather than becoming drowned in cynicism and abandoning ship for a shiny new career in PR, these reporters are putting on their hard hats, getting stuck into the building work and giving things a much needed restructuring. The bar, the newsroom – many of it is makeshift – cobbled together out of necessity on a shoestring budget. The readers may at times be critical of the cracks, and the reporters themselves admit that they are still learning – but the important thing is that they’re doing it. And to rethink an industry which in many ways has remained unchanged for a 100 years? Well, that’s no easy feat.
On the way out, I was struck by a framed poster on the staircase:
‘If you cannot be saints of knowledge, then I pray you at least be warriors.’
While Romania’s media industry continues to crumble, Casa is refusing to collapse.
Elizabeth Short is a freelance British journalist focusing primarily on art, culture and politics in Eastern Europe.