The Journalist’s House
Casa Jurnalistului is a new take on journalism in Romania. Even the cat in this house has a link to journalism. She was found by the residents during an investigation and by now is the real head of the household. When she wants to cuddle, she jumps onto one of the desks in the attic and waits to be petted.
It’s not a new thing for journalists like those in Casa Jurnalistului (Journalist’s House) to unite, investigate together and publish outside of the traditional media on the Internet. But to rent an entire house, with or without a cat, live there together and fund everything on the Internet: that’s unusual.
Casa Jurnalistului began in 2013 following the anti-government demonstrations. The people were dissatisfied with the reporting about the protests in the mass media. Some journalists were as well. “We all worked for the traditional media,” it says on the website of Casa Jurnalistului, “for newspapers, television and radio. We published award-winning stories. But even we noticed how most media are being instrumentalised by politicians. That robbed us of our enthusiasm.” This frustration led the young reporters to create their own platform, Casa Jurnalistului, where they could be independent of publishers, politicians and other influences. For this, they searched for a space where they could work and live.
They found their space in a little house in the centre of Bucharest. “The rent is just affordable even with our small budget,” says Vlad Ursulean, one of the founders of the house. About twenty journalists belong to the collective; five are presently living in the house, the others come here to work. The reporters want to publish stories for which there is no place in the traditional media in Romania.
For example, they accompanied refugees on their journey from Greece to Germany, report about fracking in Romania or on the everyday lives of Romanian street kids who have created their own world of drugs and solidarity in the tunnels under Bucharest.
“I want to publish the best in every story,” says Vlad Ursulean, “without having to be afraid that a client will withdraw the money or decide they want the research to have a different slant.” So it was not possible to gain funding through advertising. Initially, the journalists still worked with money they got from NGOs or worked as local assistants for foreign journalists to earn money. “But even with that, we were sometimes too dependent,” says Vlad Ursulean. They therefore decided to put their work entirely in the readers’ hands.
With crowdfunding readers can donate money, five euros per month, for example. In return they receive independent research and stories that cannot be read anywhere else. “And it works!” says Vlad Ursulean, still sounding a little incredulous, because when they started out without fixed salaries, without media structures in the background, it was tough. In the meantime, their circle of supporters is so big that they sponsor their project. While none of the Casa Jurnalistului journalists will get rich – some of them still work for other employers – the money is enough for the house, food and research.
Meanwhile, there are several such small reporting collectives in Romania that independently research and publish. They are all responses to the frequently unbalanced coverage by Romania’s mainstream media and provide the public with relevant reports and stories. Of course, these small collectives remain a niche, but an important one. This is also brought home by the New Journalism Congress, a meeting of journalists from various fields in Bucharest in November.
With workshops on topics like “Freelancing and International Reporting” or “How to Check Facts,” the main purposes of the congress were to network journalists and discuss how journalism needs to respond to the challenges of the time: How do you remain independent? Where can you get money? How do you bring well-researched content to the readers in the age of misinformation? “Journalists face the same problems all over the world,” said journalist Natalia Antelava at the end of the congress. The former BBC reporter founded Coda Story, an online platform for foreign affairs. “But in countries like Romania, the worldwide challenges for journalism are exacerbated by the fact that something like a free press is rather new,” she says. There’s no time to gradually become accustomed to freedom of expression in the age of Twitter and 24-hour live updates. In the long run, confidence in the press can only grow, everyone at the conference agrees, when journalists do what they are meant to do: research, check facts, give all sides a say and remain objective.
That’s exactly what the Casa Jurnalistului team are trying to do. One of their greatest accomplishments was researching the orthopaedist Gheorghe Burnei. They were able to prove that he had performed experiments during surgeries on children, some of whom are still unable to walk properly and face lifelong pain. For a long time nobody believed the parents of the children; the doctor was regarded as a star until a journalist from Casa Jurnalistului heard the story, rummaged through mountains of files and collected more and more evidence. In the end, the young journalists uncovered a major medical scandal. In the meantime, the doctor was suspended from his work.
“Above all, it was important to us all to let people affected learn the truth,” says Vlad Ursulean. In the case of the doctor, for example, they were often poorer families who might not necessarily follow an online site like Casa Jurnalistului. The reporters therefore summarised their results on one page so they could print flyers and small posters and distribute them in front of the hospital where the physician worked. One of these posters still hangs on the bulletin board in the kitchen of the house as a reminder. Next to it are photos, cards with sayings and everything else that usually lies about in a shared kitchen. For in this, Casa Jurnalistului is no different than many other residential communities. Everything comes together in the kitchen: stuff that nobody wants to throw away, found cats, important flat documents, but most importantly: ideas.