Making Histories Jan03 2016, Bucharest

Casa Jurnalistului: independent journalism as self-chosen vocation

I remember hearing about Vlad Ursulean and Casa Jurnalistului in the winter of 2012 when we were protesting a new health bill in the streets of Bucharest. Romania may not have the best track record when it comes to protests, with many staged or hijacked, but our spirits were high. It was my first street protest, and if there’s anything that stuck with me was the confusion — the utter confusion. At all times there was a plurality of voices and chants, you could notice random and, occasionally, conflicting homemade signs and banners brandished by protesters each fighting their own battle, as well as brief, uplifting feelings of togetherness quickly dissipated by a sense of alarm at the unexpected rowdiness of some fellow protesters. The confusion was amplified by the news — there were as many stories as there were media outlets, each reporting in accordance to a different political agenda.

And in this noise, there was one voice speaking loud and clearly: Vlad Ursulean, a young independent journalist. He dove right into the heart of the protest and didn’t go up for air until he had the full story. Photographing, stopping to listen in on all the different groups of protesters, taking note of who was directing the movement of the protest or was holding the megaphone, he was everywhere, in the street but also on Facebook. He went viral that winter and won over a considerable following with his feature “Tinerii adormiti arunca cu pietre. We are (fucking) angry!”, (which translates as “The Slumbering Youth Is Throwing Rocks. We are (fucking) angry!”) published on the self-started online platform Casa Jurnalistului.

The journalists in front of their base. Vlad Ursulean is second from left.

His breakthrough piece conveyed this intrepid spirit, as well as dedication, relentlessness, and a certain candidness. There was nothing complicated or convoluted about his reporting: no big theory, no over-arching point, no insidious agenda; instead he delivered a subjective viewpoint — direct, informal and constantly self-correcting. Because no one has it all figured out.

Ursulean is a firm believer in taking your time to write, and while you’re at it, writing a lengthy piece and telling a proper story. This is why Casa Jurnalistului (The House of the Journalist) had to exist offline too — as a meeting point, editorial room and workspace for Ursulean and his contributors. According to their website, three of them live at Casa Jurnalistului (located on Strada Viitorului, that is Future Street) and a few others go there daily to work. Online, they have as many as 50 contributors and their platform hosts more than 10 individual blogs. How do they sustain all this? Readers support them via a monthly donation system set up on the website; awards and commissioned pieces from international media outlets qualify as other sources of income. And it all goes back into their stories.

Casa Jurnalistului, source Facebook page #4

They see journalism as a trade, a self-chosen vocation that has them traveling across the country and beyond it, making do for food and accommodation, just as long as they get to spend the time they need with their subjects. Ursulean has spoken in interviews about his love of anthropology and how it has influenced the way he thinks about a subject, acknowledging the importance of spending time with people in order to know and understand them.

At their best, Casa Jurnalistului features tend to reveal the people behind the story, their unique character and their original voice, something each author achieves through their idiosyncratic style of writing, rich in idioms and slang. To this end, they have gone underground in the hideaways that homeless people have built in Bucharest’s sewers, they have visited segregated communities of gypsies, they have traveled 4000 km accompanying refugees from Greece to Germany, they’ve gone to Pennsylvania, USA to understand the pros and cons of fracking in Romania, and most recently they’ve entered Rojava in northern Syria to document the utopian Kurdish society.

Whether they’re investigating police abuse, freedom of speech in Romanian high-schools, the treatment of children and teenagers locked away in mental health institutions, their stories document issues that authorities sweep under the rug, mainstream media avoids, and citizens ignore on a daily basis. These are the topics we are most likely to be prejudiced or disinformed about. To an unfamiliar eye, they may seem like big stories about marginal groups or political issues, but at Casa Jurnalistului they are approached and confronted as part of our daily reality as Romanians and as Europeans; they are not beneath us nor above us.

You can read a selection of their stories translated in English here.

The images in this post have been found at Casa Jurnalistului’s Facebook page.