On the night that saw the most violent protests in Romania in 20 years, Vlad Ursulean was in downtown Bucharest, amongst hundreds of young people throwing rocks at the riot police. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a scarf, just like them. But he was armed with a camera instead of rocks.
In mid-January, Ursulean published his first account of the protests on his blog. The post received 5000 Likes on Facebook and intensified his readers’ appetite for more of the same reporting. Ursulean told the story of a violent night in which “the apathetic youth who kill time in clubs and save the world with a Like” took to the streets to show their anger at the current social and political situation in their country.
Ursulean narrowly escaped a scuffle with some of the young protesters, an episode he described colourfully on his blog. “Suddenly, one guy realises that I’m holding a camera in my hand, that I have another one my head, and that I have recorded absolutely everything. He lunges at me, and others follow. “Duuuuuude I’m a journalist!” is all I get to scream before the boys slam against my chest. They shove me, one dives for the camera on my head, I grab it back, I push him, jump backwards and other people show up out of nowhere to defend me: ‘You morons, leave journalists alone!’”
Video recorded by Vlad Ursulean during night of protest, including the moment he is aggressed by protesters (17’09”). The video contains profanity in Romanian.
Even though he escaped violence, one of Ursulean’s biggest fears came true that evening. Both his head camera and photo camera batteries died shortly after he was threatened by the protesters.
After sharing his first article, Ursulean spent a full day on Facebook responding to messages and comments and gathering more information on what was happening. Since then, around 1000 people have requested his friendship and about 500 have subscribed to his public posts.
In January, Romanians took to the streets to protest against a proposed healthcare law and to demand the return of a deputy health minister who quit amid the controversy. On the streets, people voiced frustrations and complaints they had long been quiet about, from the 25 percent cuts in public employees’ wages in 2010 to corruption scandals.
“The protests didn’t seem like much when I saw them on TV. I went on the streets out of curiosity and it was a whole different story. I was there almost every day of the month-long protests, it’s been a very rich experience”, Vlad Ursulean said.
His coverage of the protests on Facebook attracted more audience than major Romanian publishers. At the end of January, a single interview with three riot policemen who were on duty during the protests brought Ursulean more interactions on his Facebook page than the news items posted by media outlets such as the daily newspaper Evenimentul Zilei and news website Gandul.ro and Hotnews.ro on their own pages.
Vlad Ursulean working in the field
Ursulean’s recognition crossed the Romanian borders when he was used as a source of information by the BBC and MSNBC.
Street protests in Bucharest, Romania
In an interview for the Romanian technology magazine Das Cloud, Ursulean credits his achievement on the lack of objective coverage of the events by the mainstream media. “People were hungry for pure and honest journalism which manages to explain the events instead of imposing a point of view on them. Fed up with the never-ending TV debates, they wanted information that was processed for them without any hidden agenda. Sadly, nobody else provided them with that,” Ursulean explained.
Facebook not only brought recognition to the young journalist, but also functioned as his press agency. He said he used his Facebook newsfeed to read articles related to the protests from Romanian and international media.
“Only doing my duty as a journalist”
A 23 year old Journalism graduate, Ursulean worked for three years for the Romanian daily Romania Libera (Free Romania). Then he started freelancing “with an empty stomach.” He is now studying anthropology and doing a mix of feature and investigative reporting. “I’ve worked on projects for all media types, but it’s increasingly difficult to do anything interesting unless it’s for the Internet,” he said.
While the major mainstream media was blaming the football supporters for the violence against riot police, Ursulean went on to find and interview some of them. He managed to identify and interview the author of a manifesto written during the protests. He also spoke with riot policemen, who gained a bad reputation after the violent clashes in January. “I managed to get interviews with key characters by just asking on Facebook. People were glad to help an honest journalistic endeavour,” explains Ursulean. The young journalist believes that the simple fact of doing “his duty” brought him many followers on social media and protection from the angry protesters in the streets of Bucharest.
The money made from the sale of journalism-themed “martisoare” will help finance Ursulean’s new project: a Journalists’ House in Bucharest
The Journalist’s House
Together with some friends, Vlad Ursulean is now setting up a house where journalists can meet to talk about their dreams and the future of the media. He is accepting donations of any kind, from furniture to electronics or money for the rent. In Ursulean’s vision, the Journalist’s House would become a free newsroom where journalists could work without the constraints of a regular newsroom.
These days Ursulean and other journalists are busy creating and selling journalism-themed decorations attached to a red and white string. Called “martisoare” in Romanian, the decorations are linked to an old tradition Romanians still keep to celebrate the arrival of spring. The money made from the sale of “martisoare” will go towards the financing of The Journalist’s House.
“The great stake is to find a new type of press and a new type of press business model, something that would produce good journalism and good money,” Ursulean told the Romanian daily National Journal in a recent interview.