‘To support our online media, we bought a pastry shop – and then opened two more’

Hannelore Acarnulesei is a native of Romania, living in Transylvania, in the northwest of the country. She has been a working journalist for over 20 years, yet her career path has not always been as smooth. In 2009, she was laid off from her job at a local TV station, followed soon after by her husband, who lost his position as the editor-in-chief at a local weekly.

With seemingly no other choice left, the two decided to create their own jobs and with a group of journalists, started a local paper from scratch. It was an entrepreneurial endeavor – a successful one, too – which went on for about three years, until a local politician pressured Acarnulesei and her team into selling the paper to him. That was the time when it turned from an independent publication into a mouthpiece for his political agenda.

Acarnulesei’s case is not an isolated one.

While most local media in Romania are now privately owned, many of them are under the influence of political interests. “[E]ven if there is no direct control by the government over the editorial content of the media, the ruling party is very influential,” wrote Ioana Avadani, executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism in Bucharest, Romania, in an article. Since the early 2000s, in particular, politicians have increasingly sought to buy local media, thus becoming representatives of both political and business interests

Challenges to the independence of journalism

In fact, the media all across the Balkans “are doing badly, commercially and politically”. According to the World Press Freedom Index 2016, the highest ranked – that being the most free, Balkan state was Slovenia, in 40th place, and the lowest ranked was Macedonia, all the way down in 118th position.

Challenges to the independence of media outlets across the region include political and economic pressures, legal constraints and media concentration, among others.

On the one hand, these conditions are not surprising as “processes of democratic consolidation, the introduction of market capitalism, and struggles for independent and pluralistic media environment went hand in hand after the fall of communism in 1989.” Those are some of the observations that media expert Vaclav Stetka has made in his research work From multinationals to business tycoons: Media ownership and journalistic autonomy in Central and Eastern Europe.

On the other hand, however, while they are a historically inherited challenge, these conditions are also a call to action for media outlets in the Balkans to engage in increasingly independent, unbiased journalism. Freedom of the media is crucial for a democracy to thrive, and it is even more important for young democracies as those of the Balkan states, which are still in the process of establishing their own values.

The rise of the entrepreneurial journalist

A look back at the case of Acarnulesei and her husband is enough to spot a development: Journalists are willing and able to launch their own independent publications to report what they believe to be the unbiased truth. They are few of an ever-growing number of media professionals, who are taking the step of creating their own jobs. In fact, the rise of digital technology has made it possible for virtually anybody with access to the Internet to create and launch an online news publication.

To illustrate, Acarnulesei’s entrepreneurial career did not end with the sale of her newspaper to the local politician.

Soon after, together with her husband and a friend, she co-founded HunedoaraMea.ro, a local online newspaper, which again, however, has not proven to be an easy endeavor. In their efforts to sustain the publication, the Romanians have been forced to look for alternative sources of revenue. “Because you can’t survive from online media, [my husband and I] bought a fornetti (a pastry shop), and then we opened two more,” Acarnulesei explains.

Ever since, the operations of their newspaper have been funded with the money earned from selling pastries.

This text is an excerpt from my Master’s Thesis At a crossroads: Journalism and entrepreneurship in the Balkans.

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