Lessons learned from creating a local news startup in Romania

by James Breiner
Feb 27, 2024 in Local News
Romanian and EU Flag

This is my interview with Alex Enășescu, who launched a newsletter and website focused on news about his hometown, Iasi, Romania. We began a conversation on Substack when he commented on one of my posts. I thought his story would inspire other digital media entrepreneurs. This interview was done by email.

James Breiner: How did you come to start a website and newsletter —"Our Iasi" — focused on local news in your hometown? Iasi is not that big — just 250,000 people — but you’ve managed to get 6,000 free subscribers. When did you launch? Why did you launch?

Alex Enășescu: From 2015 to 2021, I did a daily briefing newsletter for a national digital news startup (PressOne.ro) and also a bit of local reporting. We were a small team of 10-12 journalists, backed by an American VC-turned-philanthropist. After five years of investing in our small newsroom without seeing much of a financial return, he gradually pulled out, and there was some cost-cutting to keep the lights on. 

One day my manager called me to let me know that my position as newsletter editor was at risk. It was a wake-up call. 

Plan B, local journalism

I started looking for a plan B, and it was the time when Substack was just beginning to emerge as an alternative platform for authors. Substack announced a program for local newsletters, which seemed just the right fit for my set of skills. I applied, thinking that if I don’t get accepted, I may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that driving an Uber is what I was intended for, to paraphrase Mark Twain. 

Fortunately, I was one of the 12 recipients of the Substack Local Initiative, the only journalist of mainland Europe to be part of the program. (There was also Joshi Herrmann who is building a formidable network of local newsletters in the UK.)

We basically got a seed investment of $40,000 that was supposed to cover the first year, but we’re 2.5 years in and still making use of that initial investment.

A more constructive product

The thinking behind launching a local newsletter was that legacy local media in our city were not really serving its audience anymore. Not just editorially, but as a product, the experience of reading local news on the web was, and still is, a horrible mess of car accidents, political gossip and intrusive ads. 

I believe this left a gap for a different type of local journalism — more constructive and uplifting, but also mindful of the audience’s limited time and attention.

How has your subscriber base grown since you launched in 2021? How many followers do you have on the various social media platforms?

Last year (2023) we doubled our newsletter audience from 3,000 to 6,000 free subscribers, mostly through a series of local guides that we promoted on social media, courtesy of an innovation accelerator run by the International Press Institute. We have 5,500 followers on Facebook and 3,700 on Instagram.

Tell us a little more about your education and background

I was born and raised in Iași, but I studied journalism at the University of Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Then I spent a year in London for a postgraduate degree in sports sociology. Back then I aspired to be a sports journalist, but having graduated in 2009, when the financial crisis decimated newsrooms worldwide, I struggled to find my place in a newsroom. 

In 2010, I started a blog focused on English football/soccer, which turned out to be more of a passion project than a viable business.

What this taught me, early on in my career, was that “if you build it, they will come” is not a strategy for sustainable journalism. This led me on a quest to understand on a deeper level the forces that make or break a digital publication. 

“Too much crap”

I remember reading Alexis Madrigal’s assessment of the internet circa 2013: “It is too damn hard to keep up. And most of what's out there is crap.” And also seeing the Quartz daily briefing newsletter emerge as a clean and simple format to deliver the news. This is how I first got interested in newsletters, so in 2015 I suggested to my boss that in a world of noise, a newsletter that thoughtfully curates news can be a form of signal.

How many people are on your paid staff? Or is your site a mix of paid staff, paid freelancers, unpaid contributors, and volunteers?

At this point, it’s mostly a one man team. In our first year, we had an editor paid by Substack, and we employed around 10 paid freelance reporters over the past 2.5 years. Now I do most of the editing and reporting for our weekly briefing myself, with the help of a copy editor and a local journalism student who aggregates local news and events. For occasional longform reporting, we still collaborate with paid freelance reporters. 

What are your revenue sources? Are you making a profit?

We have three main revenue sources:

  • paid subscriptions: (145 subscribers at 5 euros/month or 30 euros/year = $6,000 gross). These are basically donations, since paid subscribers do not get anything other than a warm feeling in their hearts for supporting local journalism. (I think I stole that phrase from Cityside co-founder, Lance Knobel.) 

  • advertising: 2,000 - 3,000 euros per year. A sponsored message in the weekly newsletter sells for 100-400 euros, depending on length/format.

  • grants: $40,000 from Substack in 2021-2022 and 15,000 euros from IPI in early 2023

So, we are generating total revenue of less than 10,000 euros a year, which doesn’t cover the costs. Without grants, we would be losing money.

To make ends meet and extend the runway for Iașul Nostru, last year I took a second part-time job as a newsletter editor for Recorder.ro, the most impactful independent outlet in Romania.

What kinds of restrictions does the government impose? Is there censorship?

The Romanian government prefers to use carrots rather than sticks to manipulate media coverage. Over the past three years, they paid more than 50 million euros to media organizations for political PR disguised as journalism, which was not marked as political advertising. 

Most local outlets in Romania have become reliant on these types of payments, and it’s safe to say that it leads to a sort of self-censorship regarding negative coverage of the political parties and politicians that control the payments.

At the national level, the management of one of the biggest newsrooms in Romania has been terminated, allegedly under pressure from the betting industry. And some Romanian journalists, such as Emilia Șercan, are actively harrassed for having investigated high-profile politicians. 

What are some of the ways you engage readers? What are some of the stories recently that really made an impact with readers and even changed public policy?

The newsletter itself is an organic channel that builds trust and community, week after week. We are also on Facebook and Instagram, but we mostly use them as the top of the marketing funnel for reaching locals, inviting them to subscribe and continue the conversation on our own turf. 

Here are a few of the stories that I’m most proud to have published:

What have you learned about being an entrepreneur, about the life of someone trying to launch something from zero?

I spent most of my career kind of waiting for permission. I’m a bit of an introvert who shuns the spotlight, and three years ago, in early 2021, I was keeping an unusually low profile for a journalist. I was staying away from social media and not really having a presence in my local community. 

The perspective of losing my job while trying to start a family pulled me out of my comfort zone. [He and his partner welcomed a new baby a few months ago. -JB]

Without getting too philosophical, I’ve recently discovered a Jungian psychoanalyst and author named James Hollis. 

No fear

He writes that we develop all sorts of subtle defense mechanisms for our fears and that standing up to fear is the most critical decision we are called to make in the second half of our life. I’m 37, just three years into reluctantly walking this new path, and while there is significantly more adversity and anxiety in my life on a weekly basis, it’s also deeply enriching to do what you somehow always felt called to do.

Over the past three years, I‘ve met some of the best people in our local community and also connected with journalism peers and mentors all across the world. I am genuinely humbled in their being interested in a local newsletter and startup in Romania. 

To any journalist reading this and maybe still waiting for permission to take a risk in their career or put something into the world, I would encourage them not to give in to the fear of failure. Show up! 

What are some of the other training and educational opportunities that you’ve taken advantage of?

As Brian Morrisey puts it — the media business is all hard, but local news is the hardest of the hard problems. Solving that problem is one part of the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program that I enrolled in through the City University of New York (CUNY). As a follow-up, I'm currently taking a new online product management course at CUNY.

From these courses I’ve learned that the safest way to launch a local news outlet is approaching it with a product mindset — starting from user needs and working relentlessly not only to satisfy those needs but hopefully to delight your audience.

Any final thoughts?

For all the bad press Substack gets, I think it’s telling that our publication would not have existed without their investment, as a VC-funded U.S. company. And without further grant support, it is by no means certain that we will be able to keep the lights on at Iașul Nostru beyond the end of this year. 

It may be that public interest local journalism is essentially a case of market failure. That would make state intervention even more vital, but Europe is lagging behind the U.S. — the European equivalent of the Press Forward initiative was 40 times smaller, and most of the money goes to large-scale cross-border investigative efforts. The process of applying for these grants is painstakingly bureaucratic.

I worry this might be the year when the combination of underfinancing and too much regulation will come home to roost. In 2024, we have four rounds of elections in Romania, where Russia-backed populist parties are projected to become the second political force in the country. 

We are already seeing in real time how the decline of local journalism is affecting democracy and the slowness to respond from these agencies with offices in Brussels is a real threat to the EU project.  

This article was originally posted on the My News Biz newsletter, a Substack newsletter that will help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models. It was republished on IJNet with permission. 

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash.