The Future of DoR: We’re Downsizing and There’s No Telling What 2023 Will Bring

We are going through a crisis, by far the most complex we’ve ever been through. This summer we’re downsizing our team and activity to be able to tell the stories we plan to tell by the end of the year.

Citește în română aici.

On June 1 I turned 41. And got COVID. I was lucky to get a mild form and was able to make, just barely, the annual meeting of the community of Leaders for Justice, a leadership program I admire.

My first night there I thought it would be a good idea to play football, although I couldn’t remember the last time I’d played apart from simulations in Football Manager. I even proudly announced upon arrival, “Let’s go wild!”.

I could have backed out when I saw the other team had proper footwear, football socks and numbered jerseys with their names on them. I think I made it just four clumsy minutes into the game before I busted my left knee: blood, stuff, pitiful looks all around. Then, not one minute later, I thought I heard something crack in my foot. The next day, I could barely walk. ( At the emergency room, they said “you don’t look 41.” Erm, thanks?)

Due to that injury, I didn’t make it to Transylvania International Film Festival, although I’d really wanted to go. If the universe was trying to tell me something about lack of balance, about how my reality was sitting on top of a crumbling foundation, I didn’t seem to hear it.

That’s not exactly true. I heard it. I’d been hearing it for a while.

Why I wrote this

One of our core values at DoR is transparency: both within our organization and outside of it. Over the years, we’ve told our readers about how we’ve overcome financial trouble, how we pay our salaries or how we experienced the lockdown period.

We tell you about these things because the income you provide (through subscriptions and magazine sales) are essential for our work and we want you to know how the organization you support is going. We’re also doing it because we lack transparency in Romania: we don’t explain how we do things or what’s next, we don’t talk about what we’re going through, we don’t let others in, especially if it means showing vulnerability.

We at DoR are currently experiencing a crisis and it’s by far the most complex we’ve ever been through. What follows is an attempt to explain it to a wider audience; It’s a story that is most definitely shaped by the way I see and experience the world, but I hope it helps: to help you understand where DoR stands after nearly 13 years of existence and perhaps to help you understand where you or your wider organization stand.

How we got here

In March 2020, when it became clear we were in for a life-changing pandemic, we let go of dozens of habits and routines and invented new ones: new products, new teams, new meetings. For a while – six months, maybe more, it was fun. Then, especially starting in 2021, we fell into a kind of gridlock, a routine of uncertainty.

We were in that neutral zone: a slow transition process, with new attempts and experiments but lacking brightness and stability. This neutral zone didn’t occur just at DoR; many of us were and still are in it: at home, at work, in society. Life as we knew it before the pandemic is gone. Life after the pandemic is haunted by war, a looming recession, confusion and overwhelmingness.

In spring 2022, when I took a five-week break, it became clear to me that beyond the neutral zone lie a few worrisome quantitative indicators:

• The number of readers accessing the website was down;

• The number of paying DoR supporters is dropping;

• April 2022 was the first month when more people unsubscribed than signed up for our newsletter Concentrat;

• We’re putting together fewer and fewer events;

• Our organization’s budget is dropping from one month to the next.

And, most importantly, in the last year and a half, we’ve lost the equivalent of an entire team: 10-15 extraordinary people, most of whom chose to pursue a different career path.

It hurts to lose so many colleagues. It also hurt that some of them probably didn’t want to leave but we couldn’t afford to keep them. It was painful to make such decisions at a time when all of us were hurting anyway. It was painful to see good people choosing other professions, because journalism isn’t only unstable, it burns and it consumes you.

It is, after all, the type of profession that defines an identity, which allows you to cope but also makes you lose sight of the other pillars required for a balanced life.

The DoR team during the pandemic autumn of 2020, photographed by Cătălin Georgescu.

I’ve done all I could to better balance our workload, our rhythm, our roles and responsibilities, but I have failed. There was no way I could have succeeded fully: everyone the world over has started questioning their relation to work, reexamining their priorities and inevitably we went through the same thing, especially as DoR is a workplace where we openly ask what would make our lives better.

For many, the answer was “something else”: a different career, a different city, a different search.

I will say this, which is not exclusive to journalism but is obvious in this particular profession: if you don’t tell stories, you don’t exist for the audience. If you don’t exist for the audience, you don’t have resources, be they financial or other opportunities. If you don’t have resources, you can’t tell stories. And so on. Being able to stop, to think, to rest, to reposition yourself, is a deadly risk.

That is why the entire profession – those who stayed, as the quitting trend is global – has come out the other end of the pandemic even more exhausted. Each industry conference this year touched on issues like burnoutwork-life balance and how to better manage newsrooms (I’ll get to that).

It’s a sort of savior complex like the one we see in doctors: we’re exhausted but we can’t stop because stopping means we’re not doing our job.

The realities that followed from the list of problems above, especially during the last year, are harder to measure in numbers: caught in a hybrid way of working, with a team working around the clock, in an ailing industry, we’ve lost some of the energy and cohesion we had built in the past 5-6 years. Collaboration became more strained, we’ve become more concerned with I rather than us (what I do, how much I do, where I work), we’ve sometimes understood caring as a shield to protect ourselves from feedback that could have improved our work and our stories.

During these months I kept replaying in my head what a friend of DoR had said to me: “How many leaders does an organization need?” It was her (blunt) answer to my (modest) way of saying that during the pandemic we lost the leaders we had by our side, that I felt I was alone. It stings and it’s true. Nobody cares what the boss is going through. He has power and privilege, so our empathy for his situation is limited accordingly.

And this boss, yours truly in our case, was unable in 2021-2022 to guide nearly 20 people through the troubled waters I’ve been telling you about. Had this been a company (or even an NGO maybe?), perhaps I would have been fired and a drastic reorganization period would have followed. At DoR I also kept my job because there wasn’t anyone else who wished to take over some of my responsibilities.

I’m proud of the good things we’ve achieved; first of all, we’ve given ourselves some degree of comfort and security in a crisis, which is something that many others didn’t have. But all good intentions come with downsides. Ours turned out to be the state of affairs – a slow but perceptible downfall: of our model, our culture, of our supporting structures.

Then the war started.

Our reaction as an institutional body was telling: although our work entails responding to crises with information, guidance and stories (remember the newsletter that later became Concentrat was born on March 14, 2020?), we were sluggish. This was due to all the reasons mentioned above: fatigue, fewer resources, wobbly structures. Any plans we had to go back to staying afloat in 2022, whatever we were telling ourselves about “being present” in a crisis (something we still believe in) took a hit in the face of this new reality.

The icing on the cake was the halting of several projects that were supposed to keep us financially stable until the end of the year. So this is what I told my colleagues back in spring.

Best case scenario: the war ends, the market thaws, we have something to sell and can deliver on our promises (columns, events, classes, etc).

Worst case scenario: we cut everything down to half – number of projects, staff, work space, everything.

Most likely scenario: we’ll be even fewer come summer, probably in a smaller place.

And here we are.

In the worst case scenario.

This is where we are

I’ve told you all this for the sake of transparency and because I want you to understand something important: it’s not just about having money (in the bank or promised). That is a mistake most organizations in Romania make. Yes, money is a hygiene factor but it’s not enough for an infinite game.

Sure, if you have money you can hire people and can carry out ambitious projects, but the role of a job (at least the way I see it, and I am biased towards group work vs. freelancing) is to support the people who chose it to better themselves: both as human beings and as professionals.

And for that we need leaders. And we need leaders to raise other leaders. And we lack leaders on all levels. We have too few people who thrive on building alongside others and who can put into practice an idea that is simple but terribly hard to implement: the role of a leader is not to do somebody else’s work for them but to support them to do it themselves, to do it all the way and to perform better than they could have imagined.

Lately, I have found my limits as far as these skills go. And so here we are.

Worst case scenario, as I was saying.

As of July 1, our full-time team will consist of fewer than 10 people. There were 25 of us two and a half years ago. We are moving into a much smaller place (a quarter of our current newsroom space). We will tell fewer stories and we will have fewer projects.

At other challenging times in the history of DoR we saw such crises as transitions and transformations. Of course, that’s always a possibility. But for the first time in 13 years I’m no longer convinced there will be “DoR, next version” at the other end.

What we do know is this:

• a small group of people will stay on to finish what we set out to do until the end of the year; 

• we will definitely put out DoR #49 (in September) and DoR #50 (in December) in print, which means we will continue to report and publish complex and intimate stories (including on dor.ro);

• we will continue our newsletter Concentrat, but it’s medium and long-term future is also an open conversation. We agreed to decide by July 15 whether to make changes starting September 1 or wait until the end of the year;

• we will do less social media;

• we will hold fewer event – we cannot handle a DoR Live event at the National Theater or a conference like The Power of Storytelling on a pre-pandemic scale.

So, is DoR shutting down?

I don’t know how to answer that. It’s definitely not shutting down today. Nor tomorrow. Nor in the next few months.

But DoR #50 will definitely mark the end of a major chapter in DoR’s history.

Beyond that, starting January 2023, it could be anything: it could end there, it could turn into a journalism school or a mouthpiece promoting other journalists’ efforts, we could join forces with other newsrooms, etc.

This uncertainty is frustrating. It’s frustrating on the inside as well. But this is the real world. And in the real world, the wises thing you can do is to start where you are, look around and take it step by step.

I’m hoping the next few months give us space for reflection and conversation. With you, especially, because that’s why I’m telling you all this. But also with other organizations going through similar crises: perhaps they don’t have all the symptoms we do but they too feel they’re at a turning point.

Two more thoughts

I’ve touched on this first idea before. Although I deeply believe in vulnerability and transparency and the power of sharing as a shield against loneliness, it’s hard for me to write this.

All the literature on leadership and management in the past two years has hit me hard. Leadership is to blame for everything, is the catchphrase of the day. And I understand where it comes from: too many bosses (or parents, teachers, you know) have been abusive, disengaged, cruel and have created realities and cultures that caused a lot of pain. They spewed verbal abuse, threw stuff (phones, shoes, etc.), denigrated, humiliated, punished. More recently, they showed no interest in flexibility, working from home or listening to people’s needs.

I don’t see myself in the aforementioned descriptions. But I still feel responsible for today’s reality. Perhaps too responsible for my own good, my therapist would say, because whatever the realities we build, we actually build them together. Successes and failures belong to us all.

But I wrote all this because I know I’m not alone. And because it’s good to be reminded of a few cliches: you can only control your own actions. And “this is water”: the world is not a manifestation of our wishes. It is only a miraculous system that will always tend towards chaos.

The second and last thought has to do with how we’ll be telling stories in and about the future.

My colleagues and I were recently talking about a sort of elephant in the room. It’s like in Game of Thrones: the immediate threat is visible. We’re fighting our bank account, task overload, summer FOMO, day to day upsets.

But the long-term threat is behind the wall.

The world has changed after the pandemic. In terms of information consumption, the divide is widening. Yes, in Romania many people still get their information from television. But those who do that are older and older. Gen Z is growing up on YouTube and TikTok and journalism, even the kind of independent journalism we make, is a foreign language to them.

Not to mention social and political divides. Fewer and fewer people are trying to build bridges through stories.

Studies show people are avoiding the news and journalism and one of the reasons is that we, journalists, make them feel bad, anxious, powerless. In Romania, too few journalists have the humility to admit there is truth in this; but we are reaping what we’ve been sowing for decades.

But how to really help society is a tough question. We live in a cluster of systems that need to be understood before they can be healed. How do you tell stories about these systems and existing solutions? How do you do it cultivating patience? How do you do it in a way that is current? How do you do it with citizens, not from the other side of the table?

Postcard from DoR Behind the scenes, by Mihai Ciobanu.

To answer that we need to set aside some of the doctrine of our profession, and I’ve been advocating this for many years. We need to become better listeners, better facilitators, even mediators. We should be more involved in this healing process, more present in the lives of our communities without necessarily becoming activists for any party or organization. We need to understand what works in the subjectivity and authenticity we appreciate on Twitch, for instance, and ask ourselves how it can find a place in journalism.

DoR was born in 2009 out of similar quandaries. There was an economic crisis. Romanian media was in a deep crisis of ideas. What we then promoted via DoR for years didn’t really exist: the idea of narrative journalism and intimate stories about people, reported in depth and written with care. We filled a space and out of that, I dare say, sprung an entire ecosystem. Journalism today, especially independent/niche/alternative journalism is braver and more creative than ever. But I don’t know if it’s ready for the future – the future of content and the future of organizational structures to support it. So far it has only just recouped some of the distance compared to international standards.

The need for complex, intimate content that aims to make us more empathetic and help people make better life decisions isn’t going anywhere. We’ve seen it with the podcast Obiceiul pământului (The Way of the Land) and, more recently, with the profile of world swimming champion David Popovici. Both these stories reached tens of thousands of people, maybe more.

But we have told many other stories in the last year and a half that we thought were important but which went largely unnoticed. This is partly because of the information overload in everyone’s lives. Partly because you too have chosen to pay more attention to yourselves than the ecosystems around you. (Which is understandable; Romania is sometimes even more tiring and burdensome and this is definitely one of those times). And partly because our way of telling a relevant story is perhaps not as interesting or contemporary as it used to be.

To recap: this summer we’re downsizing our team and activity to be able to tell the stories we need to tell by the end of the year and to celebrate 13 years of existence and issue #50 of the print magazine.

I like the symbolism too much to not want to reach this round figure, regardless of what comes after it: a break, a revamp, or an ending. But until then, we still have some time.

Contribuie și tu la poveștile care vindecă.

Tot ce-am trăit în ultimii doi ani ne-a însemnat pe viață și va lăsa în continuare urme. La DoR vom continua să scriem despre suferințe individuale și colective, cum le înțelegem și le transformăm în surse de putere și încredere, cum reclădim ce nu mai e și cum găsim soluții la lipsurile și ineficiența sistemelor care ne trădează. Cumpără un abonament digital ca să ne susții misiunea.

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