DoR on the Road: An exercise in getting out of the capital city bubble

DoR on the Road in Cluj. Photo by Vlad Cupșa.

We’ve been talking for years about getting out of Bucharest more, to meet our readers and reach potential new ones, but only recently have we made this a priority.

Our pilot project, DoR on the Road, came about after an eye-opening experience this spring. In April, we united a reporting squad of eight (one editor, five reporters, one photographer and one illustrator) and spent five days in Alba-Iulia, a city in central Transylvania that was on everyone’s lips in the centennial year of Romania — and as an emerging city for young entrepreneurs.

We managed to produce substantial work and cover a lot of ground while also collaborating with the local NGO that originally invited us, and while being shadowed by eight high-school students interested in storytelling.

Even more, the reporting get-away managed to raise our spirits, strengthen the team and make us (long-form writers) confident about our skills in reporting and writing shorter and quicker.

This autumn we gathered up the courage to start a more structured “caravan” in four major cities: Iași, Timișoara, Sibiu and Cluj. We even hired a dedicated project manager to work with us during the pilot stages of what we called “DoR on the Road”.

We tried to keep it relatively contained and manageable by a small team, as most of the staff was busy with all the rest: putting together the magazine and producing content for the website, or organizing other big events.

Unlike the trip to Alba-Iulia, which worked more like a pop-up newsroom, DoR on the Road was designed as a series of meetups and one-off events.

For each of the cities, we planned one or two storytelling workshops for about 15 people each, one meeting with local entrepreneurs based on our 24/7 entrepreneurship guide (produced in partnership with UniCredit Bank), and one movie night, when we screened seven Romanian shorts.

Eventually, the movie night only took place in three of the cities we visited, because of a lack of affordable locations in Iași.

Each of the get-aways was managed by a staff of three and lasted two days. All in all, we had about 100 paying participants at the workshops, 300 people at the movies and about 70 entrepreneurs at the meetings.

What worked:

The main important takeaway was that people need to be listened to, and need to share their experiences — whether that happens during the simplest writing exercise, or during an open discussion about what it takes to start a business.

They don’t necessarily expect you to offer a solution to the problems they put on the table, but they do need safe spaces and meaningful connection, even among smaller communities that seem, at first sight, functional and alive (as the one in Sibiu). One participant even told us: "Thanks for bringing us together". We were reminded of the power of stories, but also of the sense of belonging that we managed to create over time.

"There is a vivid civil and entrepreneurial society in each large city and there is also a larger community in their outskirts," noticed senior editor Georgiana Ilie, who ran storytelling workshops and moderating meetings with entrepreneurs in two cities as part of the project.

"As everywhere, there are bubbles of people doing things together. In Sibiu, for example, the members of the same group protest in the public square against the ruling party, organize all the charity/philanthropy events, and promote local agriculture and traditions — but who don’t interact much with each other. However, our events in Sibiu allowed different local groups to meet, know each other and interact, which made me think of how powerful we are if we are able to build bridges even when we don’t set out to do that."

In the early stages of planning, we contacted subscribers from the cities we were going to visit and asked for advice and recommendations of people to meet and places to see. We set up partnerships with local supporters who were able to host us or offer coffee, snacks and local insights.

Photo by Vlad Cupșa.

DoR on the Road reminded us of the value of being physically there for your community and of the quality of connections that can be forged on a foundation built on face-to-face meetings and honest conversations.

Feedback from participants at the storytelling workshops was great, both regarding logistics and the content, and some requested longer workshops or even a series of workshops where they can progress with writing.

What could've worked better:

We could have used more time in each place. Oana Filip, chief people officer and storyteller at Pixelgrade, a partner of DoR on the Road in Iași, rightly said that DoR should spend more time getting to know each place and "get the pulse of the community" as part of these trips.

Oana also pointed out that the meetups with the entrepreneurs could also have used additional networking time built into the programme or facilitated beyond the moderated part of the discussion.

A different aspect we wish to improve in the future is the marketing of each DoR on the Road outing, as we struggled on a couple of fronts:

  1. We had several issues with our Facebook events getting removed from the platform, which caused a lot of confusion both internally for the DoR team because we didn't understand why, as well as for community members who weren't sure whether the events were going ahead or if plans were changed. It turns out that the issue was probably the URL shortening service we used for links in the event description, which Facebook considered spammy. We discovered and fixed the problem after the first outing, but it did make life difficult at the beginning of the project, as it took a while to work out why they were disappearing off Facebook.
  2. Our strategy of reaching out to subscribers and creating Facebook events meant our communications efforts were still primarily reaching those who already knew DoR. We'll have to come up with additional ways of marketing the events if we want to draw in others who are not familiar with our activity already.

We knew from the start this would be an experiment, so we didn’t really set KPIs: this many magazines sold, this many new subscriptions, nor did we expect to make a profit (it just broke even).

What we most got out of this was strong, personal connections who offered to become local ambassadors, to sell the magazine at their coffee shop, to sign us up for their upcoming international marathon, and to endorse us any other way possible.

We definitely want to continue and reach one city each month starting early next year. We will fine-tune the structure: maybe drop the film screenings (as they are the most difficult to organize and sell), raise the number of workshops and face-to-face meetings, include more reporting exercises and possibly enlarge the editorial team running the events.

We'd like to plan fewer activities over a longer period of time, which give us the opportunity to really spend time in new cities and get to know our community members and what they're passionate about.

Text by Sorana Stănescu, executive editor, DoR, and by the DoR team.

DoR (Decât o Revistă)

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Quarterly magazine publishing narrative nonfiction from Romania