A journalist’s efforts to dismantle the Soviet Union’s legacy of media censorship in his country
Lithuania isn’t known for having a strong independent media tradition, but a group of journalists — who are ready to take risks — are changing that.
If you’ve been familiar with our work at Contrast, you already know that we take great pride in fostering, supporting and growing a global network of 360 video journalists and innovative storytellers.
This has led us to the work of Karolis Vyšniauskas — a journalist who is paving the way forward for independent media and relational journalism in Lithuania. (A key concept behind relational journalism is the notion of relational engagement: journalism that focuses on engaging with people as members of communities, not just as “audiences.”)
Lithuania, a country of nearly 3 million people in Eastern Europe, has spent half of the 20th century under the Soviet Union rule, which meant severe restrictions on speech and press freedoms. During this time, journalists’ voices were controlled by the government and independent publications were essentially non-existent. Since Lithuania’s independence in 1990, the country has generally enjoyed high levels of press freedom but some journalists — like Karolis —have been pushing further towards higher quality independent storytelling.
Karolis is a dedicated member of Nanook, a journalists’ collective aiming to “reinvent journalism in the Baltics.” Nanook is made up of 15 young journalists — filmmakers, photographers, and writers — who all began their careers after the country’s 2008 economic crisis. They’ve already produced some great work about their country. Their very first project conducted in 2016 — an in-depth multimedia feature on what it’s like inside Lithuania’s only women’s prison — was published on Al Jazeera.
At Nanook, Karolis hosts and edits Nyla, the first Lithuanian podcast supported by its listeners. In Lithuania, podcasts are a relatively new phenomenon. Despite the country’s unfamiliarity with this medium, Nyla has found some success. Karolis said their Patreon campaign has crowdfunded nearly $24,800 for their work. They’ve also experimented with relational journalism where they hosted live community conversations on important social and cultural issues happening in Lithuania today.
Beyond the podcast, they have also explored new strategies and methods to attract new listeners. For instance, Nyla opened and hosted a photo-audio exhibition at Lithuania’s National Library.
Nyla also aims to reach communities in Lithuania that have been largely ignored by the traditional media. Nanook recently launched a Russian edition of their podcast centering on the Russian and Polish voices from Lithuania.
Although Lithuania lacks a strong independent media tradition, and the journalism industry is limited by their language and small media market, Karolis said the journalism experiments he has conducted with Nanook and Nyla prove to be working.
We sat down and talked with Karolis to learn more about his work, Nanook, relational journalism and the importance of independent media in Lithuania today.
CONTRAST: Why create and run Nanook?
Karolis Vyšniauskas: We saw that there are too many stories untold by Lithuanian media and that the best way to cover them properly is by creating our own media outlet.
Nanook’s first project “Monotone Days”, later republished by Al Jazeera, gave a very intimate and humane view of the only women’s prison in Lithuania. Inspired by the quality of their work, I quit my job at a local radio station and joined Nanook’s team to launch a podcast.
We called the podcast Nyla — both names are a homage to the characters from the first documentary film, “Nanook of the North.”
Nanook was co-founded by photojournalists Berta Tilmantaitė and Artūras Morozovas. Currently, our team consists of 6 core members and 12 contributors, including illustrators, sound engineers, political analysts and composers.
Every week, we publish a new podcast episode followed by a photo series. At the same time, we are working on long-term multimedia projects and teaching media literacy classes in Lithuanian schools.
It’s a 24/7 job. Working on stories, securing funding, engaging with the people who follow our work — you have to do it all. But it gives a great sense of purpose and meaning.
Is there a reason for the lack of “strong independent media tradition” in Lithuania?
During 50 years of the Soviet rule in Lithuania, journalists were seen as party propagandists. Political discussions were held in private gatherings but not in open forums. There were journalists in exile opposing the government view, but their voices were restricted. Newspapers like The New York Times or The Guardian weren’t available and few people spoke English. So, there were few examples of what good journalism is.
When Lithuania regained independence in the early 90s, the press played a crucial role. New magazines and newspapers were established. Lithuanians were early adopters of digital news portals. For a brief moment, journalism was seen as a respectable profession with a clear mission in society.
But the financial crisis of 2008 and the rise of social media was too much to handle for many of those media outlets to survive. I was writing for a weekly magazine, which was a Lithuanian equivalent to TIME or Newsweek, established in 1992. It was shut down in 2017. Last month, one newspaper, which was run since 1990, declared bankruptcy. I doubt it will be the last one.
What do you credit for your journalism experiment’s success?
Many creative initiatives in Lithuania end because of the lack of cash. So the fact that we are able to sustain ourselves financially without making compromises to the content that we provide is a success. We are grateful to our listeners who are supporting the podcast via Patreon. We wouldn’t be able to run it without their contribution.
Recently, I received a message from one of our listeners. She said that Nanook’s work helps her be more empathetic. That is at the heart of what we are trying to achieve. We want to understand the lives of those people who are overlooked by media and often society as a whole.
Our earlier work included stories from Lithuanian Roma and Muslim communities; we started conversations on race, addiction and mental health. We helped to break one of the first #MeToo stories in Lithuania. There are a lot of taboo topics in our society and whenever we see that our work allows people to be more open about it, I consider that as a success.
What has the reaction been to Nanook?
It was very positive from both the people and fellow journalists. We wanted to confront the “journalism is dead” narrative and show that if you don’t find a news organization that you can fully commit to, you can try to create it yourself. It gave a sense of optimism.
What has garnered your interest in experimenting with relational journalism?
From the very beginning, we saw Nyla listeners as co-creators of the podcast. We looked for ways to engage them in real life, not only via social media.
We started with a debate at Vilnius University, where we invited students and our listeners to participate and ask questions to the panelists. We recorded the conversation and published it as a podcast episode.
With the help of Agora Journalism Center in Oregon University, we went a step further and made everyone a panelist. We recorded open conversations where we, as journalists, were conversation facilitators rather than hosts.
I was inspired by similar practices in Capital Public Radio, where Sacramento residents were debating rising housing prices in California. Or by Alaska Public Media, where journalists were inviting local residents to meet the convicts at prisons. We all met during the “Finding Common Ground” project. It felt fresh and inspiring.
Do you think there’s a need for relational journalism now? Why or Why not?
I came to journalism wanting to meet people and tell their stories. But the reality of today’s journalism is that you spend a lot of time at your desk producing quick articles made up of phone interviews and Facebook posts.
I see relational journalism as a way to escape that. I think that journalists have to find ways to be part of community that they serve. That’s the only way to survive.
What are some examples of relational journalism experiments Nanook has done?
Our first event was connected with the prison situation in Lithuania. Lithuania leads the EU in prisoners per capita, but half of the population says they wouldn’t want to live next to a former prisoner. So we invited former inmates to tell what life in a Lithuanian prison looks like, and how hard it is to re-enter the society that places a stigma onto you.
We were sitting in a circle and everyone could take the microphone and ask questions. For many, it was the first time that they were sharing a room with a former inmate — or the first time that they were aware of that.
Another event was held as a response to the official mayoral debates in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. We felt that the real issues were not raised, so we invited Vilnius’ residents to share what their hopes and fears are.
From skateboarders to young parents to urban sociologists, we felt that most of us thought about the same things: shrinking public space and lack of community. Many of the participants hadn’t met each other before, but we ended up talking for two hours.
Both conversations were recorded, edited and published as podcast episodes for those who couldn’t participate.
How have you been able to sustain Nanook — which is made up of journalists who started their careers after the 2008 economic crisis?
We don’t have any big investors, so we are juggling different sources of income. The most stable source of income comes from the podcast listeners via Patreon. Since the start of the campaign in late 2017, we’ve raised 24,800 USD from more than 400 people.
It’s not enough to cover the expenses of the podcast production, but for us it’s more than just a financial question. Each of the people who donated proves that Lithuanians are willing to pay for journalism — something that was forgotten with the rise of free online media. Also, many of those people became our friends and content co-creators, suggesting new topics and promoting our work to their friends.
We apply for different grants and make partnerships with NGOs who share the same values as we do, which allows us to have editorial control. We are also looking for business support in exchange for advertisement on the podcast. Vilnius-based email marketing company MailerLite was the first one to do this. Their sponsored message was the first ad aired on a Lithuanian podcast.
What kind of stories do you aim to cover? How do you find them?
As I mentioned earlier, we want to start conversations that haven’t yet started in Lithuania. Or we want to make those conversations louder and more diverse.
We also don’t shy away from pop culture topics such as cinema, music or video games. We think it’s crucial to talk about it in order to understand modern society. For example, we did an episode on sexism in video gamers’ community, or we talked with local hip hop artists about cultural appropriation.
The lack of topics was never a problem. Recently, we did a survey of our listeners and got 80 new ideas of what we should be covering, from work burnout to school situation. We just have to find time to do them.
How did you come up with the story on Lithuania’s only women prison?
Berta and Artūras made a long list of possible stories for their first multimedia project. One of their missions was to work on underreported topics and there are two kinds of underreporting — not talking about something or talking about something in a very trivial way.
For them, the way Lithuanian media was creating a narrative on sentenced women was unacceptable. The women were condemned, stigmatized, blamed and shunned. That narrative tells a lot about us as a society and how we see sentenced people, but it tells nothing about sentenced people themselves.
That’s why they went to Panevėžys correctional facility: not only to listen, but to really hear the personal stories that help to create a new narrative — taking time to go in-depth, without any preconceived notions.
What’s next for Nanook?
We just started to produce the Nyla podcast in the Russian language. There’s a limited choice of local media for the Russian speaking community in Lithuania so we want to include their stories as well. We also want to add new mediums to our platform such as space for creative writing and for photo stories.
Karolis Vyšniauskas is a Lithuanian journalist paving the way forward for independent media and relational journalism in the country. You can follow the work of Nanook at instagram.com/nanook_multimedia.