It all started over a beer. One evening in April 2009, Cristian Lupşa and four other young journalists were chatting in a pub in Bucharest, Romania about the low quality of the country’s print media. They should start their own magazine, someone joked. They could call it Decât o Revistă, which in slightly broken Romanian means “just a magazine.” It would only be published once, so it would really be just one magazine. But it would prove that with quality in mind and inspiration flowing from their fingertips, Romanian journalists could produce something of worth without having to make the usual compromises due to commercial or political pressures.

“[We wanted] to make a magazine that would only depend on us and on what we are good at,” read the editorial, six months later. The intentionally incorrect grammar in the title attracted some grumpy comments from a couple of readers, myself included. But almost everybody agreed that it was one of the most vibrant, honest and refreshing journalistic products the magazine industry had seen in a long time.

The five journalists printed 1,500 copies, and bore the expenses for the paper and printing costs. But they were not alone. They had managed to attract a host of writers, reporters, photographers and editorial designers who agreed to work for free. My wife, Monica Ulmanu, contributed an infographic to the magazine. A few weeks before publication, the magazine’s page on Facebook had gathered more than 1,500 fans.

With scarce resources due to the weak economic climate, and dwindling audiences for the entire print media, journalists have been turning to social media in search for readers. Some simply post links to their work hoping to attract more clicks. Others, such as the founders of Decât o Revistă, or DoR, take things a few steps further.

More Than One Issue

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Following the success of the first publication, Lupşa and his friends decided to continue their project and release a new issue of the magazine every three months. Although they managed to secure some financial support from a few sponsors and advertisers, they could not afford to pay for promotion through the usual channels. Instead, they relied on word of mouth through the Internet.

DoR’s fan base on Facebook grew to more than 15,000 one year from the launch, and to more than 20,000 fans today. (The number was more than 31,000, but that surge was partly a result of fake accounts.) Copies sold: around 2,000 per issue. And sales are growing steadily.

“Our Facebook fans are not automatically buyers,” Lupşa said. “But [they], too, are our readers — they are the magazine’s community. They are not victims of promotion. They are readers, content creators, people with whom we discuss ideas.”

With each new issue, some of those Facebook fans also start buying the magazine.

The initiative is probably not going to make anybody rich, but it’s a sustainable model for them. A large and active following on social media provides enough buzz for a small print magazine to survive and even grow. But how did a quarterly magazine born out of enthusiasm, which doesn’t print more than 2,500 copies, get 15 times more followers on social media?

“[It’s all about] interactivity and creating the feeling that you are wanted,” Lupşa said. “That the magazine wants you. That it gives you something special.”

Different Kind of Content

In order to be successful on Facebook, publications need to lower the access barrier as much as possible, according to Lupşa. People should be able to interact with anything you put out there, he said.

“We didn’t want the page to be a wall with offers,” Lupşa said. “Instead, we wanted to have status messages that ask questions, that talk to people.”

He and his team also try to avoid bombarding people with information. They usually post one daily update, and try to provide added value, be it through a joke, a video or a contest to win movie tickets.

“DoR on Facebook is not the same as DoR in print,” he said.

The heavy stuff in the magazine — the hard-thought essays and the lengthy pieces involving painstaking reporting, writing and rewriting — is not for Facebook, according to Lupşa. He said the magazine’s page is the place for speedy and short-lived content. It’s also a place to find people for the magazine; starting with the first issue, the magazine has published authors the editors have found online.

“We brought someone we met on Twitter to a shooting,” he said. “We asked a blogger to bake a cake for us. We published another blogger’s personal essay. Someone called this crowd publishing.”

The Rise of Facebook in Romania

Other Romanian startups are also using social media to enrich their content. ShoppingNews.ro, a website focused on consumer reporting, takes advantage of blogs, Facebook and Twitter to involve people in the making of the publication. One section of the site, iReport, uses comments from Facebook users about their shopping experiences in shops, hotels, restaurants, cafés, gas stations etc., according to project manager and editor-in-chief Paula Negrea.

“Facebook is not just a place where you provide a link to your newest story,” Lupşa said. “It’s a place for a different kind of content.”

Around 3 million Facebook accounts are now active in Romania, where the social network grew fourfold in 2010 and is still expanding rapidly. Naturally, most newspapers, which face a steep decline in readership, circulation and advertising, see Facebook as a means to regain some of the lost ground.

But most “are not very efficient and their approach is too traditional,” said Iulian Comanescu, a media analyst and branding expert who blogs at comanescu.ro.

“Usually Romanian newspapers have a few hundreds or one thousand friends on a single Facebook page,” he said.

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Sanda Nicola

Individual journalists are sometimes more adept at using Facebook to promote their work and their media outlet. Sanda Nicola, a TV reporter with a personal page and close to 5,000 friends, is a good example, according to Comanescu. He points out that other well-known journalists with an active presence on Facebook — such as Catalin Tolontan, Oana Dobre, Vlad Petreanu and Victor Ciutacu — devote most of their social media efforts to their personal blogs.

“However, journalists who are under contract with one publication or another should be very careful about what they say on Facebook and Twitter, because they represent the publication they work for and also benefit from its brand value,” Comanescu said.

This should be easier to do for publications like Decât o Revistă, which pay a lot of attention to Facebook and Twitter, and more complicated for news outlets that don’t have a coherent social media strategy. In those cases, journalists might need to take the initiative and force their publications to be more proactive.

Alexandru-Brăduţ Ulmanu is a writer and journalist currently working on a book in Romanian about Facebook and social media, due in May 2011. He is also a print and online journalism trainer, and he blogs about journalism, media and technology at jurnalismonline.ro.

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This story was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, join us on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.