How to tackle the unstable future of news like a tech startup

An interview with Maria Ressa, founder of Rappler

14 July 2016

Sarah Toporoff

While in Manila for the first Philippines Editors Lab to kick off season five, I had the chance to speak with Maria Ressa, founder, CEO and executive editor of Rappler and recently appointed GEN board member. We discussed the secrets behind the success of the online news startup, the Southeast Asian media market and how Buddhism and surfing can help you cope with an unstable digital landscape.

This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.


When did you decide to start Rappler?

We were thinking about how journalism would change given the technology. And for me, as this is my thirtieth year as a journalist, I wanted to see how we could actually have greater impact.  

The very things that make a traditional news group successful are the same things that prevent it from shifting quickly now, from adapting quickly. When I first came to the Philippines in 2005 I did the workflows of ABS-CBN, which is the largest network in the Philippines, and looking at those workflows we then cemented them to be as efficient as possible. If you're cemented you're never going to be able to adapt and so trying to shift a traditional news group in this new world is really tough. So I thought there was a huge opportunity and it was actually easier to start with nothing than to try to shift a thousand people in the news group.

We thought we could have greater impact using technology in a society that is literally still putting itself together. The characteristics of the two countries that we operate in are that they have weak institutions, weak law and order yet a young population that zeitgeists for change. But the young folks don't know necessarily how to do it. So let's try to see if we can harness that energy.

How is the newsroom organised? How is it structured now knowing that it's pliable. What are the main departments, how do they relate to each other?

Overall we want to make sure that the organisation is flat. Because it is changing so fast, the decision-makers need to be in touch with the granular details. But you can't be mired in the granular details that you can't pull up to see a bigger picture. So just strategically we are smaller than traditional news groups. I always joke that one Rappler is worth ten.

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The second is that our goal is to make it have real world impact. So one of the things we did was we added a civic engagement arm which partners with NGOs. It's a world of collaborations versus in the past where a big network owned it all. Now you collaborate so you learn, so innovation comes through that.

And then the third part is shifting away from expertiseto cutting across vertical silos. I think traditional news groups are set up for expertise in each silo. The innovative landscape is when you can cut across all of these and you actually train people who know how these all fit together and then they can take something that tech is doing and apply it to journalism, or take something that the artists are doing and apply it to tech. The struggle, always is to try to integrate vertical silos in a way that doesn't impede efficiency but actually encourages innovation.

That leads me to the next point which is what is the role of your developers and your IT people?

Huge. And making them adapt to news time is a huge challenge. Because developers tend to want to control their environment and news is all about reacting to events you cannot control. IIn our old office I threw the developers in with social media, in with the reporters, because this newsroom is electrifying when breaking news happens.Tech is the underpinning of everything.

If you have really good tech people who understand journalism and understand the purpose of journalism you will create something new. Now it's almost like master/slave switches. Because I think when we first started Rappler journalists were the master and tech was its slave, and then I realise somewhere along the way, that it's a combination now. It's something that I would say with Google or with Facebook. Facebook whether it wants it or not, the tech platforms, whether they want to think about it or not, if they bring journalists into the fold, they are going to have to think about the purpose of journalism and society. So once I have tech folks who are imbued with that same mission, then they will create from their expertise what the journalists are running after in their field of expertise. And that's the best.

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Maria Ressa at the Philippines Editors Lab held in Manila on 7-8 July 2016.
Photograph by Nicolas Magand

That mixing of cultures you mean?

Not just the mix of cultures I mean, they think differently. The tech folks want to be able to, in a vacuum, build and develop and then iterate as they go. In news, you never have that luxury. It's adaptability.

How did you build your credibility? Do you still face skepticism from the public being this new breed of news media?

I think credibility is what we always offered from the very beginning because of who the founders were. Part of it is because — and I’m biased but — the best investigative journalists in the Philippines are our founders. They have all had books written under their names that showed a body of work. But we felt that passion for changing our society which underlies the purpose of journalism, that's why people become journalists. That passion we found when you combine it with technology, with social media, with the ability to cascade information faster, you can actually impact your society more.

So when you take the experience and you merge it with the passion of the twenty-somethings who never sleep, who continuously experiment, who never say never, we do things together that are magical.

How did people react? Our peers first thought we were crazy but that was like the first six months. Once they saw the kind of things you could do with social media, with technology, then it amped up the game in the Philippines. And that also coincided with the growth of internet penetration. What’s happened since then is that the traditional news groups have adapted and everyone is looking at a digital future now.


Photograph by Adam Cohn

Why purely online? It's taking advantage of exponential growth, always. Taking advantage of the information cascade. Trying to reach to a young demographic, that's our last part. We’re 100 million people in the Filipino population, the median age is 23 years-old, they are savvy, on the phone. Indonesia is 250 million people, median age is 22 years-old. Again, young population, hunger for change, and the ability to want to do things differently.

You asked about credibility. I think partly because of who we were, the credibility was what allowed us to monetise Rappler. The other part of this is the business model of journalism. It's crumbling and if we stuck to the old ways, it's like a "huff and puff and blow your house down". So news has got to find a new business model and we started that experiment in 2012 and so credibility was at the forefront, independent journalism was the second rung, and then the third is community engagement. So if we can do that and build communities of action, we saw this in 2013 when we were able to help build a anti-corruption community, we were able to help launch a disaster risk reduction platform, so many things that are much more tangible than what I used to do in a TV report and throw it into a black box and never see any returns.

I know that you've talked of Rappler with the goal of being a self-sustaining and independent media.

Fingers crossed!

Tell us about your business model and also if it could serve as a model for other media organisations internationally? And where do you draw that line since I know you do a lot of branded content as well, how does that tie into editorial, or does it?

In 2012 in the Philippines we were the first to take native advertising so we had a four concentric circle model that we are now overturning because everyone copied it which made it no longer unique. In the circle was native advertising which is in its own section, it is clearly labelled so ethically it was correct but people who worked on the native advertising on Rappler were a separate team from the journalists and they worked with the sales and marketing team. Very similar to what say The New York Times does and other news groups. But that is a trend that began four or five years ago. So [the second is] native advertising is at the centre, we also sold social media engagement, third concentric circle is crowdsourcing and the fourth is data. Every single part of that can be monetised.


So that was our original business model and it took us through 2012, 2013, 2014.

For us that model has allowed us to grow 100% every year. But now, as I look at the market, it is like time to pivot again, and towards what? I think that's what we're all looking for. Is it something that can be replicated in other parts of the world? I think this is a time of creative destruction for media. This is something I've learned at the GEN Summit, every group is looking for what will last into the new year.

So you don't have the magic bullet.

No and you know why? It's not enough. I'm not satisfied with the four to ten percent growth that the traditional media used to have. So in the past if you were managing CNN or any traditional news group, if you moved 4% or 10% that was good. If you're a startup like Rappler, you don't want to go for those numbers. I want to grow 100%.

As media expands and grows, tech gobbles most of the money that used to go to media. This is the ecosystem that everyone is trying to map out. We are working as partners with Google, with Facebook, with YouTube and I think that we’re trying to find that right mix. But what’s the dilemma? We were giving away content on digital for free. The pace of change is accelerating. If you’re being driven by tech, you can’t ever say that you’ve arrived. You’ve found the magic bullet. You know why? Because it’s changing so fast that the magic bullet in the moment is not going to be the magic bullet a year from now. Monetisation-wise, we’re still okay. It’s still growth, but it’s not enough growth.


‘Technology generates as many new problems as new solutions’: Kevin Kelly.
Photograph: Christopher Michel via The Guardian

You really need to think like a tech startup, you are a tech startup.

You always have to. I think that’s our world today. Did you read the new book by the guy who co-founded Wired? Inevitable. I love this book, it’s called Inevitable by Kevin Kelly.

“All of us, every one of us will be endless newbies in the future, simply trying to keep up. Here’s why: First most of the important technologies that will dominate life 30 years from now have not yet been invented, so naturally you will be a newbie. Second, each new technology requires endless upgrades, you will remain in the newbie state. Third, the cycle of obsolescence is accelerating. The average lifespan of a phone app is a mere 30 days. You won’t have time to master anything before it gets displaced. You will remain in the newbie mode forever.”

Isn’t that cool? That’s a great idea. And when you accept this, then you leave the old world. Then you begin to think that, gosh, I’m going to constantly have to adapt.

And tech is already used to working this way.

Yes and no.

More than journalism.

More than journalism, for sure. I still remember a time when we stayed with the same system for ten years.We stayed with the same workflow for five years.Now, throw all of that out. If you can accept that you will always live in quicksand…[laughs]

You look so excited about it!

I think I realised I kept trying to find stability then I realised, this is stability. We have to just accept this way of life. I guess it’s like, if you took somebody from the days of the horse-drawn carriage and you put them on a jet plane and they still expect the world of the horse-drawn carriage. That’s how fast change has come for all of us. So that’s the big shift from more traditional media — and all of them have done better in the last three than they did from 2010 to 2012. Because there were still a lot of traditional newsgroups that were in denial.

I think it’s like in Buddhism, the basic tenant of Buddhism is you have to accept this one sentence: “All life is suffering.” If you do, then everything’s fantastic. That’s kind of the way I feel right now and I guess that’s why I’m much happier. I feel like we’re just going to have to constantly change.



Talking about the Editors Lab, it seems like a very rare occasion for the usually very competitive Filipino media to collaborate. What are you hoping will come out of this hackathon? Do you think it could be a gateway to further inter-newsroom collaboration in the Philippines?

Absolutely, it’s one of the reasons we wanted to do this with GEN. I think that this old framework of competition in the Philippines is outdated. But I have to convince my peers that that’s the case. [laughs] And I think part of it is because journalism really is at a pivotal moment. In the Philippines because of the way the advertising structure works, everyone can hold on a little longer. Traditional newsgroups still have tremendous power. But that power is eroded underneath. How do you fight against that? You fight against that by collaborating.

I actually think that we should come together as an industry — and it’s not just because of the way technology is impacting our world as journalists, it is also because of our administration.

We have a new president who’s basically setting new rules and standards. So this is a time for journalists to actually come together and assess: assess the way we work, assess our country, assess the amount of change that has come to our country and try to figure out how we can work together in the future.

I’ve never believed in competition in the same way.  Competition is good to a degree but I think you have to be smart and know when you can accomplish more together.If our end goal is a better society, how do we achieve that? Technology certainly gives us the ability to do that. Disaster risk reduction is something where we’re all hands on deck. Because in the end, competition will remain — it’s a mindset. You either have a winner-takes-all mentality or you have a world of abundance. That’s what I think technology is giving us: the possibility to create a world of abundance. And if I can nudge that way, then I will.

Where’s next after Rappler Indonesia launched in 2014? Do you have an Asian programme in place?

One of the things we’re trying to do now is think like a startup. It is time to recreate, it’s continuous learning. After the GEN Summit, I went to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. I’m constantly trying to figure out, where is the world going, so that we can then shift Rappler to where that is. We’re going to re-pivot Rappler again, given the new technology that’s there. Given, Snapchat for example, people talked about it at the GEN Summit, and yet in the Philippines, it takes too much bandwidth here. So what is it that’s unique to the Philippines that we can exploit? That we can grow? For me the future is not geographical locations. Learning [about] Indonesia, trying to understand. It’s trying to understand the communities we have, trying to understand what they want, how they want the news given to them, or how they want to help create the news. I was kidding our guys and saying if we had to create Rappler from scratch again today, what would it look like?


What would it look like?

Truly very different. Our Mood Meter came out before emojis. Facebook reactions came out almost four years after we first designed the Mood Meter.It’s time to change it. We’re learning lessons about what do our users want? How do they consume us? What about the attention span? Everyone always says this in conferences that you have to cater to the attention span of a goldfish. I don’t think that’s true. It may be in things like the way we measure it. I want to know quality and impact.

Are platforms like Facebook a threat more than they are an asset both for Rappler and also Asian publishers?

For most newsgroups, the way people get news is from Facebook. That’s actually relatively universal now. In this country, like yesterday probably 85% came to us from mobile. So we see the future now but it has not taken shape yet in terms of one or the other. They all co-exist. We need to be there to help develop and shape what the future will be.

What about Chinese services? Will the dominance of services like Wechat and Weibo affect the way content is or will be consumed worldwide?

Not so much. Not in Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, the two largest are Indonesia and the Philippines. I would say maybe north Asia, North East Asia you could look at that. But those who don’t speak Mandarin or don’t use these platforms. Not even Line, which is popular in the Philippines but not as much in Indonesia. In Indonesia, there’s a social media platform called Path that isn’t really that popular anywhere else. This is a local culture where first-mover advantage really makes a difference. Facebook in both Indonesia and the Philippines, that is called the Internet.So we’re not as impacted by what’s going on in China. But again, Ali Baba, Tencent: they’re just starting to come down to Southeast Asia, so maybe that will change in six months or a year. But as of now, we’re more impacted by Google for sure. Because google has a lot more freedom in Asia than they do in Europe, for example. Facebook is everywhere in the Philippines. YouTube: Filipinos upload and download the most videos.

Any closing thoughts?

It’s really just getting used to a new world. That’s the biggest change for my age group. I’m over 50. I’ve been a journalist for 30 years. I love the mission of journalism. Journalists have a role that is critical in society. And yet, like every other industry, technology is disrupting journalism and we’re going to have to figure out what that’s going to look like in the future. If you accept what technology’s doing, which is changing the fabric of everything, then you’re happy. Right? We don’t know which wave will crash and which wave will carry you to shore so we need to constantly be on the surfboard.


The picture at the top of this article is of Maria Ressa, Executive Editor and Chief Executive Officer, Rappler.com, Philippines. Copyright World Economic Forum Photograph by Sikarin Thanachaiary

Thanks to Marianne Bouchart for her help with editing this piece. 

Modified 14 July 2016 18:06