Rappler isn’t perfect. Far from it.
The editors know this. The reporters are young. Or at least, much younger than many of their counterparts in print and television. It’s probably only in Rappler where fresh graduates can cover the prime beats that are usually handed to veteran reporters, a supposed transition treated in the newspaper world as a reward for seniority in experience and in talent. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be one of the young reporters Rappler’s editors invested in.
When you’re a bright-eyed twenty-something journalist certain to slay dragons and you’re thrown in the middle of a pack who could – as the idiom goes – do the work in their sleep, it is a world of seemingly endless navigation of the trite and sometimes destructive industry tricks.
The status quo is there for a reason. It is convenient. It works for many. It doesn’t always and necessarily mean that it’s bad. But it also doesn’t mean it’s the best that we can do.
It was in my first beat where a veteran journalist questioned me – with all the candor of a Filipino reporter that I’ve come to love – about the funding of my employer. Almost everyday, Rappler was the butt of jokes about funding sources and ownership. There was a theory that the tycoon Manny Pangilinan owned Rappler, and another theory that it was built solely for the purpose of having the late Chief Justice Renato Corona impeached.
Perhaps, people were just curious about these seemingly unconventional young lads and lasses equipped with Macbooks and iPhones running around government offices like there was always an emergency, constantly on the phone with an editor, constantly on his or her smartphone tweeting this and that. Looking back, we actually looked pretty funny in those times.
Before anyone else in Philippine media started doing Facebook lives, Rappler reporters were already recording interviews with government officials using their iPhones for the now-defunct online-only 6 PM Rappler Newscast that Maria Ressa anchored. The Rapplers were the in-betweens, the odd ones in the pack. The radio and print reporters had their radios, recorders, pens and papers. The TV reporters had their cameramen. The Rapplers had their smartphones video-recording the interview.
Today, almost every reporter regardless of their employer’s primary medium is using his or her smartphone for reporting or livestreaming of an interview. That wasn’t always the case. Back then, it was always the Rappler reporter who the television cameramen shouted at to say, “Ulo mo, miss. ‘Yung cellphone, sapaw! Cellphone! (Your head, miss. Your cellphone is blocking our frame! Your cellphone!)”
I mastered the art of successfully physically elbowing much taller men as a young Rappler reporter. But boy is it a rat race now of cellphones in the air blocking TV camera angles in sudden doorstep interviews. Things have… changed. And journalists are doing a lot more work than they used to.
It was the Rappler reporter who broke stories first because he or she had to tweet a line, and everyone else had full-story deadlines much later in the day. Now, live-tweeting has become a norm. Back then, people dreaded that. Or maybe they still do now, but their employers have either encouraged or required them anyway.
Rapplers were a burden to the traditional journalist, because they provided them with added work. Now, news agencies have started hiring separate digital-only journalists to support their primary reporters.
Rappler was in many ways a first mover in Philippine media, especially in digital media.
But the whispers about Rappler’s ownership had always been there since day one, like there was some sinister ploy by Rappler’s Maria Ressa to unfairly take down powerful people.
What readers don’t always know is that so many much juicier and newsworthy issues never see print. When you’re a reporter, you hear directly from sources at the beat how things actually are. But as a journalist, you are bound by publication standards. You can’t always publish anything you hear or see. Journalism ethics require that you examine newsworthiness, probe further, find and present proof, gather from multiple sources, etc. That takes time and grit.
When a government official is comfortable enough with you as a reporter, the stories are endless. He tells you one at lunch. He tells you another one over the phone. He tells the pack a juicy story after the on-camera interview. He tells the pack another story when out on dinner.
At Rappler, perhaps because there is no strict hierarchy, you tell your editors everything. Back then, my editors were like my counsellors not just in journalism but also in my personal life. And because the conversations are casual, you also tell them this juicy bit that Source A or B told you. Your editors tell you the dreaded phrase: “That’s a story.”
As a Rappler, you are now tasked to probe further, present further proof, gather from multiple sources, etc. Others don’t necessarily have to, because they treat the juicy bit as one of the many tales that will be untold to the public and that reporters have been used to from sources their familiar with.
“Alam rin namin ‘yan (We also know that),” they would say about Rappler’s stories. Thing is, for a story to see print, you need to work on it. Most importantly, your editor needs to approve its publication. There are many extra steps to make sure the juicy tale only a small pack of journalists knew reaches the public they serve. And when they fail to do so, boy do you see regret in an editor’s eyes.
Space and airtime is too precious to be squandered. Not every story is told. Prioritizing sometimes means some voices are not heard.
In the end, newsroom management is still the most important factor in ensuring important stories see the light of day.
For example, Rappler back then assigned reporters dedicated solely to non-traditional beats such as environment, labor, science and technology, etc. While others also covered labor or the environment, these beats are usually lumped together with other beats geographically close to the department’s office or are part of general assignments. Pia Ranada, before becoming Rappler’s reporter to the Presidential Palace, was a long-time reporter focusing solely on environmental issues. Her environment stories have won her several awards as well. While other news agencies had reporters who covered the labor department lumped together with the health department, Rappler had a reporter solely covering labor issues and another solely covering health issues.
Rappler’s reportorial beats as I remember were issue-based more than geographic. That’s a crucial newsroom decision that made sure there was focus on underreported stories caused not necessarily by a lack of responsible journalism but by journalism as it has come to be structured. Status quo works for many, but it can be made better.
When I was Rappler’s anti-graft court reporter, a justice who I saw at lunch with a defense lawyer walked up to me after and said that the scene I just saw was nothing. He told me rather defensively that the conversation was only polite pleasantries, as they saw each other in the hall. For the record, I wasn’t asking him. I was starving and busy with my lunch. Hindi kita inaano, justice. But he came up to me anyway to explain what was it all about.
“Of course!” I realized to myself. I was standing on the shoulder of giants. He was concerned of his behavior.
But isn’t that what journalism is supposed to be?
Aren’t government officials supposed to shudder when they know they have or at least appeared to have crossed some line? They’re not supposed to just laugh with you, confide with you obviously questionable acts and expect no repercussions, much less talk over you. Too much familiarity gives them the opportunity to do that. But your stories – which reflects your integrity, credibility, and sometimes just pure and simple guts – is what prevents them from doing that.
Rapplers allegedly see dubious intents where there is none. But isn’t that the beauty of vibrant press? That there is a voice that keeps government officials on their toes?
They are indebted to the people with explanations. When you press a government official for answers, you’re not doing it for yourself. You’re asking in behalf of readers who deserve to know.
If all the allegations about the supposed dark agenda of Rappler is true, Maria Ressa would have to be one heck of a con artist to have fooled us all at Rappler. For in my rather short three happy years of employment with Rappler, I have never felt so free as a writer especially in comparison to the many horror stories I’ve heard from my peers in the industry.
At Rappler, my story pitches were valued, even if it meant my employer had to shell out a few more resources for my travel and the time I spent on that story away from my daily reportorial tasks.
As a cub reporter, I told my editors I wanted to write about corruption in medicine procurement. They let me. About handline fishermen who spent long days at sea for very little pay. About their wives who waited and cried for their absence. They gave me the opportunity to do these pitches and guided me along the way.
When they felt that I lost track and got drowned by the daily routine of the work, that I was no longer pitching stories the way I did, they called me to the office for a one-on-one talk. Those were fun times. Imagine your editors telling you, “We want more than the daily news!” Other reporters I know would love to have the opportunity to do more than the daily news.
It is hard to find a company that lets you do that. Or, to depersonalize this a bit, it is hard to find a news company that would invest in stories that matter but will probably not sell. Rappler has always been doubted. It was the new kid in the block. It challenged the way big business works, the way news has been delivered.
I no longer work at Rappler and have nothing to gain saying these things. Of course, you are free to question my bias. That is the beauty of a democracy. I wish Rappler will be accorded the same when it questions government policies and officials’ behavior.
After work hours on the very same day that a colleague in the beat asked me about Rappler’s funding sources, I confronted my editor about it. Yes, I was that kid who would just ask away. I’d like to believe I still am. I just learned through the years to ask with more tact. I’d still like to believe my unintentional tactlessness had helped me in my earlier years.
As taught in journalism school, the best way to explore an issue is to go directly to the people involved.
My editor kindly explained things to me that evening. This was years ago, but what they told me then are the very same things they tell the public today. There was only one difference. At that time, Rappler had an angel investor. My editor gave me the name of the angel investor at that time.
The next day, I went to my beat with a piece of paper with that name written on it and gave it to the colleague who asked. What a kid I was. “That’s just a name,” he said when I shared the name.
Rappler has since disclosed to the public all investors including the previously undisclosed angel investor. To this day, that is the same name I see in Rappler’s disclosures online.
Many in Rappler’s workforce may still be trying to navigate the ins and outs of their jobs. But that is where their model works. Because that seemingly lost kid has an editor who is a friend more than a boss. That relationship dynamics makes it work.
There is a veteran editor with decades of experience who have lived through it all in their younger years. You gotta be in constant communication with her. Yes, the editor is usually a woman.
When I tell my editor about a particular story I’d like to write, she tells me a similar story she’s worked on in the past. Right there is an automatic contextual reference about the cyclical nature of the social issue you’re tackling in your story. Their experience and your idealism mix well together. You actually talk about the story before publication. You don’t just see the revisions in publication.
It is in fact in the interest of the company – an online-only news distribution channel – that their reporters be digital natives. Hashtags and visual elements are second nature to them. This is not a trait that makes them automatically better as reporters. It is, however, a trait that provides them with tremendous advantage in the age of increased usage and consumption of digital media.
This week, Pia engaged in yet another tense exchange with the president in one of his press conferences. The president was irate about Rappler’s story alleging his aide Bong Go’s intervention in a military deal.
“Sumobra kayo (You crossed the line),” the president said harshly.
The National Press Club also argued in a statement that Rappler’s closure will not curtail press freedom because Rappler is just one of many voices in the Philippine press. Countless others will remain to exist even without Rappler.
I remember jokingly asking the late investigative Rappler journalist Aries Rufo, “Who are you taking down next?” during one of his rare appearances in the office.
At that time, an anti-graft court justice he wrote about for supposed ties with an alleged plunderer had just been sacked. With the humility he has come to be known for, he just told me, “I don’t bring them down. They do that by themselves. I just write.”
In many ways, Rappler’s reporters… well, they just write.*