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Philippines’ Rappler fuses online journalism with counter-terrorism tactics, social network theory

Maria RessaFew men can score a date with the sexiest woman in the Philippines, which made me a very lucky bloke indeed. A few months ago, I was on my way to Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore to interview Maria Ressa, an accomplished journalist, counter-terrorism expert, and co-founder of Rappler, an exciting, young online news organization from the Philippines.

Of course, I didn’t know about her hottest woman alive label then. But that did not make me any less nervous: Maria’s accomplishments far outsize her petite stature. A Princeton University graduate and Fulbright Fellow, she worked at CNN for almost two decades, serving as the bureau chief in Manila and then Jakarta. She then became the news and current affairs chief at ABS-CBN, Philippines’ largest television network.

She possesses a deep understanding of terrorist networks, having authored two books on the subject. Her latest work, From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism, narrates the gripping story of how she led the crisis team that resolved the kidnapping of her news crew who were en route to interview the leader of Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamist group from Southern Philippines.

Now, she’s on to her next adventure: Starting a new media company that is reimagining journalism.

Asia is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think about cutting edge journalism, especially when it comes to the convergence of technology, open data, and media.

For that, we typically look to the United States, where the New York Times unveiled Snow Fall, a groundbreaking multimedia journalism feature, where Forbes did the unprecedented by opening up its platform to outside contributors, and where media startups like Circa, Medium, and Storify are trying to reinvent how content is created, distributed, and published.

But if we look closely enough, media innovation is indeed happening right under our noses in Asia.

The seeds of Rappler

Maria’s decision to build a startup from scratch seemed uncharacteristic, especially from someone who has sunk deep roots into traditional news media. To understand why, we’ll have to look into the past.

Tired of doing breaking news at CNN, Maria sought a new challenge in the Philippines, that of professionalizing radio, online, and cable news in the country. But she found the task of implementing change at a large entity like ABS-CBN tiresome.

“It’s like trying to turn the Titanic. You waste a lot of time internally trying to convince other people. A small group can move fast. You have an idea today, you can move tomorrow,” she said.

Nonetheless, Maria planted the seeds of Rappler in the organization. She pushed an aggressive citizen journalism program, seeing that the mindset of traditional journalists were starting to change.

While previously elitist and snobby, Filipino journalists were starting to see the value in crowdsourcing their work. Citizens are frequently on the ground before a reporter gets there, and the recording capabilities of smartphones have drastically improved and fallen in price. Reportage is an expensive activity, and collaborate journalism has the potential to cut costs.

The media campaign, which ran during the 2007 general elections, combined broadcast media with the internet, mobile phones, and social media in an effort to push for clean elections.

But Maria later realized that there was only so much she could do: Managing a team of a thousand people is a time-consuming process. To truly innovate, she needed a new backend. She needed to change workflows, processes, and philosophies, and that was hard in a traditional news group.

“I’ve spent six years trying to implement changes at ABS-CBN that I could do six months in Rappler,” she said.

The concept behind Rappler reflects her fascinations with social network theory. Essentially, the theory views relationships as a series of nodes and links, with nodes denoting individual actors in the network and links portraying the relationships between them.

Maria brought up a counter-terrorism effort as an example of how the theory can be effectively applied in real-world scenarios.

From mapping cities to charting Twitter

Indonesia in 1998 was rife with Muslim-Christian violence, especially in the Poso region. After a time of relative peace, conflict was reignited again when in 2005, three Christian schoolgirls were attacked, leaving two beheaded and one alive but seriously injured.

Tito Karnavian, head of the police anti-terrorism force, was tasked with finding the perpetrators in Poso and bringing peace to the communities. But his efforts were stalled because the region had turned sympathetic towards Muslims and was largely anti-government.

He learnt the hard way that government action could provoke unrest. After trying to arrest a suspect, a mob retaliated by destroying a local police station.

Changing course, Tito began a painstaking effort to win the battle of hearts and minds. His team took over a year to map out the society of Poso with its nodes and links. Among the 80,000 Muslims in the region, they mapped out those who were diehard Islamist supporters, those that were neutral, and those that were pro-police and pro-government. Then they begin identifying the leaders in the three camps.

The next step is to break the solidarity of the Jihadist camp and gain the support of neutrals. The intelligence gathered was crucial in that they could find out who the leaders where and what tactics to use to engage them.

The whole campaign culminated in a massive operation in 2007 which led to the arrests of 20 agitators.

In a similar manner, Maria is co-opting social network mapping for different purposes: civil activism and business. The difference is that with social networks, mapping efforts can be supercharged and made more efficient since the data is already out there.

Another influence for Maria is a 2007 study by two Harvard professors which, using mapping and data visualization, concluded that social networks magnify emotions and behaviors like happiness, loneliness, and voting behavior.

She writes of the study: “They formulated the Three Degrees of Influence Rule, which states that emotions and behavior spread through three degrees in a social network. For example, if I’m feeling lonely, my friend has a 52% chance of feeling lonely. My friend’s friend (two degrees) has a 25% chance of feeling lonely because I do, and my friend’s friend’s friend (three degrees) has a 15% chance of feeling lonely.”

rappler home page

Based on the idea, Rappler developed the Mood Meter, an attempt at capturing emotions and spreading them in social networks. It’s a tool which the company believes can also be used to prompt massive action. It works like a sidebar widget that nudges readers to think about how they’re feeling about a particular story, and then prompts them to vocalize their emotions and share the story on various social networks.

All the data is then collected, collated, and then visualized in a mood navigator that summarizes how readers are feeling as a whole and what stories have influenced their emotions.

While the content of the data is fascinating, Maria cites other studies that show how documenting your emotions would cause the actor to think in a more rational manner. Hopefully, she hopes the Mood Meter and the exercise of visualizing emotions would improve public debate.

rappler mood navigator 590

Rappler is also experimenting with data-driven story-telling. Using a mixture of algorithms and manual work, the website gathered information from Twitter and crafted it into a story about users’ reactions to the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona.

In the recent senatorial elections, Rappler used voting data to create interactive infographics which broadcasted live results by the minute. While raw in execution, the coverage is rich in ambition that outshines what larger, more established news outlets throughout Asia are doing.

Having toys is fun, but earning money from it is better

Harnessing data for journalism and activism is certainly novel, but the missing link so far in many new-fangled journalism efforts is a sustainable business model.

Rappler has registered an impressive growth in readership: 3.7M pageviews in March and 16.8M pageviews so far in May due to the elections, making them one of the top ten if not top five news sites in Philippines. But they’re still in the red and are hoping to break even by this year or next.

Put simply, their business model consists of using strong, independent, journalism as a loss leader and a tool to collect data which can be sold to large corporations for business intelligence. Advertising and content marketing also feature prominently in their plans.

The team consists 50 to 60 people, a mixture of veterans and young digital natives. Maria takes up the mantle of CEO and Executive Editor, while Glenda Gloria, the managing editor, is an author and former COO of ABS-CBN’s news channel.

Rounding up the leadership team are experienced journalists like Chay Hofileña, Cheche Lazaro, Marites Dañguilan-Vitug, seasoned professionals with years of newsroom and authorship experience.

The presence of veterans ensure that Rappler’s content has a credible sheen, but it still needs a fast-learning young team to run the ground, get the scoop, and help the stories go viral on social media.

“Just give the 20 somethings an iPhone, add lens and mike to it, and they’ll be able to shoot and edit their own video faster than a TV station. These new tools give you a lot of room. Pros, on the other hand, will resist change. You need whole new people,” she said.

Independent journalism is an ideal Rappler is determined to uphold, despite the fact that the company has external investors. Maria herself owns the majority of the shares, and a shareholder agreement cedes decision-making power to the editorial team.

“You’re only as good as your stories. We can talk about anything and anyone. The two big networks (ABS-CBN and GMA) don’t write about each other. We can write about both of them,” she said.

Rappler is already generating some revenue through its community building and data gathering efforts. It has partnerships with telcos like Globe and Smart, electronics companies like Samsung, and even food enterprises like McDonald’s and The Chicken Rice Shop.

This year will be crucial for the company as it will determine if its business model, premised on strong content and community engagement, is viable.

On home ground

Rappler is a truly unique product that is tailored to the Philippines. Its large population of 94.85M, while small compared to Indonesia, still makes mass media a viable and potentially lucrative enterprise. Filipinos are social media savvy too: In 2011, Facebook penetration rate is at 93.9 percent while Twitter registered at 16.1 percent.

The company’s activist approach to journalism is also a product of its environment. The country has been marred by corruption including graft, bribery, embezzlement, and nepotism in both business and politics. The government, under President Benigno S. Aquino III, has been working to clean up the act. Rappler too has been playing its part with social media initiatives aimed at curbing violence and vote buying.

As the driving force behind Rappler, Maria has escaped the trap that many traditional journalists fall into: Sticking to old mindsets. Driven by a rare mixture of intellectual curiosity, executional ability and hope for a better society, she has managed to marry the old soul of journalistic ethics with the latest digital tools.

This entrepreneurial spirit is a fountain of youth, keeping her and the veteran team in lockstep with digital natives, who in Maria’s words, increasingly find themselves in a world where they are working for people who can barely comprehend what’s going on.

Sexiest woman alive? I’m sold.



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