MANILA, Philippines – What is it like to churn out art in a matter of minutes and at a pace that the Rappler newsroom is known for?
It’s an everyday challenge for Emil Mercado and his team, an agile bunch of creative minds that combines grit with empathy and fun as they tell the nation’s stories through their eyes. The last 10 years are no joke given the fast changes both in the landscape and the tools available to them.
“Photoshop was not taught when I was in college nor was it a common industry tool,” recalled Emil. “Today, kids learn to draw digital almost simultaneously with their crayons and paper. Around the early 2000s, digital cameras and software became more affordable and accessible to the public.”
Emil was in the first wave of artists that were doing digital documentaries, which to him bridged traditional and digital. An activist, he used to work as a development worker but came to a point in his life where he wanted to have more stability. He had friends who referred a job opening to him at Rappler. “I applied for Newsbreak. Rappler was still a Facebook page called MovePH. I showed them my portfolio and what interested them was an animation I did for a political party during elections. It was one of those lunch break interviews, where you leave your current office to go for a job interview during your lunch break.” By the first week of November 2011, Emil was hired as employee No. 13, with the title “web producer.”
The digital journey: From effigy to CTRL+Z
Rappler’s digital artists service all departments and units of Rappler – from the reporters to the sales team. Regular requests are emailed to them and then an artist is assigned to fulfill that task. They are expected to have something in half an hour or less – and if you have trouble believing that, just scroll through the Rappler website and you can see the team’s quick turnaround with its visual ideas.
“Sometimes you feel like a schizophrenic,” Emil said. While journalists would have their own specialization and assigned beats, artists must be able to do all – from sports, to investigative stories, to lifestyle, politics, entertainment, opinion, among others. The Rappler artists have to read and absorb the text of what they are illustrating for and then translate it into images. The creative process has evolved over the years as well.
Emil, for example, used to have to think about quantities of paint and other materials, but now that it’s no longer a consideration, the process becomes a little more liberating. “Having the CTRL+Z option to instantly undo and erase makes you bolder with your artistic choices,” he said. “While you brew the idea or concept in your head, you’re able to squeeze out more possibilities and try out different combinations until you find the best one.” On the flip side, this process can be very time-consuming, so knowing when to stop and say “that is enough” is a key creative decision too.
The Rappler artists and their skill sets corresponded with the growth and direction of Rappler through the years. In 2013, Raffy de Guzman joined and used his background in advertising to build cohesive elements and templates for Rappler, which then was not a known brand. He applied a minimalist aesthetic and removed visual clutter to make the online graphics stand out amid the social media noise. Until now, these templates are still used in Rappler’s content and have significantly contributed to Rappler’s brand identity.
From 2014 to 2015, illustrators Nico Villarete and Andoy Edoria joined and gave Rappler its distinct bold editorial style. Andoy is the main illustrator behind the Hustle Hassle comic strip that features a millennial central character to reflect contemporary issues. For him, creation starts with an idea or concept, the execution and message will come after.
For Nico, who illustrates the weekly #AnimatED of Rappler alongside senior editors, letting go of the artistic ego is important to ensure the tone and message of the writer is captured. Moreover, since the GIF format allows motion (as opposed to a single static image in traditional cartooning), there is space and freedom to express using multiple scenes to tell a story.
Alyssa Arizabal became part of the team shortly after and gave the soft sections the style and lightness they needed with her skill in photo composites. This was important because while Rappler was known for its investigative and serious stories, building a look and brand around lifestyle, entertainment, and sports was just as crucial. Then, from 2016 to 2019, Janina Malinis and DR Castuciano joined the team and brought about the next level of storytelling through their animation skills. According to DR, keeping a reference of color combinations and inspiration helps him in his creative process and has made him produce art faster. For Janina, “since working in Rappler means these visuals have to be factual and accurate (but still visually appealing), I make sure to always have credible references.”
At the height of the pandemic and with more time spent online in 2020, there was an increasing number of opinion articles being submitted and published. Guia Abogado joined to meet that demand – creating visuals to depict and represent the diversity of voices being heard.
The Rappler artists constantly face the challenge of dealing with a short turnaround time to convey complex and nuanced ideas. Add to that the fleeting nature of the digital world where the life span of their artworks is directly related to the news cycle. According to Nico, it’s about finding the balance of being detached while giving the artwork the attention and care it needs.
The visual, the visceral
If Rappler stories are already considered hard-hitting and fearless, what then is the role of imagery in a story?
“Mahirap maghanap ng salita para sa nararamdaman (It’s hard to find words to describe what you feel),” said Andoy. He describes it as how sometimes musicians hear the melody first before the lyrics. For him, when a Rappler comic strip or cartoon is able to communicate a feeling or sentiment with little to no words, that’s a success.
Emil describes these images and illustrations as “more visceral” because “it captures feelings and blends emotion with analysis.” It also “captures the zeitgeist, nakikiliti at nasasagot ang gustong sabihin (it tickles and responds to what needs to be said) in a particular point in time.”
If Rappler writers work within the bounds of hard facts and verified data, the Rappler creative team works with feelings and sentiments. Emil said it is in “the realm of interpretation.” When people are confronted with imagery, they are able to affirm or assess the emotions they feel and layer their own meaning or experience to it, making content more relatable.
Nico compared it to cave paintings or ukit sa bato that allow us to understand how people used to live. Images create a space for empathy between the writer and the reader. Raffy added: “Since we all speak different languages, other than music and money, what other thing do we all understand? Visual imagery. Images also allow ideas to branch out.”
For DR, “illustration aids the written text. It’s a form of expression similar to writing. I see a lot of similarities and they help each other tell a story.”
Despite the differences in traditional and digital art, many things still remain the same. As Raffy pointed out: “Intent remains the same – whether digital or traditional. The process is continuous, always changing, it’s not absolute – things may get lost but will be replaced with new things.”
For Alyssa, digital art is more accessible and has allowed artists such as herself to reach different communities she would never have reached otherwise.
But why Rappler?
For them, it’s the answer to the search for more meaningful work. Some of them left old jobs that had them doing mindless menial work like copy-pasting, tracing T-shirt designs, and doing backend work for international gaming companies.
After graduating, Janina and DR were faced with grim options – from the highly technical and routinary to just downright unethical labor practices. Janina put it this way: “Cheesy as it may sound, I wanted something that could change and contribute something to the community. To have my art impact something.”
DR found fulfillment seeing himself as a collaborator to the writer and together having the image and the text give voice to something.
For Andoy, who has had all sorts of job experiences as an employee, Rappler “is the only job where I can say the work I create has meaning.”
Guia shared that she has always believed in seeking the truth and educating audiences on social issues.
For Nico, 2016 was a turning point. When President Rodrigo Duterte came into power, Nico said he was expecting a lot more people to speak up and call out the administration for all its wrongdoings, but according to him, there was “radio silence.” He asked himself: “Ako lang ba nakakakita nito? Nababaliw na ba ako? Bakit okay kayo dito? (Am I the only one who can see this? Am I going crazy? Why are people okay with this?)” There was a void, and that void was what drove him to keep doing what he does best. Alyssa was one of those who used to see Nico’s editorial artworks. She shared that Rappler was not really her go-to news site, but she knew of it because she would follow Nico’s editorial art released weekly. When she found out from a friend that there was a job opening, she quickly applied.
Raffy never intended to work for Rappler. According to him, he was never really a “news person” and didn’t even know who Maria Ressa was. Before joining Rappler, he was at an ad agency where, he said, “nakita ko na lahat ng mali, kailangan mo magsinungaling in order to sell. Medyo naalog moral compass ko (I saw what was wrong in the industry, that you had to lie in order to sell. My moral compass was shaken).” When he went for the job interview at Rappler and was told about the nature of the work, he said it sparked something in him. “I remember feeling culture shock, it was so different from what I used to do.”
There are times when Raffy would feel so overwhelmed and tired that he would want to quit, but what keeps him going is that same spark he felt during the job interview. “This was historic and I wanted to see it through and be part of it. I wanted to be part of an organization that stood up against someone like Duterte.”
And there lies art’s power: to speak truth to those who wield it – in images that inspire, provoke, and move people and communities to action. – Rappler.com