Rappler 10th anniversary

Rappler at 10: How an economics columnist found his voice

JC Punongbayan
Rappler at 10: How an economics columnist found his voice
Writing has become my own way of fighting back against the rising tide of lies and despotism

We are publishing a series from Rappler employees and contributors, old and new, as part of our commemoration of Rappler’s 10th anniversary in January 2022.

MANILA, Philippines – “very readable, thank you. quite refreshing! thank god, there’s an economist who can write clearly :)”

That’s how Rappler’s co-founder and managing editor Chay Hofileña reacted to the first-ever piece I submitted to them back in January 23, 2013.

At the time I was a 23-year-old economist working in government, finishing my master’s thesis at the UP School of Economics (UPSE). I only recently learned about Rappler from my friends, but I became an instant fan. The exclusively online platform made a lot of sense to me – I thought then that was the way to go. And the website’s opinion section (particularly Thought Leaders) featured articles so good I found myself looking forward to each new piece that came out of it. 

Soon I wanted to contribute to Rappler myself. I finally found the courage after I learned that some friends at UPSE contributed a piece about the latest economic statistics in December 2012. But what should I write about? On January 18, 2013, former president Noynoy Aquino had signed the Kasambahay Law, and I thought the new law’s possible unintended consequences – based on basic economics – could be a good topic of discussion. I drafted a piece (“Kasambahay Law: Its unintended consequences”), sent an email, Chay liked it, and she published it on Rappler’s beta version on January 30, 2013. 

Encouraged by her feedback and the modest success of my debut piece on social media, sending economics pieces to Rappler quickly became a habit of mine. In 2013, I would write another 13 pieces for them. 

PUBLISHED. My first-ever piece.

Being a contributor and not a staff member, my engagement with Rappler was done almost entirely by email (that continues to be the case today). It was not until July 26, 2013 – half a year since my debut piece – that I got to meet Chay in person at Rappler’s previous headquarters at Antel Corporate Center in Ortigas. 

I was immediately struck by how small the office was (it seemed a lot bigger in Maria Ressa’s newscasts, as well as Dr. Margie Holmes’ lively show titled #AskMargie which I used to binge-watch). I also remember seeing a revolving dais on which sat a glass table and chairs, allowing for various angles for Rappler’s shows. It was quite an ingenious solution to the lack of space.

Later, I left Antel thinking what fun it would be to work with this young, vibrant, and exciting team – even if I wasn’t a journalist by profession.

FIRST VISIT. Meeting Ma’am Chay for the first time in 2013.
Meeting for the first time in 2013

In early 2014, while working as a short-term consultant for the World Bank, I would write another five pieces for Rappler. But I got extremely busy when I entered government in 2014 for the second time (as head executive assistant at the National Economic and Development Authority, upon the invitation of then-secretary Arsenio Balisacan) that I had to stop writing for Rappler entirely. Hence, a hiatus that lasted until 2015. There was one time, though, when I couldn’t resist sending a piece on Metro Manila traffic (“Carmageddon: Why are there so many cars in Metro Manila?”), frustrated by my own horrible commute to and fro work.

In 2016, I decided to revive my writing for Rappler. In the run-up to the pivotal 2016 elections, I wrote what would later turn out to be one of my most popular pieces ever: “Marcos years marked ‘golden age’ of PH economy? Look at the data.” At the time Bongbong Marcos was running for vice president, and disinformation about the Marcos dictatorship was spreading on social media like wildfire. I was astounded by how popular and well received my Martial Law piece went. Later, that same piece would jumpstart my own deep dive into all aspects of Martial Law economics, about which I continue to write, teach, and give talks to this day. (To date, I have written nine Rappler pieces on Martial Law.)

Later that year, in August, about a month into the new Duterte presidency, Chay and executive editor Glenda Gloria invited me to Rappler’s spanking new (and much more spacious) HQ at Estancia. They wanted me to contribute regularly to Rappler’s Thought Leaders section. It was a dream come true for me, having only written for the website’s iSpeak section before that. In my mind, I was finally joining the big league of opinion writing at Rappler, alongside esteemed academics and experts whom I looked up to.

Two years later, in 2018, they would invite me again to become more involved in Rappler still: as a regular Thought Leaders columnist producing one piece every week. This is a privilege that I continue to be extremely grateful for, and a job that I continue to enjoy immensely to this day. 

Aside from writing, I would also give advice to Rappler’s economics and business reporters here and there. I also do some odd jobs, like voiceovers for explainer videos. (One time I even volunteered to live-tweet an event held at the National Museum where I realized no Rappler reporter was invited.)

Evolving pieces

Looking back at my pieces (the present one would be my 265th piece ever), I realize how much my writing has evolved over time, and how it has captured the times.

From 2013 to 2015, it was actually harder for me to find topics to write about on a regular basis. Our society’s problems then were not as grim or dire or life-threatening as they are now, and I had a lot of legroom to explore issues close to my heart, including development economics issues like poverty and reproductive health. I also managed to talk at length about interesting new economics research papers. Rather than write once a week, I wrote more like once a month (or even less).

But from 2016 onward, I found myself gravitating more toward the hottest issues of the day, especially as the authoritarian ways of the Duterte government began to unfold. My pieces also became increasingly critical and touched on policies like Duterte’s war on drugs, his tax reform program, his Build, Build, Build initiative, the economic consequences of his foreign policy pivot to China. 

I also covered economic crises more – such as the spell of high inflation in 2018 and the current pandemic recession – and I would more frequently call out government officials who, in their press statements, manipulated statistics to paint a rosy picture of the economy or buried data that the public ought to know about.

Throughout, Rappler’s senior editors allowed me total freedom to explore whatever topic I wanted to write about. It’s a daunting amount of freedom, but at least, in the time of Duterte, I never ran out of pieces to write about week after week. (Indeed, there were weeks when I was especially triggered by events and would I write two pieces.)

Naturally, my pieces ruffled a few feathers, including top government economists serving in key agencies. One official even had in his office a makeshift dartboard with my name on it, presumably out of frustration with my Rappler pieces. Trolls on social media have also attacked me no end, calling me a bunch of names and editing my photos (they’re particularly fond of making fun of my curly hair).

At the same time, though, I’m quite overwhelmed by all the positive feedback on my pieces: not just among students and teachers, but also casual readers and even professional economists, including those at my home institution of UPSE. My pieces would also allow me to cultivate a readership on social media, and network with like-minded people in academia, civil society groups, etc. I treasure those interactions because they have broadened my perspectives considerably and improved my writing, in a sort of positive feedback loop.

Front row seat

Aside from giving me column space, Rappler has also granted me a front-row seat to major developments in the present fight for democracy and press freedom.

In 2017, Rappler invited me for the first time to join their annual coverage of the President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA), a show hosted yearly by Maria Ressa herself. 

When I first met Maria I remember being awestruck by her, so much so that I kept tripping on my words (I remember saying stupidly once, on camera, “social media has a large play to role” rather than “role to play”). But on the whole, Maria liked my insights, and Rappler invited me to every SONA panel since. It has, in fact, become a sort of annual tradition for me and Rappler.

And gosh, those SONA panels can be quite exciting – sometimes too exciting. The entire Rappler newsroom would watch the SONA together and collectively issue boos and hisses whenever Duterte would rant or ramble or say something utterly false – while we snacked on chips, sandwiches, and unli coffee off-air. 

I also was in the room when Duterte lambasted and hurled accusations directly at Rappler in his 2017 SONA. Duterte’s words echoed eerily in the newsroom, and admittedly it sent chills down my spine. (I’m also still recovering from Brillante Mendoza’s extreme closeup shots of Duterte, which jumped out at us from Rappler’s ginormous screens.) 

In 2018, cameramen were shadowing the Rappler team during the SONA coverage, and later I discovered that I (or more accurately my scalp) would make a cameo appearance in the first few seconds of the award-winning documentary by Ramona S. Diaz, “A Thousand Cuts” (you can still watch it on YouTube). 

SONA. Last in-person SONA panel in 2019.

Since the 2017 SONA incident, the Duterte regime posed a real existential threat to Rappler and the jobs of all its managers and employees. Amazingly, though, despite the increasingly frequent attacks from government – as well as the swelling tide of negative public opinion – Rappler stood its ground and fought its corner. The team continued to write and tell important stories under the leadership of its indefatigable and redoubtable “manangs.”

In particular, Maria Ressa always manages to keep a cheery air about her: never once did I see her sulk or lose temper. I always wondered (I still do) how she manages to maintain such a sunny disposition despite the darkness rising around her and Philippine society at large.

Seeing the abundant challenges faced by my Rappler family, I try to help in my own small ways. 

For instance, at the time Pia Ranada and the rest of Rappler reporters were already banned from Malacañang, I found myself being interviewed in the Palace grounds (in my capacity as a resource person) by a journalist from another news outlet. Inside the Palace’s media office, where I was instructed to wait, I saw the desk that Pia used to occupy, dusty and untouched, with a paper bearing the Rappler logo still taped on top of it. When I told Pia I was there, she asked if I could retrieve her Starbucks tumbler which she had left there and never got the chance to get back because of Duterte’s ban. Lo and behold, said tumbler was still there, and I got it back to her safe and sound. 

Finding my voice

Right before the pandemic struck, in late January 2020, I got to visit Chay at the Rappler HQ. As we took a selfie she remarked how long we’ve been working together, and quipped (quite accurately) that our working relationship seems to have outlasted my own personal relationships.

Indeed, a lot has happened since 2013. Beyond the fact that Rappler has literally grown in staff and office space, it is now an internationally renowned newsgroup, and Maria has just become the country’s first-ever Nobel laureate. I, on the other hand, finally earned my PhD from UPSE, after years of being a PhD candidate. Just as Rappler has grown, I too have grown.

Despite all the changes, Rappler stayed true to its core mission: to speak truth to power, hold government to account, and defend press freedom. Meanwhile, I’m just as excited – even more so – to write and email pieces as I was nearly nine years ago.

MARIA RESSA. With a future Nobel laureate.

For me, writing my Rappler column is no longer just about sharing economic concepts and talking about my research interests, as I used to in the past. These days, it’s my way of helping my readers arrive at facts and truths that are otherwise being distorted or hidden from them. Writing has become my own way of fighting back against the rising tide of lies and despotism. 

Rappler helped me find my voice, and now I just can’t shut up. Thank you, Rappler. – Rappler.com

Links to JC’s articles from as far back as 2013 can be found here and here. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com).

JC Punongbayan

JC Punongbayan, PhD is a senior lecturer at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations.