Maria Ressa: The Rappler experiment

Ezra Ferraz
Maria Ressa: The Rappler experiment
‘We’re still learning, but we know the pace of change is only going to accelerate, and we’re trying to prepare our organization to move at that pace,’ the CEO and executive editor of Rappler says

Most people know Maria Ressa as the founder of Rappler, but what they may not know is that this is not her first go-around at starting a new journalism company.

Back in her 20s, she helped build Probe Productions, which aimed to introduce investigative documentary to television broadcasting. This experience was formative in what it taught her.

“It proved to me that a small group of people can change an industry,” Ressa said.

Young professionals who worry about the linearity of their career path might find comfort in Ressa’s journalism career, which had many incredible changes and saw her traverse the world. She herself described her career trajectory at CNN as “warzone and conflict reporter turned business reporter turned global affairs correspondent.”

Eventually, Ressa said that she came to manage CNN’s Southeast Asian operations and learned to merge cultures. Later on, she returned to the Philippines and came to manage ABS-CBN’s news group of more than 1,000 journalists.

The Rappler experiment

At this point, Ressa had returned to the Philippines twice, first for Probe in her 20s and then later in her 40s. She felt that this was the perfect time to affect change in the world.

“I thought I was old enough to have real experience but young enough to still make a difference,” she said.

This was also one of the reasons she left ABS-CBN and decided to create Rappler, which she wanted to use as a venue to test how ideas and emotions spread. She was also inspired in part by her authoring of the non-fiction book, From Bin Laden to Facebook.

“Then I found others wanted to play with me – former colleagues and friends who wanted something more. So we jumped,” Ressa said. “That ongoing experiment is Rappler.”

A unique business model

Ressa said that she learned a lot of important lessons in big media, revolving around leadership, organization, management, and perhaps most interestingly, the fact that honesty and truth have cultural nuances.

However, she noted that her learning curve accelerated upon leaving big media and founding Rappler.

According to Ressa, one of the biggest changes was acknowledging the role of emotions in the human experience, and by extension, in journalism. She said the second biggest change came down to acknowledging technology’s crucial role in creative destruction.

Perhaps because of these lessons, Ressa made it a point to make technology a fundamental part of Rappler’s identity.

“We’re still learning, but we know the pace of change is only going to accelerate, and we’re trying to prepare our organization to move at that pace,” she said.

Yet Rappler would not be able to keep pace with technology, or remain independent, unless the company was financially sound.

“That’s why from the beginning, we developed a business model that could support journalism,” Ressa shared.

Though Ressa always had a hand in business development both at CNN and ABS-CBN, Rappler’s business model is unique in the world of journalism. For instance, under the banner of #BrandRap, Rappler provides client brands a custom combination of content creation, native advertising, social media engagement, crowdsourcing, and big data.

Doing good

According to Ressa, Rappler’s attractive business model ultimately empowers the strength of its journalism and its advocacies.

“We believe we can only do good if we have the ability – financially and otherwise – to do so independently,” Ressa said.

And what are these advocacies? While Rappler may have risen to prominence in large part due to its hallmark investigative journalism, it arguably does an important work in the various causes it champions.

This is mostly done through Rappler’s civic engagement arm, MovePH, which is housed separately from its investigative arm. MovePH addresses such issues as hunger, corruption, and disaster risk reduction.

MovePH was also one of the first organizations to push for #SaveMaryJaneVeloso, the Filipina who faced the death penalty in Indonesia for allegedly smuggling heroin into the country.

Veloso has maintained her innocence, saying that she was unwittingly duped into being a drug mule by her recruiter. Her recruiter turned herself in to the custody of Philippine authorities this past week, and Veloso was given an 11th-hour reprieve from execution Wednesday, April 29.

While the amount of social change that Ressa has created through Rappler is debatable, what is undeniable is the amount of awareness that the company can raise for these issues. Rappler is now the third top news site in the Philippines, according to Alexa, so the causes it gets behind are highly visible.

Given all that Ressa has accomplished, what are her future goals? They are ambitious, but can be expressed simply: “Grow Rappler. Understand leadership. Understand technology. Evolve our ideas of journalism.”

She added, “a democracy has long been linked to the quality of a nation’s journalists.  Now with technology, we can work with our people to help build Philippine institutions bottom-up.”

For young people who aspire to reach her level of professional success, Ressa wants to emphasize to them the need to be interdisciplinary.

“The days of vertical silos are dead,” she said. “This is an interdisciplinary world. Drill down and build your expertise, but look horizontally so you understand how it intersects other disciplines.”

Ressa is one of the speakers at the upcoming #ThinkPH forum on Platform Thinking. –

Rappler Business columnist Ezra Ferraz brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Connect with him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz

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