Journalists as agents of change

Chay F. Hofileña
Journalism can be a persistent voice, awakening a desire to be part of something that springs from this conviction: 'There’s got to be a better way'

In many newsrooms several decades ago, the Chinese wall that divided editorial and the business department was as immovable as perhaps the wall that separates North Korea and South Korea today. 

Journalists were supposed to report and write stories only, while the business and advertising department was supposed to be left alone to worry about making all the money to support hard-hitting journalism. The division was sacred to preserve the editorial independence of news organizations. 

Editors were not supposed to be influenced or swayed by the preferences or wishes of advertisers, as they were expected to focus only on providing significant information that readers supposedly needed to know. The market was the exclusive domain of the business department.

Reporters too were supposed to keep a healthy distance from whoever and whatever they were covering. News topics were regarded as issues to be reported on, and persons who were part of these issues were treated as either sources or subjects to be interviewed to get all sides of a story. In many cases, relationships were very utilitarian.

Even in the field of investigative reporting, the lines were clearly delineated. Reporters pursued stories; unearthed irregularities and anomalies; exposed corruption, wrongdoing, and abuses; and left the burden of dealing with these abominations to government or citizens.

But advances in technology, as well as problems that persist in developing countries like ours, plus the search for new business models that work, are forcing a paradigm shift.


Striving to remain in business and in step with the needs of the times and the audience, the media feels the urgency to adjust, respond, and innovate. In many ways, by doing so, the media also aims to be true to its calling: be an agent of change. But before it can even be one, it has to be in for the long haul.

The underlying raison d’etre for journalism is public service. It may sound cheesy, but there’s a very practical reason for it, too: survival. The privileges extended to journalists – access to information and to the corridors of power – are justified only by this nobler calling. Any abuse of these privileges and a failure to serve the public are quick to earn scorn and disapproval. This, in turn, affects a media organization’s survival in the jungle of public opinion and preference.

As has been repeatedly said, without a clear and firm connection with its audience, the media loses its following and eventually its basis to exist. Failure to adapt to a rapidly changing environment also spells imminent death. This is why many newspapers and magazines have folded up – they became too comfortable with routine and too set in their ways, it became difficult to get out of their comfort zones. 

Cognizant of this, even the New York Times, founded in 1851, is reinventing itself. On the web since 1996, it is expected to roll out a redesigned website within the 1st quarter of this year. Its CEO Mark Thompson, formerly director-general of the BBC, is driving changes that will combine print and digital and perhaps pursue charges for varying levels of service. Branded content will be part of its redesigned site, causing some to worry about confusing readers who may not be able to tell sponsored content from what isn’t. Many are watching out for the new Times.

Even the Washington Post, long held by the Grahams, has been sold to Jeff Bezos of Amazon for US$250 million. Clearly change will come.

Locally, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, first published in December 1985, has also redesigned its website. Still cluttered with a lot of advertising, this primarily print-oriented website has now made some space for video.

Clearly, media organizations that are huge or bloated bureaucracies find that being nimble and quick to respond to changing situations and environments can be difficult. It’s not as easy to alter or even redefine job descriptions, shift personnel assignments, create new units, and close down existing ones. 

What to do with personnel who suddenly turn out to be ill fit for certain positions? What adjustments need to be made to prevent a top-heavy organization? How to minimize redundancies? How quickly can new skills be taught and embraced by an ageing staff? Where to find journalists with multiple and multi-tasking skills? To what extent can overhauls be made and over what reasonable period of time? 

I can imagine these being some of the questions that senior managers have to deal with in this rapidly changing world. Egos, personal relationships, even financial considerations are just some of the factors that sometimes make the status quo an easier option. Unfortunately, the status quo can sometimes spell doom.

Old, new ideas

At Rappler, we too have grappled with dilemmas ourselves in the past year – debated, thought about them hard, exchanged uncertain opinions, jumped right in, did some thinking and assessments again, and clarified for ourselves what appeared to be acceptable and correct. We haven’t found all the answers but continue to explore and redefine concepts and ideas.

There are 3 things that I’ve personally picked up in our two-year journey. I think journalists should be discussing these openly and learning from each other’s experiences and mistakes.

1. Journalists need to think about economics and business too.

To be an effective agent of change, a media organization must be sustainable. Technology has made information accessible to everyone. While sustainability and profitability are not the main tasks or preoccupation of journalists (it should be writing, reporting, and telling stories well), having a sense of being able to fund endeavors is healthy. When profitability becomes a shared responsibility of editorial managers and the business department, journalism is more sustainable over the long-term. 

2. It’s the age of collaboration.

If there’s such a thing as corporate social responsibility on the part of corporations, the belief that good journalism sells should be made an integral part of it. Making good journalism sustainable should not be the sole concern or responsibility of journalists themselves because other sectors have a stake in it too. Similarly, journalists should look for shared values, causes, and issues with corporations, government and academic institutions, and even civil society organizations – and look for ways to constructively work together. 

The partnerships can do a lot to bring about much-needed societal change. This should not mean compromised editorial independence, however. Local community journalists saw this ahead of their urban counterparts because of pressing development needs in their areas, but some of them had problems dealing with relationships that became too close for comfort. Today, that Chinese wall of decades ago has probably become a fence. Should that fence crumble or disappear all together? No, it shouldn’t because it is a reminder that while partnerships can be strategic, a healthy distance is still necessary.

Working with partners does not mean losing the ability to critique them when needed. This foreseeably will take great skill, wisdom and experience.

3. Action completes the circle of investigations and journalism.

We have our own metrics to measure our effectiveness and following. Networks have their ratings, print media have their subscriptions, online media have page views and impressions. On social media, there are likes, reach, retweets or shares, and engagement. For journalism in general, the ultimate metric today is action. Are people moved to do something about a story or an issue? Are their collective anger, inspiration, goodness harnessed toward the common good?

As Elise Hu wrote in December for Nieman Journalism Lab, measuring journalism’s influence and impact should include “figuring out how we measure the results of our work in the civic sphere.” At a time when big data, maps, and multimedia storytelling are becoming preoccupations and obsessions – and when communities are becoming increasingly fragmented, media use becoming highly personalized, and issues becoming more local – the challenge is to be able to define and measure impact. Journalists can, in fact, help bring communities together without necessarily taking the lead. But how do we know we’ve made a difference? Maybe in the number of communities or groups we have bridged, perhaps in the number of initiatives begun by individuals moved by stories we’ve written?

Is journalism about action or activism? I would dare say, yes. But make no mistake, I do not mean it to be the militant, noisy type that goes out in the streets campaigning for an overthrow of regimes. Rather, it can be that persistent voice that refuses to be silenced, awakening in each one a desire to be part of something that springs from this conviction: “There’s got to be a better way. There’s got to be a better life.” 

If journalism were a lifeless litany of who, what, where, when, why, and how, how can it be the agent of change it is expected to be?

Chay F. Hofileña is Rappler’s investigative desk editor. She used to head Move.PH, the community engagement arm of Rappler. She also teaches Journalism part-time, including Media Ethics, at the Ateneo de Manila University.


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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.