Making online news more social, and emotive
By Masyitha Baziad December 3, 2015
- Social news network Rappler expands from Philippines to Indonesia
- Believes in reader engagement, community mobilisation and … emotion
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MARIA Ressa (pic above) has no regrets leaving one of the Philippines’ most established television networks to build the independent media outfit Rappler. As a veteran, she is quite aware of the need for independent journalism to flourish.
“Whatever it is, be it television, print or digital media,” says Ressa, who spoke to Digital News Asia (DNA) on the sidelines of the Tech in Asia conference held in Jakarta in early November.
The story goes that she was having drinks with her journalist friend Glenda Gloria, and the talk revolved around how journalism was changing today, and how people could be made participants in not only journalism, but also that change.
This led to a community page called MovePH on Facebook in August 2011, and the actual social news site Rappler.com in January 2012. The former CNN and ABS-CBN journalist serves as chief executive officer and executive editor, while Gloria is vice president.
The idea also got the backing of a veritable who’s who of the Philippines media and Internet scene, including Internet entrepreneur and investor Manny Ayala, who serves as chairman.
Rappler – from the words ‘rap’ (as in ‘talk’ and not the music genre) and ‘ripple’ – has emerged as one of the largest independent news sites in the Philippines, and in June this year expanded to Indonesia, complete with Bahasa Indonesia content.
“We were able to grow an average of 100% year-on-year in our first three years,” Ressa says, in terms of pageviews, and unique visits and visitors, based on Google Analytics figures.
The team has about 56 people in the Philippines, in roles such as editorial, sales, design, research, social media, project management, and more. In Indonesia, it has an office and a team of eight people handling editorial, including one person handling community engagement.
And while traditional media businesses do not expect to see black ink until perhaps their 10th year, Rappler expects to hit the breakeven point by the first quarter of next year, about four years after launch.
Rappler does not disclose how much funding in total it has received. Beyond the initial investment to get it off the ground, it also secured funding from North Base Media in May – to the tune of “millions of US dollars,” according to Ressa – and a further undisclosed amount from Omidyar Network in November.
North Base Media is an investment company focused on supporting independent media in growth markets, while Omidyar Network is a fund created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam.
New forms of journalism
So what is the secret of Rappler’s relatively immediate success? For Ressa, it is simple enough: Use social media and leverage community engagement.
To build a digital media outfit from scratch is no easy matter – however, if you can take advantage of social media and mobilise the community to get involved, then this is where the magic happens.
“As a traditional journalist, we are trained to report the facts, the current condition, the numbers and the rest,” says Ressa, who had previously served as bureau chief of CNN in Jakarta.
Many media people do not realise that with today’s technology, they can provide more than just that. “We can encourage people to be directly involved, to act,” she adds.
The stories Rappler publishes, says Ressa, have to make an impact on society, pushing people to act and do something good. These stories should inspire people to push for clean elections or to combat crime, for example.
“The future of digital media is in giving people more of an opportunity to be engaged in the news,” she adds.
And having provided that open space for interaction and engagement in the Philippines, with its 100-million population, Ressa wants to port the model to Indonesia, which has more than 250 million people.
She sees great potential for community involvement in Indonesia. “The news we serve is not merely to inform, but is also capable of making small ripples or waves in the ocean that should be able to mobilise the community,” she declares.
In both markets, Rappler has a special team dedicated to the development of a community network.
This is also what has made it different from other media: Its model combines traditional journalism with reader involvement, all enabled by technology.
Thanks to Ressa’s broadcast background, video and live-streaming have been important parts of Rappler since inception.
“Technology makes everything possible – we do not need a large tripod and camera. Rappler’s reporters use their mobile phones to record the news,” she says.
The role of emotion
For Ressa, the traditional one-way-street formula of journalism has to evolve to become more interactive, and needs to invite readers to participate more deeply.
Not monotonous or rigid, and no longer ‘just the facts, ma’am.’ Rappler wants its readers feel the emotion of the journalism it presents.
“Reporter can tell the news with a touch of natural emotion,” says Ressa.
“Normal emotion in news makes readers feel connected with the people behind the story, and allows the interaction to be more meaningful,” she adds.
Rappler also wants to know how its readers feel when they read a story, and this has been made possible by a tool it pioneered called the Mood Meter, which also gives the media outfit instant feedback.
The Mood Meter is embedded at the end of each story and asks users, “How does this story make you feel?”
Readers are given eight different emotions to choose from: Happy, sad, angry, afraid, annoyed, inspired, amused, or ‘don’t care.’
The idea has been adopted by at least one other news site, The Rakyat Post from Malaysia.
Learning to let go
While saying she has enjoyed every second of Rappler’s growth and development, Ressa admits that she had to “let go of things that I knew before.”
“Digital media is new media, it’s a new industry. Having committed to use technology to deliver the news, the next thing I had to do was to learn from zero.
“The digital world is the world of the young, so we continue to listen to the ideas and input of young people.
“In recruiting staff, we try to get the best young people in journalism, social media and technology,” she adds.
Ressa says she believes that by opening minds and using technology, even a traditional business such as media can reap benefits.
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