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Rappler at 10: There at the Creation

February 16, 2022

By Natashya Gutierrez

Hi! Decided to come back to Manila & pursue journalism—I want to ask for your advice…actually I NEED it! Would love to send you an email.

It was a ballsy message to send to a veteran journalist I didn’t personally know, from a recent college graduate with zero journalism experience aside from reporting for campus publications.

I received a response within two hours.

“Have something for you,” Maria Ressa responded, with her email address

It was May 2011. At that time, Facebook was just seven years old, and Apple had just launched the iPhone 4. Maria and I got on a Skype call within a day of that Twitter message exchange. She told me about this new idea she had—a social news network that she said would revolutionize news in the Philippines—powered by veteran journalists like herself, working together with digital natives like myself. She talked about multimedia reporters going solo in the field—only armed with their phones—shooting, editing, and hosting their own video packages while simultaneously writing an article and live tweeting. And she offered me a reporting gig, knowing nothing about me except what she had seen from my Twitter timeline.

I had no clue what she was talking about. But her energy was so contagious, I needed a job, and I wanted to be a journalist. I was young, idealistic, with nothing to lose. So, I accepted her offer.

(Photo: Natashya Gutierrez)

Starting small

Everything moved quickly from there. Two weeks later, I was on a flight home from California to Manila.

I was fortunate to have been able to attend university in the United States. My parents understandably expected me to stay in America after graduation and find a job. Instead, I returned to the Philippines, suitcases in tow, without telling them, because I knew my mom would try to stop me. By the time I arrived in Manila, my mom was speechless and visibly disappointed, questioning why in the world I would give up the opportunity to live and work abroad to help start a news website at home and earn minimum wage in Philippine pesos.

Our first team meeting was in an old, tiny apartment that had been converted into a makeshift newsroom. The building was decrepit, the tables at breaking point. The street it was on was riddled with potholes and it flooded mercilessly when it rained. I met some of the other hires for the first time and panicked when I realized I was the only one with no formal work or journalism experience. The conversations were peppered with names of politicians and sources, acronyms and media lingo. I was in way over my head. I nodded silently and pretended I could follow the conversation. I feared they would regret hiring me. I wanted to curl up into a ball and roll all the way back to California.

In August, we gathered in Maria’s apartment. There were 12 of us in that initial team, Maria’s first hires. Around her wooden dining table, we discussed launching via a Facebook page, where we would publish our articles through the Notes feature while we built the website. We brainstormed the website’s branding and agreed on the orange R logo and the name Rappler.

Like a revolution

Those early days of Rappler were thrilling: something was brewing, something risky and exciting—it felt like the start of a revolution.

We were trained in dingy conference rooms of a rickety university hotel, the only affordable space we could rent, where we reporters were handed an iPhone 4 and taught to shoot our own stand-ups and edit them on iMovie. My first news package was self-filmed on a Flipcam. We were thrown into the field and given deadlines. I labored over articles that were posted on Facebook and received a grand total of eight likes.

On the ground, people stared at us young reporters, lone wolves chasing stories with only our iPhones. We filmed press conferences and uploaded them on YouTube, cursing at the crappy internet connections from our dongles (4G and live streaming from phones did not yet exist). While the videos were loading, we tapped frantically away on our laptops writing our stories, which were published on Facebook by the time our videos were loaded. We learned to be quick, sharp multitaskers. And soon, we were breaking news ahead of major networks.

Newbies with phones: covering the impeachment trial of then chief justice Renato Corona (Photo: Natashya Gutierrez)

By October 2011, we moved to an actual office in a high-rise building. It was basic, with desks for reporters and meeting rooms constructed with plywood walls that offered little to no privacy. Everyone could hear everything. The email from our then-managing editor Glenda M. Gloria about our office transfer encapsulated our luxuries well: “There will be free water,” she wrote. “We have a coffee machine, but we will be bringing our own coffee. Clean your own stuff. Wash your own dishes. Clean as you go. No hierarchy in the pantry.”

But it was a newsroom, nonetheless. Ours. And it became our home.

That’s where we discussed our week’s stories, gathered after a long day in the field, and where we had our first arguments. Soon, it was abuzz with banter and adrenaline, the indescribable, addicting pulse of a humming newsroom. It was where we were when we publicly launched the Rappler website in January 2012.

The newsroom was the site of free-flowing conversations and ideas. We frequently questioned, challenged, and learned from each other. There is one discussion I remember distinctly that turned into a lively debate between my colleague Patricia Evangelista and me—about beauty pageants, of all things. I argued that pageants are archaic, pitting women against each other and advancing ideas of misogyny and gender inequality that we’ve tried for years to fight. Pat countered that if I were really pro–women’s rights, should I not respect these women’s decisions to do what they want with themselves and their bodies?

Others soon jumped in, and Maria ran over excitedly from her desk to listen to the exchange up close, turning her head sharply towards whoever was speaking, a huge smile plastered on her face, egging us on and clapping her hands like a little child. “Write about it! Write about it!,” she squealed. (That sucked the life out of that conversation fairly quickly).

My first libel suit

The newsroom was also where I felt safest. After I received my first libel suit in 2013 from Janet Napoles over a series of exclusive reports on her allegedly ill-gotten wealth and lavish lifestyle, I was greeted with hugs and encouragement. It was where the late Aries Rufo, our senior investigative journalist and no stranger to legal cases himself, comforted me with the reassurance that I had only done my job. It’s where I witnessed first-hand the courage of my colleagues and learned the values that shaped me as a journalist. [Editor’s note: The libel suit was dismissed in 2015.]

Above all, it’s where we became family. It’s where we really got to know each other—in the early hours of the mornings before deployments, blurry-eyed and barely awake, and late into the evenings, past midnight, when we chased deadlines and analyzed documents, piecing together investigative stories. We saw each other at our best and at our worst, cracking under stress. We survived on a lifeline of coffee, cigarettes, and cheap cafeteria food.

Flat newsroom: Rappler’s first newsroom, along Julia Vargas Avenue in Pasig City (Photo: Natashya Gutierrez)

We plotted our growth, criticized our mistakes, celebrated our successes. We kept each other grounded. There was no room for egos, and it was where we cultivated our sense of trust in one another. The no-hierarchy rule in Glenda’s email extended way beyond the pantry; it seeped through every corner of the newsroom. This is what I loved most about Rappler: our culture. Led by powerhouse women managers, we were gritty, sharp, and deeply innovative. There were no frills—much like our headquarters—just a bunch of journalists who were united by the love for our craft and our drive to hold power accountable. And we had a lot of fun. We had out-of-town parties, constantly teased each other, rewatched our bloopers on loop, and bred inside jokes that endure to this day.

And as Rappler grew, so did I. I started off as a sports reporter (appointed only because I was the sole person in the room interested in the beat). When I covered the 2012 Palarong Pambansa, the national student sports games, in Pangasinan, I stayed in a nipa hut by the ocean for a week where I had to pump my own water to have a shower (one of those inside jokes we still laugh about). Three years later, I thought fondly of that moment when I covered Manny Pacquiao’s fight against Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas for Rappler (and had my own hotel room).

I transitioned into politics and was assigned to cover the presidential beat as Rappler’s first Malacañang reporter, shadowing the late former president Benigno Aquino III. I spent many nights on the road, covering his slate’s campaign during elections, waking up in far-flung provinces. But those trips were also where I learned to foster relationships and sources and observe power up close. That beat sparked my interest in investigative reporting, so that in later years I produced short documentaries and long-form articles on issues like illegal abortion, incest rape, and the war in Marawi.

Rappler Indonesia: the Jakarta bureau (Photo: Natashya Gutierrez)

In 2015, this was the same sense of community I aimed to bring to Jakarta, when I was appointed Rappler’s Indonesia bureau chief, tasked to spearhead our first foreign expansion. It was—and probably still is—one of the toughest assignments I’ve ever had, but also the most gratifying. At 27, I moved to Jakarta where I knew no one, and without speaking Bahasa Indonesia. The days were long, and rest was sparse, but the wins were rewarding. We hit record numbers for our Rio Olympics coverage that homed in on Indonesian athletes’ performance, visited schools where we built student communities and introduced Rappler, and brought some of the best stories from the world’s third largest democracy to an English-speaking audience.

We made a name for ourselves fairly quickly, introducing Indonesians to our brand of multimedia reporting. Like Rappler’s early days, the Indonesia team was young, hungry, scrappy and incredibly close-knit. I hired a team of 10—most of whom were in their early 20s—and we hunkered down in a tiny office space on the ground floor of yet another old building. It was dark and a bit musty (some of us are convinced it was also haunted), but we preferred it over the bright, fancy coworking space we previously had, because it was our own.

Those were the best days.

Today, the award-winning Rappler newsroom is housed in a gorgeous, modern space in the heart of Manila, with trendy glass walls and well, free coffee. It’s been photographed for the New York Times and Time magazine, and has been the subject of several documentaries. Today, Facebook—our first online home, and which spurred our growth—faces inquiries into its role in disinformation and undermining democracy, and Apple just released its iPhone 13. Today, Maria is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, too.

A line you don’t cross

In the process, Rappler has evolved into one of the country’s most trusted news sources, exposing corruption and rampant human rights abuses along the way. We’ve also made enemies and been the target of systematic trolling and malicious attacks from government officials. The Indonesia office was collateral damage. I returned to Manila in 2017, less than a year after President Duterte got elected, as the assault intensified. We needed all hands on deck, literally fighting on the front lines.

It is in our current newsroom that we watched the 2016 election results cementing Duterte’s presidency, and where, in the following months, we held crisis meetings as the lawsuits started trickling in, the online harassment became vicious and the death threats frequent, and my colleague Pia Ranada was banned from entering Malacañang. That ban was eventually extended to all Rapplers. It is where we discussed emergency plans after the government ordered our closure, and where we were taught to start recording immediately if the cops were to come to arrest Maria. It is where I spent my final days as a Rappler correspondent.

Today, Rappler is turning 10 years old—the same age as my journalism career thus far. I left Rappler in 2018 for Singapore after seven defining years. Today, I’m Vice Media Group’s editor in chief for the Asia-Pacific, where I manage a team of young reporters and editors to report on global news across 10 countries in the region, from Australia to South Asia. Everything I know, I’ve learned at Rappler, and I’ve taken it all with me. Rappler was so far ahead in its vision, its mode of reporting, its culture, it paved the way for me and prepared me to lead a global newsroom, and I am eternally grateful to have been trained by the best in the industry.

In many ways, things have changed but they also haven’t.

A few weeks ago, I faced an ethical journalism dilemma. “I need some confidential advice. Let me know when you’re free,” I messaged Maria. “I’ll call.”

As she did a decade ago, she replied immediately. We were on the phone within the hour.

“There’s a line you don’t cross,” she told me. “The minute you give in to something, it will set the trend.”

When I asked Maria about that Twitter message many moons ago, and why she took a risk on me—a complete stranger—and asked me to join the team, she said she could tell I had the right values from my Twitter timeline. It’s only now, a decade later, that I realize just how powerful values truly are—in journalism, and in life.

That’s the thing about Rappler—that magical newsroom and its unique, incredible journalists. It’s a different newsroom today than it was 10 years ago, one that has gone through battle, bruised and scarred. But at its core, where it matters most, it is the same: it is relentless, brave, independent. Its values remain intact, and it is where it is now—as I’d like to believe I am—because, despite it all, we have never crossed the line.

Today, it is Rappler that holds that line.

Now based in Australia, Natashya Gutierrez, a former Asia Foundation Development Fellow, is Vice Media Group’s editor in chief for the Asia-Pacific, where she manages a team of young reporters and editors across 10 countries in the region. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of the Asia Foundation.

This story originally appeared in Rappler and is reprinted by permission.

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Asia Foundation Development Fellows

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