Startup founders often face obstacles in the early years of their business. Then there’s Maria Ressa, co-founder, CEO and editor of the Philippine digital news website Rappler, who has been targeted by her government and facing prosecution for her company’s investigative journalism.
In honor of his “efforts to protect freedom of expression, which is a prerequisite for democracy and lasting peace,” Ressa won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, sharing the prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize puts journalists under attack in the spotlight, Ressa said at a conference last week at MIT’s Legatum Center for Development & Entrepreneurship. Killings of journalists are on the rise worldwide, and in the Philippines alone, 21 journalists have been killed since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016.
At Rappler, Ressa and her colleagues shed light on issues such as Duterte’s war on drugs, which included extrajudicial killings, and how the Philippine government is using social media to spread disinformation. Ressa faces various charges from the government, including tax evasion and defamation, which his supporters say are reprisals. She is currently out on bail after being convicted of cyber defamation.
During her talk, Ressa, a digital researcher at MIT’s Digital Economy Initiative, explained how a crisis can be an opportunity and other lessons learned from starting a new business in the midst of ‘opposition.
How to create something from nothing
Ressa was an investigative reporter and CNN’s bureau chief for Southeast Asia, then headed the news division for ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest media company. Watching the evolution of technology, she began to think about new business models and founded Rappler with three other senior journalists in 2012.
Media company Rappler lost 49% of its advertising revenue in the four months after the Philippine government tried to revoke its operating license in 2018.
“I realized that the things that make traditional news outlets successful will not help them succeed in the new world,” she said. “Legacy systems take a long time to replace, and the legacy culture is corrosive. We created Rappler precisely because I felt it was easier to start with nothing than to rotate.
While the founders were all over 40, they “hired the smartest 20 we could find,” Ressa said.
In its previous news agencies, technology was seen as an extra chore. At Rappler, everything has been integrated. Rappler staff were equipped with laptops and iPhones and developed ways to improve technology for mobile journalism, such as creating metal cases and tripods for iPhones.
“It was the best part of starting from scratch because you can create it,” Ressa said. “The funniest part of those early years was coming up with something really new just by putting pieces together. “
In 2012, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines was impeached, Rappler broadcast the trial live. At the same time, they mapped conversations about the case on Twitter and tracked how they were started and spread.
How to change course in the face of opposition
At first, Rappler was largely ad-supported. But when the company began to be attacked by the government, Ressa said advertisers were “the first to be afraid, and they are also the first to receive phone calls. And then you get kryptonite.
Four months after the government attempted to revoke Rappler’s operating license in 2018, it had lost 49% of its advertising revenue.
“Probably, if we were just relying on this ad stream, we would have gone bankrupt by the end of the year,” Ressa said.
Instead, the business pivoted by looking at what it was good at. Rappler realized that they had done extensive research on disinformation networks, including a database of publicly available messages, and that this information was valuable to other companies. Within two months, Rappler developed a new, diverse business model based on exposing disinformation networks to attacked people or businesses. Rappler is also one of two Filipino Facebook fact-checking partners.
“This is how we survived. This business model grew by 2,000% in 2018, ”said Ressa. “So in some ways the crisis is an opportunity. “
How to deal with personal attacks
While Ressa said she initially embraced social media, she saw it later militarized, including by Duterte, who used it to attack opponents. When Rappler began to examine Duterte’s actions as president and his use of social media, Ressa also found herself under attack.
“I saw it personally. You don’t really know what a social media briefing looks like until you get attacked. Think 90 hate messages an hour, ”she said. “When you are attacked, you also see it evolve over time.”
In the face of these attacks and lawsuits, Ressa has drawn on the lessons she learned when growing up as an immigrant in Toms River, New Jersey.
“I learned that the first battle is in your head,” she said. “This lesson is to embrace your fear. No matter what you’re most afraid of, you think about it, imagine it, and then figure out how you’re going to deal with it.
At Rappler, that meant drills to practice what would happen if the police came into the offices and the business were to shut down.
“We broke it down for each person in the room, what are you going to do step by step, and we drilled it so that it was muscle memory,” she said.
Personally, Ressa and the other founders find strength in each other and in their team.
“We have macabre jokes among the founders like, ‘If I go to jail, someone will bring me sheets. Someone will bring me a fan, ”she said.
She is also turning to others in the same fight, such as the family of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed in a car bomb in 2017.
“We are gaining courage from each other to keep pushing for justice,” she said. “I have learned so much… Prepare for the worst, accept your fear and see the crisis as an opportunity.”
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