November 3, 2016

Maria Ressa’s Dilemma: Rappler’s impending death?

Throughout the course of my work at ThinkingPinoy, I had opportunities to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes in the mainstream news media world. A number of journalists have been reading my blogs or following me on Facebook, Twitter, and some of them somehow decided to come slightly out of the shadows and contact through Facebook messages, Twitter DMs, emails, or even face-to-face conversations when I met a few in Beijing.

They all have their rants about this journalist and that, but if there’s one thing many of them share in common, it’s an antipathy for Maria Ressa and her brainchild Rappler.

NOTE: I didn't proofread the article anymore. It's not worth the extra time.

I asked them, “What with Rappler that makes your blood boil?”

Surprisingly, their answers were the same: the arrogance of the Rapplerettes.

Actually, it wasn’t that surprising because:
  1. Media people love inventing award giving bodies so they can reward themselves with the same awards they created. With that said, I can’t recall any instance where Rappler received any, which kind of suggests how Rappler is viewed by its peers.
  2. I have the same opinion of that organization. More on this later.

Bam Aquino meets Maria Ressa

And just when I thought Ressa cannot possibly spew bullshit at a rate faster than how she (and Rappler) does right now, I heard that her Majesty graced the Senate Session Hall where she served as a resource speaker on a Senate hearing headed by Sen. Bam Aquino [Sun.Star].

I shed tears of laughter as I watched the hearing, mainly because the irony of the entire situation and the hypocrisy of the two persons involved.
First, Bam Aquino himself supported (losing) 2016 presidential candidate Mar Araneta Roxas, who has his own army of trolls that attempted (but sorely failed) to artificially sway public opinion. Roxas even had them trained in an office building within Araneta Center [TP: Internet Army].

Second, here’s Ressa decrying the proliferation of online trolls, when her Rappler staff trolls its own readers. Take, for example, how Rappler reporter Paterno Esmaquel mercilessly singled out and publicly humiliated a Rappler reader for a misinformed comment [TP: Cyber Libel]. Another example would be when Rappler’s social media moderators reported trolled Anonymous Incorporated just because the latter asked about Rappler’s finances (see image below).

Oh, and here’s Ressa calling for more ethical behavior when Rappler itself reportedly plagiarized content from Radyo Inquirer [Varsitarian] and TV5 [SpinBusters] before!

But instead of giving more examples (there are lots) of how hypocritical Rappler overlord Maria Ressa is, I think it’s better if we ask the more important questions:
  1. Ressa has been waging a war against “online trolls” since her first article-slash-rant about the “Weaponization of the Internet” debuted on October 04th, so why the sudden passion for the issue?
  2. Trolls have existed even before social media was invented, so why the sudden interest
  3. Is there an extremely pressing problem that Ressa (or Rappler) is dealing with right now?

Here’s a quick background

In “Who’s winning the PH social media wars?”, I showed a trend where independent social media players are outperforming mainstream news outlets (incl. Rappler) in terms of Facebook user engagement. With Facebook being the social network of choice for Filipinos, and the declining popularity of TV, radio, and print, I inferred that Rappler and its peers are losing their monopoly in shaping public opinion, as more and more readers gravitate towards Mocha Uson, Sass Rogando Sasot, ThinkingPinoy, and other indie pages.

In “The Rise of the Millenial Mosquito Press”, I wrote briefly about Rappler’s potential revenue figures by estimating the website’s ad network revenues. In that article, I showed that Rappler should be well on its way to bankruptcy if it relies on Google Adsense revenues alone, for the reason that Google Adsense, while being the best-paying ad network on the planet, doesn’t really pay that much.

And to top it off, I wrote, “Rappler is dying because it’s full of assholes spewing bullshit nonstop [TP: Ressa’s Pride].”
There, I said it: Rappler is dying. But what, exactly, do I mean by “dying”? After all, when you come to think of it, everyone dies: it’s just a question of when. And that’s what we’re going to talk about.
Rappler and Maria Ressa

Miguel Miranda of the Southeast Asia Globe interviewed Ressa in 2013. Miranda started the ensuing article with these lines:
Even today, many Filipino journalists are subsumed and consumed by a pervasive sense of irrelevance under social media’s shadow. They are often poorly paid and there are constant murmurs of corruption among their ranks [SEA-G].
Miranda then wrote, “Rappler’s headquarters is neither a cubicle-farm nor a stuffy studio-cum-office. Its staffers and interns attired in business casual are crowded in even rows, typing away at glowing MacBooks.”

Let me get this straight: journos in general are paid peanuts but Rapplerettes use ultra-expensive MacBooks, so that means they’re paid well, which also implies that Rappler’s operating costs are higher than those of their peers.

And then it gets more interesting, as Ressa details Rappler’s revenue streams.

Rappler’s Revenue Streams

FIRST, Google ads. Google ads are simple: Rappler is paid a certain amount every time some clicks a google ad and every time 1000 visitors drop by their site. Rappler may use other ad networks, but Google is the one that offers the best returns.

SECOND, Sponsored banners. Companies directly pay Rappler to serve banner ads on their site.

THIRD, Native advertising aka Sponsored Posts. Companies directly pay Rappler to write articles that either directly promote the company or mention the company in a post (i.e. product placement).

FOURTH, Reach. Here’s where it gets a bit spooky.
Speaking about Rappler’s profitability, Ressa said, “With Reach, Rappler can go farther…”

Rappler’s sister, the data science company Reach Social, does a lot of things. However, what’s important right now is how Reach Social can make use of the data derived from Rappler’s website and its social media accounts.

The usual web analytics data from free-to-use Google and social media Analytics should be part of the stuff that Reach tinkers with, but this kind of data does not provide them much strategic advantage over their competitors because it’s available to everyone. Thus, Reach Social should have a data source that its competitors have no access to.

What is it? I can think of only two things: [1] Personal data from social (FB, Twitter, G+) logins and [2] Rappler’s mood meter.
To comment on Rappler articles or to vote in its mood meter, Rappler asks readers to log in using their Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ account. Rappler gets a user’s friends list, email address, birthday, and city. I am uncertain as to whether Rappler sells user information to third parties or not, but let’s just assume that they don’t. After all, it’s illegal and even if they actually do it, there’s no way to find out sans a search warrant.
Check the list of personal info Rappler gets when you authorize social logins.

The mood meter is far more useful than you think. If Reach Social’s data scientists are worth their salt, they can categorize users based on the city they stated on Facebook, which would enable Reach Social to gauge the “general mood” of a given geographic location in response to a given Rappler article. This is particularly useful for gauging public sentiment on divisive issues, as it allows parties to pinpoint areas where they can focus PR campaigns.
Now, let's ask... 

Is Rappler making money?

In its debut year 2012, Rappler incurred a Php 33.8 million loss against its Php 50 million paid-in capital, and that was incurred in just eight months of operations as Rappler opened only in May 2012 [TV5]. By end of 2012, Rappler badly needed a capital infusion.

Is this why Manny V. Pangilinan was keen in buying a stake in Rappler [Rap]?

With the infusion of new capital Rappler would’ve gone bankrupt by the end of 2013, but it didn’t, so I guess someone must have injected the sorority blog with additional seed money.

Now, some camps may argue that it has been a while since 2012, and Rappler should’ve turned a profit by now. That is a very reasonable argument.

But something doesn’t add up. Rappler took in two major investors in 2015, the Omidyar Network [TiA] and North Base Media [TiA]. Although I think most Rappler readers will agree that Rappler hasn’t really offered anything new.

So what did they use the additional funds for? Just to stay alive?

These pieces of information suggest that Rappler, on its fourth year of operations, has yet to turn a profit.

Hence, Rappler may need to boost its revenue streams as soon as possible so Maria Ressa won’t appear to be running a Ponzi Scheme.

BRIEF: A Ponzi scheme is a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a nonexistent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors.

The Revenue Streams

As I have explained in a previous article, Google AdSense doesn’t pay very well, so it should not be enough to sustain Rappler’s operations if the latter were to rely entirely on it [TP: Rappler Dying?]. The second revenue stream, banner ads, have been on the decline as social media rises, according to the New York Times [NYT].

The third revenue stream seems to work terribly too, because it seems that Rappler’s sponsored posts do not generate much traffic or interest. Take, their 20 September 2016 ad for Shell Helix Ultra, which managed to gain a whopping SIX (6) facebook shares as of 03 November 2016. Surely, Shell paying (tens of) thousands of pesos for only six Facebook shares isn’t good.

Thus, for Rappler to sustain operations, they should be heavily relying on the fourth revenue stream: Reach Social.

Thus, Rappler needs to achieve two things: increase website traffic and social media engagement.

Rappler’s Site Traffic

In fairness to Rappler, their website traffic has increased relatively quickly over the years, peaking at 23 million hits in May 2016 [R2T]. That’s a seriously gigantic figure. Rappler’s traffic slightly decreased in July and August 2016 at around 21 million users per month [R2T], but that can be attributed to the reality that the public may not be as interested in the news because the May 2016 elections are over.

What’s shocking, however, is a mind-boggling 25 percent dip in traffic from September to October. More specifically, Rappler received 21 million visitors in the month preceding 16 September 2016, then it received only 15 million in the month preceding 16 October 2016 [R2T].

I tried to find a good reason why this happened, so I checked the web analytics tool Alexa for clues.

Looking at the figure above, I was shocked to see that on 25 September 2016, Rappler’s global traffic ranking fell by almost 5,000 places from 1314th to 6236th OVERNIGHT[Alexa]. Sure, a lot of people dislike Rappler, but the site’s traffic rankings cannot fall by that much overnight.

I was searching for the web and I discovered that Google rolled out “Penguin 4.0” on 23 September 2016. Penguin 4.0 is an update on its core algorithm that changes how google ranks search results. Google suggested that the impact of Penguin 4.0 could take time, as they re-crawl the entire web, especially deep links [Moz], so Rappler might have felt its full impact on 25 September 2016, when its ranking fell drastically.

SIDE NOTE: In one of her article-rants, Ressa accused Duterte supporters of gaming Facebook’s newsfeed algorithms [TP: Mosquito Press]. Now, Penguin 4.0 penalizes websites that use dubious schemes to manipulate search rankings [SEW]. Seeing that Rappler got hit very badly, did Ressa accuse Duterte supporters of something that she herself does?

From the same Alexa records, we can see that Rappler somehow recovered its rankings a week or two later, but it appears that since its recovery, Rappler’s site ranking is steadily going down again.

Now, that’s bad for Rappler’s first three revenue streams, so how about the other one?

Rappler’s Social Media Engagement 

Rappler is social media engagement figures has been dropping drastically too. Screenshots of Facebook Page Insights from August, September, and October show its losing against independent social media players, while the last one, taken yesterday and shown below, shows that it has finally reached abysmal levels of user engagement:

If I were a company who wants data science services rooted on social media expertise, would I seriously get help from Rappler’s Reach Social when the fact of the matter is that they suck at social media themselves?

Of course not. And that is really, really, really bad for Rappler’s fourth and remaining revenue stream.

Rappler, the Social News Network

Rappler describes itself as a “social news network”, so it has to have a pretty good understanding of how online social interactions work, right? But why does it fail so badly in social media?

In the same 2013 interview with SEA Global, Ressa said, “So many studies show that 80% of the decisions people make in their lives are based on what they feel, on their emotions,” Ressa said, “It’s true in real life. The internet only magnifies it.”

Ressa apparently failed to tell this to her Rapplerettes because just several weeks ago, a petite bourgeoisie Rappler moderator lashed out on a reader with: “Ngayon, kung gutom ka, huwag ka dito mag-alburoto (Now, if you’re starving, don’t vent your frustration here.)”

Now, let’s ask: How did Ressa’s Rapplerettes make their readers feel?

But no! Ressa believes they did no wrong. She even went as far as launching its #NoPlaceForHate campaign, a campaign that sorely failed because [1] it’s hypocritical so people generally dismissed it as hogwash, and [2] Rappler’s weakening social media presence failed to provide it traction.

Simply put, Rappler is the anti-social social news network, and I guess you know what happens to things like that.

Yes, Rappler can “change for the better”, but while Ressa is busy practicing her time-tested assholery, independent social players are lapping up their subscriber base, assuming that Rappler still has any left.

At this point, I feel that it’s too late for Rappler, but who knows? Miracles do happen.

Quoting Her Loveliness Alma Moreno, “Dasal. Dasal lang talaga.” [ThinkingPinoy]

NOTE: I didn't proofread the article anymore. It's not worth the extra time.

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