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Rappler invests in community to support the future of news

April 4, 2024 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT
Rappler has built a community platform to create its own digital town square.
The topline: Social media's role as "digital town square" has faded. Perhaps the answer lies not in seeking the next platform for news, but in building a news-based community platform. 

A few years ago, social media platforms were seen as the “digital town square,” where people could come together in communities around shared interests and passions. But as the platforms have turned towards feeds full of algorithmically-generated recommendations – and further away from professional news – few publishers are confident in building communities on platforms they aren’t sure will continue to support them.

This is something that the team at Filipino online news website Rappler have been thinking about for some time. Rappler co-founder and CEO Maria Ressa (winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize) was among those in the news business noticing a decline in social media traffic. She also saw how the algorithms were creating deep silos of information for individuals, creating an “information dystopia.” Rather than continue to reinforce the role of platforms in building information communities, Ressa and the Rappler team felt there was a better way. 

“The insidious manipulation of Big Tech – inciting fear, anger and hate for profit – has destroyed the public sphere and the crucial discussions needed for democracy,” she wrote in a launch post for Rappler Communities. “It’s time to build our shared reality and redefine civic engagement, to restore trust.”

This community platform is a true digital town square

Rappler launched its own community platform as an iOS, Android and web app in late December 2023. The approach is intended to create a true digital town square, moderated by Rappler’s own journalists, which connects people with their interests and passions. From local politics to tech, food and climate change, there are chat groups (called channels) to cater to a wide range of audience interests. 

These channels are organized according to the beats Rappler covers. It offers a way to introduce audiences to the journalists, and cultivate a more direct relationship, which humanizes reporters.

Community Lead Pia Ranada thinks that Rappler’s professional journalists are well-suited to cultivate their community. “Journalists have always traditionally been the gatekeepers of information,” she explained. “We believe we write what people need to know, and what the public interest is. And we have the interests of the public at heart because we want to keep them informed. We want to give them facts and not propaganda. We want to give them information that is timely, is verified, and is comprehensive. 

“As people who deal with information dissemination and journalism and fact checking on a daily basis, we think that we would have this role. So, a platform that combines our journalism, coupled with engagement with our audiences is something we’re uniquely positioned to provide.”

There is a particularly acute need for community-building that incorporates the media in the Philippines, given that journalists are regularly vilified. “When you go into chat rooms and you see Maria or another Rappler reporter asking you what you think, there’s something there that builds trust,” said Ranada . “We care enough that we want to bring you into our app and our chat rooms. We care enough that we will tag you and let you know that we have a question that we’re crowdsourcing, and that your questions matter. These little things speak volumes about how a newsroom treats its audience, its community.”

This principle carries through into the name “Rappler Communities.” The approach is not just a one-way relationship news. Rather, Rappler’s team wants to harness the community for their journalism. “Crowdsourcing things, getting civil society to talk about their issues and amplify their concerns. I think those build action, and I think those build community,” Ranada said, giving examples of action. “In the end, the whole point is to build trust, which benefits not just journalists, but society.”

The Rappler Communities app’s decentralized approach

Rappler has built its community app on Matrix; an open protocol which allows secure, decentralized communications. It is similar to Slack in the way channels are accessed. However, Rappler felt that it was very important that the publisher owned the app rather than cultivating a community on a third-party platform.  

“Having an app is a tighter communication and distribution effort. [Our audience is] in a piece of tech we made for them,” Ranada explained. “It’s a way to ensure that if something bad happens with the other Big Tech platforms, we always have our backyard that we can depend on. It’s under our control. And that’s an assurance to our community.”

AI has also been built into the app from the start. AI moderators work alongside the journalists to keep conversation civil, although members can always appeal to a human if they think the AI has incorrectly blocked something. The app uses bots to post relevant stories to relevant chat rooms, and for fun, has a games bot which sends questions and quizzes to some of the channels. 

Although Rappler has a membership program, Rappler+, the community is free to anyone as long as they register with an email address. However, the Rappler Community does have a private group in the app just for Rappler+ members where they get updates about upcoming stories, events and briefings.

Nurturing the Rappler news-based community platform

As any publisher who has attempted to start a community knows, keeping it going after initial launch is no easy task. Ranada said that she is beginning by tapping into the loyal base of Rappler readers rather than attracting people who aren’t yet familiar with the brand. “Our target is to involve people who are our fans, our loyal base,” she outlined. “This is a gift to them that we’re trying to lean into this loyal base even more and introduce them to our  journalists.”

From there, they plan to grow and expand to other communities, groups and audiences from an existing position of strength. 

Since launching in December, the channels have been useful for crowdsourcing. For example, a new policy was recently announced in Manila about a ban on e-bikes on major roads. After the news broke, the team went on the chatroom and asked the community what they thought.

“It was really helpful to our journalists to see that, oh, this is what they think, and we got to directly quote from them,” explained Ranada. “We created instant quote cards based on the quotes people sent in, then we amplified them on all of our social media accounts. So that way, people who are chatting on our app also feel that their voices are amplified.”

That’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing. Ranada acknowledged that not all reporters are community builders: “We’re used to chasing stories but not really tending to a community. But we think this is something that we’re training into all of our reporters, every staff member.”

Part of her role as Community Lead involves highlighting best practices, and bringing experienced moderators together to share handbooks and guidelines on how to moderate or start chats in the communities. “We have our own coordination channel where we help each other,” Ranada said, explaining that best practice is communicated to different units. “What do I do when no one’s answering my call-out? What’s the best way to ensure this community chat is well-attended? Or how do I convince this particular person to join?”

One early learning Ranada was keen to share was that they were initially unsure which channels to create. “At first, we thought that the hard topics like justice and human rights would carry the day because our audience is naturally drawn to that kind of content,” she explained. “But actually we’ve found that leaning into the softer sections has been rewarding. We even have a chat room where our sales team gives away discount coupons from our brand partners.”

The next step is to look at potential monetization options. But because the Rappler Community is still in a very experimental phase, this is something Ranada is approaching very cautiously. 

Communities as the future of news

Underpinning all of this is Rappler’s belief that journalism and community cannot exist without each other. On the launch page, for Rappler Communities they stated: “Trustworthy information and news cannot survive in the toxic environment of today’s social media platforms. And a positive, empathic community is not possible where malicious, manipulative content is allowed to thrive.”

It’s also a way to futureproof the publisher against the threats of generative AI and its impact on SEO. Ranada expressed a fear that LLMs (Large Language Models) are at risk of crippling sites like Rappler if snippets of their content are displayed without encouraging clicks back to the website. But an app – especially one that builds habit and alerts to breaking news events – potentially makes it even easier for users to stay up-to-date.

 “If people are used to, ‘Oh, I’m going to get notified anyway by Rappler the moment something big breaks, I click the notification, I end up on the page, I won’t have to search it on Google,’ those things help newsrooms survive and stay relevant and stay embedded in people’s habits,” she speculated.

For Ranada and the Rappler team, staying relevant to their readers is the best way to navigate the quickly-changing landscape. “The more news products we create that are really attuned to our audiences, the more [publishers] will survive and thrive in this environment,” she encouraged.

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