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Her formula for success

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Balancing career and family

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View all Workbook stories.


January 29, 2013

A true journalist

Maria A. Ressa, journalist


From being the Asian correspondent for CNN to the head of news and public affairs group of ABS-CBN Corp., and now the chief executive and executive editor of online news portal Rappler.com, Maria A. Ressa knows that she will always be, first and foremost, a journalist.

Philippine-born but American-bred Ms. Ressa earned a bachelor's degree in English from Princeton University, graduating with honors. She was then awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines on Political Theater in 1986, shortly after the People Power Revolution. She also attended graduate school at the University of the Philippines.

She was supposed to only stay in the Philippines for a year, but as fate would have it, she landed a job. Broadcast journalist Che-Che Lazaro hired her for the weekly public affairs TV program The Probe Team in 1987. A year after, Ms. Ressa accepted CNN's offer to become Manila Bureau chief and correspondent.

During her stay with CNN, Ms. Ressa has traveled and reported extensively in Asia, including China, Japan, South Korea and India—and was CNN's lead reporter on three tumultuous changes of governments in Southeast Asia: in Indonesia in 1998, in East Timor in 1999 and finally in the Philippines in 2001.

Around this time, Ms. Ressa said ABS-CBN's top honcho Eugenio "Gabby" Lopez III was relentless in inviting her to return to the country to head the network's news operations. In 2005, Ms. Ressa finally gave in.

At the time, ABS-CBN was in bad shape. Audience ratings were falling, and the network's revenues were dropping. At one point, the company had no choice to but to let go of some employees, including 35 members of the news team.

It was no surprise that Ms. Ressa's arrival was considered as ABS-CBN's panacea. In a 2005 interview, then ABS-CBN president and chief operating officer Luis F. Alejandro was quoted as saying that the appointment of Ms. Ressa "will help ABS-CBN news to reclaim the top spot in Metro Manila in the coming months."

While rumors abound within the ABS-CBN news organization, Ms. Ressa has also to contend with other controversies from outside the newsroom. Among these is the incessant allegation that the Lopezes, who own ABS-CBN, dictate the content of the news being reported by the network.

While Ms. Ressa denied any pressure from the Lopezes, rumors claimed that it was these alleged interventions that forced Ms. Ressa to quit her post in 2010.

"We are, first and foremost, professional journalists—regardless of who owns us. Let me share with you a question I'm often asked: 'How do you manage the interests of the Lopezes?' My answer is simple: I don't manage them because they are not the interests of the newsroom," she said in an earlier interview with BusinessWorld.

"We are creating a newsroom run by journalists, and our end goal is to hold the government and the private sector accountable to the people. We derive our power from the people and are ourselves accountable to them. So in order to do this, we journalists have to first hold ourselves accountable," she added.

Shortly after leaving ABS-CBN, Ms. Ressa started Rappler.com, a social news network "where stories inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change."

Ms. Ressa earlier explained that the name Rappler came from the root words "rap" (which mean to discuss), and "ripple" (to make waves). "It's a new world of limitless collaboration enabled by new technology and connected by social media," she said.

Together with veteran journalists like Glenda M. Gloria, Marites Dañguilan Vitug and Chay F. Hofileña, Ms. Ressa established Rappler as one of the most trusted news sources on line in such a short time.

"We at Rappler promise uncompromised journalism that hopefully inspires smart conversations and ignites a thirst for change," Ms. Ressa said.

Aside from heading Rappler, Ms. Ressa is an author-in-residence at The International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Ms. Ressa and ICPVTR aim to come up with a book "on the terrorism threats in Asia, their connections to the global jihad and how governments are responding to these evolving threats."

Ms. Ressa wrote the region's first book documenting the growth of Jemaah Islamiyah and its links to Al-Qaeda, "Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda's Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia."

"News fulfills a need in every society. In nearly 18 years travelling with CNN, I realized that the state of journalism in a country is a reflection of that nation's state of development," she said.

"People need news, accurate information, to make decisions in their lives. One of the reasons I decided to join ABS-CBN was a 2004 survey that said 90 per cent of Filipinos get their information from television. That makes us a potent force for nation-building," she added.

While news viewership in other parts of the world is declining, the Philippines is bucking the trend. "There are three major reasons why I think this is happening. First, the Philippines has had more than its share of disasters—both natural and man-made. Life in our country is volatile—politically, economically, socially, and there is a real need for news," she said.

"Second, the media plays a great role in developing countries like ours—where institutions are weak and the media has become the watchdog citizens run to for help with unwieldy bureaucracies."

"Finally, we have anywhere from 8 to 10 million Filipinos who work overseas—our upwardly mobile middle class. They have families at home who want to know what's affecting their loved ones," she added.


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