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The perils and pleasures of online journalism

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Five women — (from left) Nicole CuUnjieng, Macy Alcaraz, Angela de Dios, Pamela Cortez, and Janna Simpao — who run popular local websites talk about the fast-paced timetable of web publishing, social media strategies, and the future of both digital and print. Photo by JENNA GOMEZ

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Can you believe that we ended up getting to do this?” Janna Simpao asked Macy Alcaraz.

The founder of Bride and Breakfast, a site about planning weddings, and the head of Candy magazine’s online counterpart, respectively, Simpao and Alcaraz met as students in Assumption Antipolo, where they expressed leanings toward writing and editorial ambitions early on. Despite the fact that their editorial paths diverged on a range of topics on opposite ends of a demographic spectrum, it’s without a doubt that they belong on a similar plane — they’re women who run websites, who are leading a relatively new wave in Philippine publishing, and who have carved out an authoritative take in their chosen niches. And they’re most definitely not alone.

To find out more about what it means to work in digital media, CNN Philippines Life gathered five women who work on a range of websites, including Alcaraz and Simpao, for a roundtable discussion. On a rainy Monday, over pizza and coffee at Frank & Dean, they gamely and insightfully talked about the fast-paced timetable of web publishing, social media strategies, and the future of both digital and print.

The five editors are Angela de Dios, features editor of starstyle.ph, which proclaims itself to be a girl’s guide to fashion, beauty, and celebrity style; Macy Alcaraz, editor-in-chief of candymag.com, which caters to the lifestyle of both high-school and college girls; Nicole CuUnjieng, co-founder of pampubliko.com, a website that aims to “change the mainstream political discourse”; Pamela Cortez, restaurant editor of pepper.ph, a food website that hopes to elevate the way food is talked about; and Janna Simpao, founder and editor-in-chief of Bride and Breakfast, an online publication that features curated real weddings in the Philippines and wedding inspiration. Below are edited excerpts from the discussion.

Angela de Dios (left), editor of starstyle.ph, thinks that the flexibility provided by the online medium is a good thing, while the founder of pampubliko.com, Nicole CuUnjieng, thinks that immediacy is a bad thing when reporting on certain industries. Photos by JENNA GOMEZ

CNN Philippines Life: How did you get your start in publishing? Was there a shift from traditional to digital media? And what was the difference like?

Angela de Dios (AD): Actually, I was an intern for Status Magazine. So I helped them with pull-outs, editorials, if they needed help with anything to write about. My boss talked to me about starting starstyle.ph, which is a lot different from Status Magazine. ‘Cause you know, Status Magazine is more for hipsters, things like that. And Star Style is more for fashion, beauty, a more girly side. So we started that, and I guess the difference of digital and magazine is that digital, it’s so accessible and fast. So say, there’s an event. In magazines, it will come out after a month. But for online, it comes out right away. People get the stories much faster online than on magazines.

Macy Alcaraz (MA): I’ve been with Candy for 10 years already. I used to think I would switch to print, but I stayed in digital because I’m an online person talaga. My habits are always on my phone, or on the computer. I like how versatile digital is, because we can do videos, we can do GIFs. That’s something you can’t do in a magazine. And I like that we are able to produce our own content on the site that’s super different from the magazine. We’re not just an extra BTS. We make our own content; we have our own team. So I really enjoy digital. That’s why I stayed this long.

Nicole CuUnjieng (NC): I got into publishing by way of academia. I was a writer, and I was a columnist for The Manila Times. I was publishing scholarly articles. I always loved writing. When I went to set up my own think tank and publication, online made sense just because it’s the easiest and cheapest. So for startup, it just made perfect sense. I found that it creates different expectations because you could very quickly be perceived to be irrelevant if you don’t produce a certain amount of content, or if you don’t manage the expectations of being online.

So one thing that is gained from having a print publication is that people expect a bit more lag time, and you have a little bit more leeway, but what comes out there should be a little more polished. And online, it could be a little cheaper, a little more immediate. But we had to set expectations of the kind of content we were producing. And we are producing content that is sort of long-form, longer than what you normally read in our mainstream media. So historical pieces and policy pieces. We had to sort of carve out and attune our demographic to what we were producing. Because there isn’t a direct comparison to what we’re doing. At least not in the Philippines.

Pamela Cortez (left) is the restaurant editor of pepper.ph. Nicole CuUnjieng, Macy Alcaraz, and Angela de Dios listen as the others discuss the challenges of working online. Photos by JENNA GOMEZ

Pamela Cortez (PC): Actually, my background is in politics, which is very far from food. I cut my teeth doing everything I possibly could in writing, because I think writing is really what I loved. So I did everything from styling, I did fashion writing, I did random things. And while I was at Rogue — I started interning there — and that’s where I found I liked food the most. I think they really liked my style of writing because I don’t believe in not saying what you mean. And also online, what’s important to me is we can be as bossy as we want, but you also have to take the risk because anyone can find you online, anyone can read what you say. So it’s definitely a lot riskier than what I did in print, and that’s what I like about it. I like that it’s really fast-paced and it made me a lot more disciplined as well. Because you have to write maybe, like, 10 articles a week to stay relevant. Especially because you can just go on Instagram and have that main discourse for food.

Janna Simpao (JS): Well, I started out as a wife. (Laughs.) I mean, after the wedding, I started writing, and my husband encouraged me to share my ideas. Because I love wedding planning, and during that time, there wasn’t any website that was specifically targeting style. So I said, you know what, I had a hard time getting that side of inspiration for my own experience, why not create it? I think the beauty of being digital and being online is that — one, you were saying, being relevant. There is a challenge to be relevant today. How are you impacting the people who are online with your content right now? So in terms of being more exposed, I think, compared to print, because there’s no time to really sort of think that long, whether this content should be out there or not. ‘Cause if you’re not that quick, other people can also pick it up or you’ll be the last to report something, and I feel that that’s the exciting part of it also. Aside from it being dangerous ‘cause sometimes, “Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that,” or, “I should have said it in a better way.” But then there’s no taking it back, especially since people can screencap or record something that you’ve already said. Once it’s out there on the internet, it’s forever out there, so it’s both nice because you know that you put out some resource that’s gonna stay there for a long time as well as dangerous because you can never take it back.

AD: Can I add something? But actually, other than that it’s also flexible. Even though, let’s say, if someone screenshots it, then yeah, it’s permanent. But then what I also love about online is that if you make a mistake, you can edit it out. But with a magazine, if it’s there, it’s there. You have to reprint, but people will still have the other copies.

If we’re not the first to write about it — if we’re still gonna write about it — there has to be something new. If not, don’t write about it. ‘Cause why would they go to us if it’s already been written? - Macy Alcaraz

NC: I actually think that the immediacy has been a bad thing in certain sectors, in reporting on certain industries. So at least for the stuff I work with in politics, I’m actually working against the daily news cycle, which has too high of a turnover rate. You’re always looking for the next thing to entertain rather than thoughtfully thinking through your positions arraying a certain evidence, allowing things to unfold in the fullness of time. I’m a historian by training, so it’s kind of opposite to the way I tend to think.

PC: Actually, that’s kind of the struggle that we do have with Pepper, is that our team is quite small. So I was talking about immediacy, and we like doing that. But there’s also kind of the thing where, since everybody is doing food nowadays, how do we stay different? That’s why sometimes we’ll be the last to write about a restaurant, but then it’s honest. I guess it’s also kind of hard nowadays to decide whether you wanna be first or whether you wanna do it better.

MA: That’s the challenge online. Especially if you’re a news site, or you report on breaking news. My personal editorial guideline to my team is that if we’re not the first to write about it — if we’re still gonna write about it — there has to be something new. So you have to interview someone who is related to that topic. If not, don’t write about it. ‘Cause why would they go to us if it’s already been written?

What are some ways that you have gotten creative with the digital format?

AD: I guess what’s good with online is that you can always try, and you can delete it if it doesn’t work out. With social media — let’s say Instagram. We try to upload or share the most compelling photos, the most compelling content. The photos always have to look good. And on Facebook, the title always has to look good. ‘Cause if your content is really good, but then the photo and the title don’t bring people to your site, then they won’t even have a chance to read it.

NC: You’re competing for people’s attention, essentially.

MA: There are a lot of things you can do online, which is why it’s such a great medium. Like what she said, if it doesn’t work, it’s so easy to try something new. And there are so many ways to find out if it works, like the analytics. You can study it, and tweak the title if it does better, and change the photo. It’s very flexible in that way.

JS: I think in terms of being fun and playing around, it’s not just confined anymore to your website because there are different platforms that you can already connect to your brand or to your website. Like for example there’s Instagram wherein you put out pictures or things that are a bit more curated. And then there’s Snapchat, where you can be personal and goofy and it’s something that’s faster. For Facebook, they’ve also come up with other features like Live. We used it recently for an editorial shoot and it was so fun because it was showing different sides of who you are as a brand, as a website. I think in terms of reaching out to your readers, it makes them see the realness of the people behind it as well as the things that the brand upholds.

PC: And you can easily reach out to them or talk to readers. If there’s something wrong with what you wrote, they’ll let you know immediately — which is great, actually.

The five women held their discussion over pizza and coffee at Frank & Dean in Bonifacio Global City. Photo by JENNA GOMEZ

How do you manage social media? Does it play an important part in how you reach your audience?

PC: Ours is very, very specific. We kind of treat it as, like, our other online publication. Because I think, right now, proper strength is in social media, so instead of just making it like, “Let’s post whatever,” there’s actually a strategy to our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. So we would have different types of posts: We have mini columns that we would do on Instagram, just small things like that because it really gets attention for the website and for our hashtag, which you can even monetize. So the strategy really is to calculate your moves and post at a specific time, and there’s a lot of analytics which tell you, “OK, 5 o’clock is the best time to post.” So it’s really like an online publication, too.

MA: Each account has a different thing. If your reader follows you on all accounts, you don’t want them seeing the same thing. That’s really the strategy — just to make it different.

JS: Do you have specific social-media editors?

MA: We all do. I read somewhere that you’re not supposed to hire just one person to do it. Like, everyone should kind of know how to run social media. I’m lucky because even the print team does social media for us. I think we maintain the voice of Candy. Like you won’t be able to tell that it’s like a different person.

AD: Yeah, it should all be the same. Same vision — it should fit the personality of your publication. Even something as simple as Twitter, it all has to be curated.

MA: And before, if there was a shoot for the magazine, we’re not supposed to post on social media before it goes to print. But recently when we shot Hailee Steinfeld, we Snapchatted the whole thing, and she Snapped it too. So they knew. And it didn’t really hurt the magazine, it helped pa. I think the rules, they’re changing, and we have to adapt.

NC: Social media is our main form of marketing, we’re also seeing the limits of social media for our niche and our market. So, again, because we’re quite long-form, people don’t often stop whatever they’re doing to read our entire article and then comment afterward and share, so it’s a little bit harder because people tend to save an article for later to read some other time, or you can actually print it out. So we don’t have the same kind of immediacy, in terms of interaction, so we’ve had to figure out other ways to — while social media is our main marketing strategy — to supplement it. And actually for the topics that we’re discussing, people want real-world engagement as well, so whether it’s a lecture, or some kind of competition, or contest, or reading, there’s a limit to what we can do on social media to actually engage people in our topics.

I think it’s very important to make sure you maintain your voice and your image. Like you can’t just post anything that you feel is relevant. It has to be you. - Janna Simpao

JS: I think it’s very important to make sure you maintain your voice and your image, I guess. Like you can’t just post anything that you feel is relevant. It has to be you.

AD: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying!

JS: But I think also the small things matter, like how, for example, on Instagram, it’s not just posting a photo. I think it’s looking at it. Like on your feed, you see the other photos beside it, if it doesn’t feel like it’s flowing — it can’t just be one post at a time. You have to see it in a bigger scope. And that goes for all other platforms, as well.

AD: What also works is, sometimes I put my place in the viewers’, what they’re thinking of, and I ask myself: “Would I like this photo? Would I click this link?” And I keep that in mind.

Obviously, social media and any kind of written work makes you susceptible to negative comments. How do you distinguish which pieces of criticism to take seriously?

PC: We get a lot of hate comments. I’m going to use a cliché: You take them with a grain of salt. You really have to sift through them. You’ve been at this job for a while — you know whether or not you should take the comments seriously or it’s just a troll. I used to always think, “Oh, my God, I’m going to look at this guy’s email, and look at his IP address and see where he lives.” But now I’ve kind of given up on that, because I really used to do that. You really have to check the tone and what they’re saying. Someone corrected me on my grammar, and that’s OK, or someone said, “This restaurant is actually good,” then you can reply and say, “I’m sorry you had a totally different experience.” So you just have to understand that there are really people who don’t like what you do.

MA: I used to be obsessive about comments also. There was this one tweet from a reader, parang she got mad that we featured a band — I guess she wanted that siya lang 'yung may kilala dun sa band, or something. So she cursed at Candy, ganyan. So I looked at her profile, went to her website. I found her real first name and then I just replied, “Way harsh.” And then she said, “Sorry!” But I’ve since calmed down. I don’t do that anymore. And you’ll find that when you have a lot of loyal readers, they’ll defend you. You don’t even have to join in the conversation.

JS: Have you ever erased any comments?

AD: I do sometimes. We feature celebrities twice a month, and if they say something bad or offensive, and I know that the celebrity will read it, then I delete it. But that’s it.

JS: In our social media, it’s very rare that they comment negatively, I guess, because of our content. It’s really about love — I mean, how negative can you get?

PC: I don’t think you would get negative comments! Like, “I hate her dress, oh, my God!”

JS: There are some. I think certain readers do tend to comment when we do wedding features about celebrities. They’re more aggressive. I asked because for us, we do sometimes delete. Like if I feel like it’s going to ignite a war among fans, it won’t be about the content anymore. They’re going to fight about something totally different. So for that, I erase them.

NC: The worst comments that I would get — I publish a column, it’s basically under my own name, it’s me personally writing, not my organization. With my picture, my thoughts, my words. And the attacks were all against me personally, and all the comments were about me. They were horrible! And I just stopped reading them, and really it’s like my boyfriend and my friends and my parents who read them all. They’re like, “Oh, no!” But I don’t read them. Actually, my dad used to love to screenshot the worst and the meanest ones and then text them to me, and be like, “He really nailed you, he’s so right!”

One of the upsides of online publishing is the unlimited space, says Bride and Breakfast PH founder Janna Simpao (leftmost). Nicole CuUnjieng, on the other hand, thinks that longer form would be better in print. Photos by JENNA GOMEZ

On the more serious journalistic side, how do you maintain ethics and integrity in your work?

PC: We have an ethics code on the website. There’s a fine line nowadays, especially food reviews. You really have to be honest about whether these people invited you or not. We have huge disclaimers on the site, ‘cause we always get people saying, “Bayad ‘yan!” So we really have to make sure that you can tell if it’s sponsored, or if we were invited, or if we have a personal connection to the restaurant, or if we really went there on our own, because nowadays they can research and know if you’re related to someone or if you have a personal bias toward this place. So it’s better to preempt them and to always be transparent.

JS: I think it’s also important that you put your credits there properly. Because you don’t want to steal anyone’s work, plus it’s also respect for other people who contribute to your site.

How do you differentiate content meant for print and content meant for the web?

JS: I think online, you can publish so much more. Like in one post, you can have a slideshow with 50 pictures, which you can’t do on a feature article in print. So in terms of content, I think print would have to be more concise, like brevity’s there. For online, it’s unlimited — you can have videos and other things you can put in just one post.

NC: I wouldn’t agree with the concision, though. Because I find that actually, you can write much longer form in print, because people would take the time to sit with it. Whereas online, it’s just a click away, and you’ll move to something else, because you’ll get bored.

MA: We’ve been trying to do more serious stuff, like women empowerment. When the catcalling issue became a thing, we tried to write it from a teen perspective for them to understand, and it started a conversation. We can write about it in the magazine, but you can’t really talk about it directly. But this one, they really commented. We got sad at first, because there were women defending catcalling. And then parang, “Is this the Candy girl?” I was so disturbed. And then the real Candy girls, I feel, started commenting, and then defending the piece.

PC: So the difference there is engagement.

Women on the web: The editors agree that social media has become an important marketing tool when it comes to their content. Photo by JENNA GOMEZ

Now that we’ve arrived at a new era of publishing, where do you think it’s headed in the future?

PC: I have a prediction, this is insane: Everything’s going to Facebook. Seriously! Because you know The New York Times, all the bigger publications, when you tap it, it’s already on Facebook, so I think that’s going to be the norm. Because it’s easier. They call it “native content,” and I think that’s definitely where everything’s heading, because why go to another website if you can open it on Facebook?

JS: So what’s going to happen to us?!

AD: We have to adapt!

MA: Facebook is controlling it so everything’s there.

NC: I don’t support that. That’s not a future I’m interested in!

And what about print?

MA: It’s always going to be around.

NC: I think there’s always going to be a place for print.

AD: Yeah, people always want something that they can hold.