Out of Print

Inherent Vice

by Audrey N. Cario

Photos courtesy of Natashya Gutierrez
Banner photo courtesy of VICE.

Natashya Gutierrez on setting up the Vice APAC bureau and the virtues she learned from Maria Ressa.

There are those who came of age during Vice’s raucous, drug-fueled magazine days, and those who came of age when Vice Media topped every J-school student’s dream internship list. Wherever on the generational divide you fall, this makes Natashya Gutierrez one badass woman—at 33, she heads Vice as its Editor-in-Chief of Asia and the Pacific, where she leads teams of reporters from Singapore, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, and Australia, looking for news stories that are simultaneously global and relevant to the region, yet retain a bit of that inherent Vice weirdness.

It’s barely been a decade since Natashya published her first story for Rappler—she was assigned to cover a college basketball game—but with her tenacity and smarts (she’s a Yalie), Natashya quickly proved she belonged to the big leagues, accumulating wide experience on the field, reaping fellowships and awards for investigative, long-form stories on women’s issues like incest rape and the online abortion trade, and innovative work such as the documentary on the Marawi conflict, which was shot entirely in VR.

Cutting her teeth in the trenches of Rappler primed Natsahya for anything the world could throw at her. At the age of 25, she was sued for libel by Janet Napoles over an article where she revealed that daughter Jeane Napoles was the proud owner of an P80-million luxury condo in Los Angeles. It was later junked by the Taguig City’s Prosecutor’s Office as “neither defamatory nor malicious”. As the digital news site became the target of increasingly ferocious online attacks amid the drug war, Natashya and her colleagues held the line even as they received their own share of abuse, making the women of Rappler some of the bravest names in journalism.

In 2018, she was tapped by Vice APAC, who had taken notice of her in Jakarta as she was establishing a Rappler bureau in Indonesia. Natashya moved to Singapore that year as its new Head of Content Strategy. Life may be a bit more peaceful now, but the pandemic has given no excuse to not keep working like crazy, as she was charged to birth Vice World News in the region this year. Out of Print caught up with Natashya via Zoom as she was walking home, masked, in Singapore.

I think what’s made Vice so popular is that it actually speaks to the youth. It’s not afraid to address topics that the youth care about, and we address it in a very authentic way.

Out of Print: Hi Natashya. How’s post-lockdown life in Singapore?
Natashya Gutierrez: It’s really good actually. It’s like this crazy Pleasantville bubble, with zeros cases in the community in the last few days. There were a lot of cases in the migrant dormitories, and now we’re seeing a lot of imported cases, but in terms of contact tracing, the government knows exactly where it is. So it’s back to normal. We’re still limited to five people [for social gatherings] and there’s a 10:30 p.m. curfew in terms of serving alcohol. So we just go to someone’s house, and drink until 2 a.m.

Tell us how you became head of VICE News in Asia Pacific, coming from Rappler.
Rappler was my first job out of college. I had reached out to Maria Ressa after I graduated and said, hey, I’m interested in being a journalist. She gave me a shot, and I gave her a shot, because I left the US and went back home to the Philippines, which was such a gamble, on a website that has a name that doesn’t even make sense.

I took a gamble and ended up staying with them for seven years, but in that course of time I actually was assigned to Jakarta for a couple of years to start a bureau in Indonesia, and during that time Vice was also starting their office in Indonesia. My initial interactions with Vice was just talking and sharing learnings of starting up in Indonesia. A couple of years later, when they decided they were going to launch a regional, more holistic site, Vice Asia, they reached out and said, not sure if you’re interested in leaving the Philippines but there’s this opportunity to head editorial content for Asia.

At that time, having been with Rappler for seven years, I thought it was time to move on, and I was ready for something more regional and more global. And I always loved the brand of Vice and its brand of reporting and journalism, and its innovation when it comes to storytelling.

There’s this lingering image of Vice that comes from its roots as a punky street magazine that put out edgy and provocative content, even though it’s since grown to be this digital media empire with an award-winning journalism department. As head of APAC, what direction are you trying to steer it in?
I think what’s made Vice so popular is that it actually speaks to the youth. It’s not afraid to address topics that the youth care about, and we address it in a very authentic way. Whether that’s culture, subculture, music lifestyle or news, that was definitely a niche we were able to fill. We took that brand of journalism from culture to news, which is why I think we found such massive success on the news site as well, because we kept that culture of audience-first youth-first, and letting them speak, versus being the outlet to talk about what matters to the youth. Instead, letting the youth talk about what matters to them, and being a platform for them, and that is what has driven Vice’s success.

When they saw that success in the US this year, Vice decided to expand globally and take this brand of journalism to the rest of the world, and that’s what I’m spearheading now out of Asia and the Pacific. As editor in chief of APAC, I handle all our markets, from Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, India… We have eight offices now and freelancers all over the region. We don’t just do news, we do the Vice culture and lifestyle site which we’ve always been known for, and also the world news. Starting this year, I’m doing the news in the way that we know news— investigation, breaking news, explainers, but also still with that, as you say, the edgy topics in lifestyle and culture. But the all-encompassing umbrella, the theme that unites both is again being authentic, having the youth tell us what matters to them, and making sure that our content resonates with our audience, which is Gen Z and millennials.

So your reporters and writers are mostly from that age group?
Generally they are from that age group, but what I’m really proud of about building this team is that we’re all writing about places where we were born and raised. I think for the longest time, and again this speaks to authentic storytelling, Asia was covered by parachute journalists, and was covered through a very Western lens. White reporter flies in, stays for a week then flies out and then reports about what happened in the Philippines, versus someone who was born and raised there, who can tell you about the nuances without glossing over any important details.

That’s what I’m super personally proud of, building this team. Our reporters and writers in Indonesia are Indonesian, our reporters and writers in Korea are Korean, etc. It gives it a nice authentic feel to what’s happening on the ground. We’re not trying to be like, a super foreign “here’s what’s happening in the Philippines from a Western lens,” but we’re also not trying to be the local website that reports on every single local development.  We’re trying to be the one in the middle, who can report to you on “here’s why this matters to the rest of the world, and let me explain it to you from a local lens.”

Natashya during the Marawi seige. Photo by Adrian Portugal and courtesy of Natashya Gutierrez.

When you were at Rappler, you and your colleagues received a huge amount of hate mail and were the victims of misogynistic attacks online. Do you still get that at Vice?
It’s not as bad as when I was with Rappler. Surprisingly, when I report on anything related to the Philippines, that’s when I get hate. Very specific to Philippine content, and I think that says something.

Do you think it’s something unique to the internet culture of the Philippines?
I definitely think it’s cross-cultural. In all the countries we are in, there are the trolls and the bots. This is something we’re seeing across the board, in all languages, certain topics and issues tend to trigger them more than others. My association with Rappler does come up, which is something I’m not at all ashamed of, in fact I wear it as a badge of honor, but it’s definitely a regional, global problem. But from my personal experience, and perhaps because I also am Filipino, the trolls from the Philippines tend to be more aggressive.

And they follow you there.
They follow me everywhere. I recently did a live interview with an environmental activist from the Philippines, and someone commented, “oh you’re so biased, why don’t you interview someone from the military.” So they’ll find you in every corner of the internet. It doesn’t really go away, you just get used to dealing with it.

It’s great to be associated with Maria Ressa, who has become an international icon of press freedom and democracy.
Absolutely, but it also depends on whom you’re speaking to [laughs]. For the most part, objectively I would say, yeah that’s definitely something to be proud of.

Maria was your first mentor and you worked with a bunch of other great women at Rappler. How has this shaped your journey as a journalist?
Maria continues to be a mentor for me. She was very much like a second mom and I think that’s what skyrocketed my career and I’m always going to be grateful for that, to have been in a newsroom run by women, who’ve just been very courageous. Being part of that first 12 people who built Rapper, and then seeing it grow to 100, and go through the assault that we got from trolls and the government, and seeing them come out now, stronger than ever. It’s the most character-building experience I’ve had, and it totally shaped my career and the leader that I am now for my team.

The credit I want to give Rappler is that it prepared me so well for a global role. A local newsroom that was so innovative in so many ways. Even at Vice now, which has a lot more resources, and a wider, bigger platform, the learnings I took from Rappler just apply across the board. It just absolutely prepared me for the real world. There’s a tendency to think that a local newsroom might not be as good as an international newsroom, and that’s absolutely not my experience. In so many ways, the things we are doing at Vice we were doing at Rappler so many years ago. It’s really a credit to the leadership and future-looking mindset of Maria and the leadership team at Rappler that’s also made me attractive to global brands. It has really prepared me for anything globally and internationally.

When I first started as a reporter, they literally threw me on the field and was like, go, learn! You learn along the way, and that’s an experience I’m super grateful for. Because I also think to be a really good editor you need to have spent time on the field and to have experienced that, to be able to be a good mentor to my reporters in return.

“In so many ways, the things we are doing at Vice, we were doing at Rappler so many years ago

Do you still do reporting or do you work mostly in a leadership role?
So I absolutely love this role because it’s a great mix of strategizing, editing, and still reporting. The luxury I have now is that I get to pick the stories I want to report on, instead of being thrown to typhoons, breaking new, covering Malacañang day in and day out like when I was younger.

I remember being in my early 20s and just being called at 4 a.m. and being told I’m going to Masbate. For how long? For as long as it takes to find the crashed airplane. I had so much energy back then. Now I get to be selective with my stories and I tend to pick stories that are longer and more investigative and that take a bit more time. So I’ve moved away from breaking news which was my forte when I was starting. This year, for example, I did a long feature piece on the drug war and the women left behind. I also have a new piece, a cross border story about Canadian mining companies and human rights violations in the Philippines, which I worked on with colleagues in Canada. I was also in Kabul earlier this year before the border lockdowns, shooting a documentary in Afghanistan which will come out later this year. So I’m able to pick and choose my stories now which is such a great, sweet spot, still do what I love, which is being on the field writing and reporting, but also have the privilege to mentor and strategize for a global company.

How has the news-gathering process been affected by the pandemic?
I think the best thing about reporting is building that bond face to face with someone, an interview or a source, and that has sort of been the toughest for us, especially for us at Vice where being on the field has been such a strong suit of our reporting. So we’ve had to adjust our reporting, as all newsrooms have, to more Zooms calls, etc. But I still believe that a good story is a good story, and if you’re able to speak to the right people, you can deliver it well. We’ve had to make adjustments and I know my reporters are very itchy to start getting back on the field, but that hasn’t stopped us from writing stories that resonate and that matter.

It’s also given us a chance to slow down and think about innovation right, so for example, we just hosted a climate summit for 30 young creatives across APAC to talk about climate issues and how to best report about climate issues. We brought in global journalists, activists, we brought together environmentalists to have a virtual online conversation about how do we best report about climate, how do we get people to care about climate? That’s something that we wouldn’t have done if the pandemic wasn’t happening and borders were open. Because of the pandemic, we were like OK we have this goal, let’s think of ways to still achieve it. The upside to it is we’re finding new and innovative ways to connect with our audiences, which wouldn’t have happened if it was business as usual.

What’s the conversation surrounding climate change now? Has the pandemic set the movement back?
I think we’ll only really find out when all of this is over. Climate content, I’ve found, doesn’t do too well on the site unless it’s a very extreme occurrence. If the Australian bushfires or the California wildfires are raging, that’s when people notice and care. On any given day, people don’t consume climate content. The challenge is to understand now that this is a threat, and one of the, if not the largest crisis of our time. I still think it will take time to get people to fully adjust their lifestyles to a point that it makes an impact. Right now we’re still at the level where we need to appeal to authorities, and those in power are the ones who can change policies to make an actual difference. I’m hopeful, but it’s tough. I think that’s one of my biggest frustrations as a journalist right now. What more can we do, what else can we do to prove that this is a thing, that it’s science. When I first started, no one was really reporting on the environment, it was very niche. Now we see the stories in all the major dailies, so that’s a step forward.

Photo by Edoardo Liotta and courtesy of Natashya Gutierrez.

Let’s go back to when you first started. You were sued for libel when you were only 25, around eight years ago. Would you say that you have since become tough and impervious, eating death threats for breakfast?
After you get your first libel suit at that age, you realize these are the risks of the role, and either you stick with it or you don’t. I’m so grateful to Rappler for providing all the legal support and the emotional support. When we got that suit, my editors said, this means you’re doing something right. No one cowered or hid, it was more like a badge of honor honestly. We all know that libel in the Philippines should be decriminalized and is used as a way to silence critics and dissenters. Against that backdrop, it was very encouraging to go through that with the mentors that I had. It definitely prepared me for all that this industry entails, and in a weird way I’m grateful that it happened so early on in my career, because it really toughened me to a point where I was like, OK, if this is what it takes, then this is what it takes.

And how have you been coping with the pandemic?
I’m a very positive person. Initially it was really tough, because I’m the type of person who needs to be outside on the field, which is why I’m a journalist. But humans are so adaptive. Launching Vice World News in Asia and the Pacific is so much work, and I think the reason we were able to do it so well was honestly because of the pandemic. I was stuck at home, and there were no distractions, all there was to do was think about how to launch this amazing product for our audience and how to do it in the best way possible. So that’s my silver lining. We had to launch Vice World News during a pandemic, when A) news matters more than ever, and B) you need to be 150% focused to launch this correctly.

I imagine if we had to launch this last year, I would have been distracted with vacations and what not, there were so many more things I was doing, like reporting from the field and traveling in my free time. But with the pandemic and just being stuck here, I was able to give all of my concentration into this offering. On a personal level—I live alone in Singapore, so that was a little bit tough. My family is scattered in the Philippines and the US, and my partner is in the Philippines as well. Personally, it toughens you, but it also makes you value what matters the most.︎

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Vice.

Audrey Carpio is a freelance writer and former magazine editor.