POSTSCRIPT / June 22, 1999 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Your chance to rate Erap on his first year in office

WITH President Estrada about to complete one year in office, we’re asking readers to answer with simple one-liners these two simple questions:

  1. What was President Estrada’s greatest achievement in his first year in office?
  2. What was your biggest disappointment with him as President?

* * *

A PHRASE or even just a word would do for an answer. There’s no need to explain or elaborate, but of course we cannot stop you from adding a short comment.

Also, there’s no need to give your full name, but we would appreciate your indicating your age and sex to help us visualize the responding public.

Or you may want to add one sentence about yourself. (The truth is that we’re aching to know more about our readers so we can adjust to them.) But this is optional. The focus is really on the two questions about President Estrada’s first year.

Responses can be sent to or delivered to our pigeonhole in the STAR. Please indicate the subject as “Erap Poll” so your response can be readily separated from the regular mail.

* * *

THAT confession above that we want to learn more about our readers is true. A serious readership survey, however, would be too complicated and expensive.

Having digressed to newspaper readership, we want to share here some insights into the business of newspapering so readers would understand newspapers and newspapermen better. But these notes have nothing to do with our Erap Poll.

In our more than three decades of professional journalism, we’ve seen how once big newspapers slowly withered away as they remained unresponsive to the emerging demands and needs of their expanding readership.

They have stopped being relevant.

* * *

OVER the years, we’ve learned that the short-cut to big newspaper circulation can be summarized into this three-step formula:

Step 1. Decide who your target readers are.

Step 2. Find out what your target readers want in their (your) newspaper.

Step 3. Give it to them!

We’re not saying that this is the ideal course to take, but simply that this is what we see.

With the tools of research available to them, it may look puzzling why most newspapers do not go into readership surveys. They won’t admit it, but the usual reason for this is that a good survey costs money — and many newspapers have been bleeding.

* * *

A GOOD case study is a major newspaper (call it X), which was classified with the so-called alternative press during the waning years of the Marcos dictatorship. Although Manila-based, it had a robust circulation nationwide at the time.

It was giving what the repressed public wanted: fearless reports on what was going on with the hated dictatorship.

With its oppositionist positioning, however, it soon developed an image of being “radical.” In those days, that was almost like saying it was “communist” or at least catering to the political agenda of the Left.

The labeling, even if inaccurate, was/is bad for a newspaper that must survive on circulation and advertising, the two profit centers of a regular newspaper. The paper had a hard time getting advertising support, especially from Big Business which was/is generally conservative.

Newspaper X is now foundering, barely able to keep its head above water, because it failed at that crucial transition after the EDSA Revolt to adjust to the fast-changing situation.

* * *

IN contrast, another paper (call it Y) that also started out with the same pink label just before EDSA was able to shed the “radical” image and adjust to the evolving situation.

Newspaper Y knew what to do because it was continually surveying the readership market. It was able to emerge from the dark corner of the mosquito press of the Marcos years and made it into the big time.

Its climb in readership would have been impossible were it not for readership surveys that revealed the emerging nuances of the cafeteria style of the local news and opinion markets.

We turn to the cafeteria for a metaphor because a newspaper, especially in its early stages of growth, is at the mercy of readers making their own choices from the news and opinion menu offered cafeteria style.

If what the reader wants is not on the menu, he is likely to go elsewhere. He is not served by Step 3 (Give it to them!).

* * *

WHILE the cafeteria may suggest catering to the wishes of the readers, however base, it also means respect for the reading public.

The reader is not waylaid or dragged to partake of this or that item on the news and opinion menu. He is free to choose, and therefore free to reject.

But that is only at the early stages of the game of catching readers. As the late Gen. Hans Menzi, publisher of the Bulletin, used to say, “We’re not selling a newspaper, we’re selling a habit.”

Once readers are habituated into buying a certain newspaper everyday, even without first browsing or perusing it, they join a corps of addicted readers who compose the paper’s circulation core.

When addiction sets in and circulation surges, our three-step readership formula quietly changes.

* * *

A PAPER with considerable readership can abandon or modify Step 3 (Give it to them!).

Having grown big and influential, a newspaper confident of its preeminence need not feed all the whims of its readers. It should now distinguish between what the public wants and what it needs.

To illustrate: Most tabloids using Step 3 give their readers what they want, which is unfortunately sex, scandals and chismis. Serving this luscious menu that their readers lap up, the tabloids grow. In fact, some tabloids boast of circulations bigger than those of the bjggest broadsheets.

A big, respectable broadsheet does not have to go down to the gutter and be tabloidy just to catch more readers. While it still gives readers some of the things they want, it also serves them, cafeteria-style, some other things they need.

You don’t give your child just anything he hankers for. As an elder, you have to teach him to distinguish between what he wants and what he needs.

* * *

WE see in this attitudinal change the makings of a great paper. When a paper starts giving the public not only what it wants but also what it needs, it starts to perform that all-important function of the press, which is to educate.

The press has been assigned, sometimes arbitrarily, many functions. But its foremost function is to educate. A paper that fails in this undertaking is a big failure, however expansive is its circulation.

Once a paper slowly, maybe even slyly, engages in educating its readers as its goes about its multiple tasks, it rises to an even higher plain.

A truly great press is thus able to set the national agenda. Moving into this political realm, the press is able to gain moral and intellectual ascendancy over the political leadership.

This is power journalism, a phenomenon that could either be bad or good for all of us.

* * *

ONCE a newspaper grows big, sometimes too big for size, certain things change.

One area of change is attitude. Suddenly, some staff members become arrogant. They take on an air of infallibility. If this is not arrested on time, it sets in as the editorial attitude of the paper.

As we had said elsewhere, even the way some of the staff strut and the way they laugh in public suddenly change.

The same arrogance could creep into the handling of news and opinion, resulting in the paper sometimes publishing first and probing later. When caught purveying a recklessly false item, the editors whip the staff to dig up proof to back up the false report and save them from embarrassment.

* * *

AS the Estrada administration completes its first year, note that it seems to have lost its moral and intellectual leadership role – to the press.

It is the press that now dictates the political agenda of the nation. The press now even presumes to tell our officials how to run the country.

Instead of seizing back the initiative or reclaiming its primary leadership role, a pathetic Estrada administration has been reduced to just reacting to the press, instead of the other way around.

The Estrada administration limps around, improvising from one crisis to another. Its media advisers scour the newspapers everyday, monitor radio and TV, and frantically produce reactions for the President or his spokesmen to dish out.

President Estrada must have been told that blurting out cute one-liners may not be the best way to expose one’s state of mind, so he has announced the end to so-called ambush interviews that sometimes catch him off balance.

It’s pathetic, but this state of affairs is inevitable given the quality of leadership at the top and the aggressiveness of the press.

It is bound to happen when one assigns an exalted office to a small-town politician, one who keeps dropping to the ground whenever he attempts to soar, one who seems to think he can ad lib his way across the national stage.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 22, 1999)

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