POSTSCRIPT / August 27, 2000 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Erap gets same results by romancing the press

SUBIC BAY — The three-day congress of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines closes today in this beautiful Freeport nestled between mountains and the sea.

Participants are working journalists and media workers, so the discussions have revolved around welfare, freedom and professionalism — unlike when publishers meet and then the talk shifts to cost of paper and ink, profitability, computerization, staff discipline, and the like.

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SAYING that, we do not mean to imply that publishers (who often do not own the paper but are merely the real owner’s front men) and the workers under them are perpetually on a collision course.

On the contrary, the enlightened setup is that of the publisher and the staff looking for a common ground to work together for their mutual benefit. After all, both of them work for the same management, want to put out the best paper in town, get sued for the same bad story, and have the same needs as individuals and family men.

Working together for their common benefit does not mean the exclusion of everybody else. The thought brings up the question of whose interests the newspaper should promote or protect.

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FROM the theoretical and practical points of view, the newspaper exists mainly for the people that it claims to serve. This means that the paper is de facto public property and cannot be appropriated for the sole benefit of the publisher (or the owners).

Neither can and should the press be made to serve mainly the partisan ends of government or whoever presides over state affairs from Malacañang. The dictator Marcos tried doing this, in the name of development, with disastrous results.

The fettered press that operated away from its traditional moorings was rendered useless. The press was useless to the people (who were looking for truth) and to the dictator (who was looking for validation).

For one, the controlled press failed to help Marcos check and balance the glowing report served him everyday by his cordon sanitaire. He strayed away from the public pulse, and ended up not knowing the real situation, the growing crisis – and he miscalculated.

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A PUBLICATION, as we keep saying, cannot exist without its public. Take away the public, meaning the readers, and the publication collapses.

A newspaper, although privately owned, is invested with a public character.

Although they put in the startup capital, the financiers must accept the fact that once the paper starts rolling, it breathes its own life, gathers its own following and is soon embraced by the people that believe in it as theirs

In an extra-legal sense, the readers become shareholders, their intangible share being the interest, the involvement, that the paper has generated in them.

This explains why many readers manifest a proprietary air when they write or call to scold the staff for some inaccuracy or lack of professionalism or some wayward lead or head of one crucial news story.

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THIS is also the reason why the government must keep its hands off private media.

There is a growing perception that while Marcos simply rolled out the barbed wire and herded the press to do his bidding, Erap Estrada is getting almost the same results by romancing the media.

One direct line is for Erap’s boys to either put up their own paper, buy into some of the choice broadsheets, or for them or Erap himself to try friendly persuasion on the owners or some key editors.

The opposition should be told, if they have not noticed it yet, that Erap is the consummate lover. He knows how to tease, to titillate, to cajole, to make the object of his affection come around to seeing his point.

The impact of many a potentially disastrous story has been minimized by such “panliligaw.”  That Erap’s name is actually “pare”  spelled backwards is no accident.

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ON the level of the working newspapermen — the reporters, the photographers and their editors — they can have the editorial direction that they want just by applying the theory that readers are de facto shareholders.

The successful newspaper is one that is readers-oriented. Readers want to read themselves, to read about and for themselves. In short, once they start to identify with the paper, they will need no prodding to buy it everyday and read it.

This will explain the extreme popularity of “Letters to the Editor” sections, as well as sections tackling their everyday problems and concerns. The paper that neglects to exploit this goldmine is missing a big sales point.

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SOME of the more successful columnists will tell you that oftentimes they do not have to say anything profound or earthshaking to grab readers. All they do is find out what people are talking about and talk about it themselves in their columns.

That’s because people love to hear their own voices.

Some opinion writers earn points simply by repeating what most people say. Seeing his own opinion in print, a reader would not say “I said that!” but would declare “Tama ito!” (saying in effect that the columnist hit it on the head!) and count himself as a faithful follower of the columnist.

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THE criterion of the more discerning editors and reporters for stories to write and run is not whether a story interests them. These editors are not that concerned with what interests editors, but with what interests the intended readers.

We do not put out the paper for the editor, or his journalism professor or his colleagues in media who need to be impressed. We are putting out the paper for the reader who shells out P12 to see what the paper and actually the people are saying.

In fact, we’ve seen many successful editors who run special interest publications that discuss subjects that they themselves are not that interested in. These editors know what will grip their readers and they feed it to them – even if they themselves are not that interested.

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WE have simplified this amazing process of public opinion propelling the growth of a newspaper into a three-step formula that says: (1) Identify the target reader; (2) Find out what he wants in his paper; and (3) Give it to him!

It is crucial that the publisher/editor first determine who his target reader is. It is not productive to just keep shooting at the big wall. It is best to pinpoint a target on that wall and aim for it.

While many newspapers are of general circulation, the most successful ones and the ones that get quality readership are those that focus.

Special publications may not have giant circulations, but they get quality readership, grow in influence and avoid wasting copies. And they make oodles of money.

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Many newspapers in town print so many thousands of copies not knowing beforehand where the copies would go. After several days, the unsold copies comeback in big bundles.

In the business, having only 20 percent of your printed copies returned unsold is considered a roaring success. Many a broadsheet have at least half of the copies returned to be sold as scrap. Some of the copies even come back as they were delivered – still tied in bundles, still unopened.

Newspapering could be a bloody business for those who can’t get it right. The hemorrhage could be from P500,000 to P1 million a month, month after month.

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POSTSCRIPT: Some Internet Service Providers need a little reorientation. They seem to forget that they are there to provide service, and that they should make it easier for their subscribers instead of making it more difficult for them.

We were amazed that Infocom Technologies Inc. is suddenly asking its subscribers to register the telephone numbers (one to three lines) they use to dial up connection. This is regressive.

Infocom said in its notice that if a phone number used is not registered with them, they will deny connection.

This new requirement is an undue invasion of privacy. Infocom is forcing subscribers to divulge their private numbers. It is immaterial what phone line subscribers use to connect provided such lines are legitimate lines and do not interfere with the connections of other subscribers.

The registration rule is unfair and impractical for those who use laptops and PCs outside their residences/offices and who use whatever phone line is available in their roving locations. These occasional lines used by roving subscribers to connect are not and cannot be registered in advance since users cannot foresee where they would be in the future.

Even if a subscriber registers one phone number, he could still be denied a connection if that number malfunctions and forces him to switch to his other phone numbers which happen to be not registered with the ISP.

Infocom, being owned by the largest and presumably most modern local phone company (PLDT), should be technically equipped and manned to screen out illegal calls and connections. Subscribers should not be penalized or burdened with a chore — that of screening out unauthorized calls/connections — that properly belongs to the ISP.

What are passwords for if Infocom cannot guarantee their integrity and still has to impose other security rules to cover up its own inadequacies?

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 27, 2000)

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