POSTSCRIPT / February 7, 2002 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Selling a newspaper is like selling a habit?

ROLE IN SOCIETY: We were in a sharing session with the Rotary Club of Pasay-MIA in its meeting last Tuesday at the Casino Filipino in Parañaque. From the invocation until the open forum, we immediately sensed a deep interest in how the press has been performing its avowed role in society.

The questions fielded covered such topics as media responsibility, corruption and business viability — topics that highlighted the concern that if media do not watch out they might become part of the national problem instead of contributing to its solution.

In a close gathering like a Rotary meeting, we had to be candid in our responses. Looking back, it was all for the best for them and for us that there was no pulling of punches in the exchange.

The first question asked us, by no less than their president Ma. Angeles “Gigi” G. Prats who was seated beside us, was a blunt “When you write a column, do you write the truth?”

It was, as we confessed to the crowd, a disconcerting question as it was the first time anybody asked us that in a public forum. It was so easy to say “Yes,” but we felt that a one-word pat answer would not suffice.

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IT’S BIG BUSINESS: At the end, looking back, we think we were able to answer the question. Or, to put it another way, our “Yes” could be pieced together from our responses to the various questions fired at us from the floor.

Our community of readers being an extension of that small Rotary gathering, we think it might serve a useful purpose for us to cull now from the exchange some points taken up — plus some addendum that we now think could help shed light on the subject.

First point is that newspapering is a business — big business. We in media may spout some noble vision and mission as basis for our being around and presuming to operate almost like the fourth branch of government, but at the end of the day we all fall back on the fact that we’re in business.

This mercantile aspect of our existence is something we need not apologize for, because when investors pool something like P100 million to put up a newspaper, we presume that they expect to get reasonable returns for their investment.

When they see their money sinking into a black hole at the rate of at least P2 million every month, month after month, it is unlikely that they would be able to console themselves, and their bank, that the losses are incurred in the spirit of performing a noble service to the community.

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A DEADLY WEAPON: If this is the case, why would a newspaper that loses P2 million each month, month after month, insist on coming out? That question should be addressed to the owners, who we presume may have some ulterior agenda in mind.

As we pointed out in the Rotary meeting, newspapers (or media in general) could be business tools or political weapons that some owners with warped values could wield with impunity.

Even the press freedom so glibly cited at every turn loses its meaning if the newspaper is not economically stable. In fact, the dire financial situation of a newspaper may be the reason why it would become vulnerable to manipulation or for the owners and the staff to allow themselves to be prostituted.

The first order of business, therefore, is for a newspaper that wants to be independent to make money, show a profit and pay the staff well. Everything else will proceed from financial stability.

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PROFITS TOP PRIORITY: As one steeped more in journalism than in business, we find the journalism side of newspapering the easier part to manage, with profitability the more challenging point in the entire operation.

In fact, we dare say that the success of a newspaper rests 60 percent on marketing and only 40 percent on editorial. That could even be 70-30 in favor of the business part, because making money and putting the enterprise on stable footing would be our more immediate concern.

The proportion of our time allotment and emphasis would slide gradually to editorial, to refining the product, as we start to show profit. The ideal is for editorial and business to move together on equal footing, but we’re talking of a situation where we don’t have a monopoly of time and talent and have to operate on limited resources in a very crowded market.

With most Philippine newspapers, at least 70 percent of the operating expenses goes to newsprint. The bulk of the money generated should go to the workers, but it goes instead to the paper mill.

This is anomalous, but that’s the way it is in our local setting. We can correct this internal injustice, of people being neglected in favor of machines, only if we rake in profits and be in a better position to juggle money.

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FALSEHOOD CREEPS IN: On the paper’s content, we observed in the Rotary meeting the unfortunate fact that Manila newspapers, including their front pages, are often interspersed with false stories, or stories that do not present the whole truth.

The poor reader opens himself to the paper in good faith unaware that he may be spoon-fed some half-truths or even outright lies. It could be that his mind is slowly being poisoned and he may not even be aware of it.

The saving grace, if we may call it that, is that most of the errors that see print are not committed with malice or ill-motives. They are usually the product of carelessness or the hustle-bustle of operations hounded by strict deadlines.

Errors can never be ruled out, but how it strives to minimize them is one of the acid tests of how well a staff is trained and managed. We can always apologize and run corrections, but the best editorial team is one that can nip or minimize such problems before they see print.

The most despicable errors are the deliberate malicious attempts at misinformation — usually for a material benefit. These are those occasions, the dark moments of a paper’s life, when somebody is able to smuggle in a false story planted for a desired effect.

The structure of a newspaper organization is so porous that the best editors can never screen out completely such “palusot” and the paper sometimes has to pay very dearly for it.

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POLICING THE PRESS: We were asked in the forum who enforces sanctions, if any, on staffers who commit such grievous disservice to the paper and its readers. Some Rotarians asked if there was an agency or an institution that enforces ethical standards.

The sad part is that there is no such external institution. It is actually the owners of the paper who impose discipline. The bad eggs are thrown out (although even this could be messy since a lawyer sometimes makes an appearance and interferes).

What happens if the owners or their executives are themselves using the paper for personal gain? That is another point better discussed in depth in another forum.

What about the National Press Club? That’s just a social club of the working press, so forget it. In fact, some of its elements carry the very germs of the diseases that the press is supposedly trying to cure.

Note that there is no licensing of journalists, so the cancellation of licenses is not a sanction. An option for readers who feel aggrieved is to sue, and this legal action can be a deterrent to malicious reportage and commentary.

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READER IS ULTIMATE JUDGE: It is ultimately the reader who will lower the boom on writers and newspapers that do not meet his requirements. All the reader has to do is stop buying and reading the paper. There are more than 35 newspapers of various colors on the sidewalk.

This is assuming that the reader, who in the first place has no direct personal knowledge of what is being written about, is able to see through the expert manipulation of his unsuspecting mind.

Also, being a creature of routine, the average reader usually buys a particular newspaper out of habit. The reader who shops around, compares and evaluates before buying, is a rare bird.

It is the fervent wish of many of us in the newspaper industry that readers will be able to take a closer, critical look at their newspapers, these mind-benders that quietly brainwash them day after day.

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IT’S SHEER MOMENTUM: The most successful newspapers are those that continue to grow with their readers. Once a newspaper, however big, stops being relevant to the public it seeks to serve — or worse, betrays the public trust — it will start to wither away.

An advantage of the giant newspapers is that they have reached critical mass and are able to keep feeding that mass. Multiply mass by velocity and you get momentum, the factor that prevents their early transformation into journalistic dinosaurs.

Some of the big ones are just moving by sheer momentum. In such giant outfits, the editor can be replaced with a cub reporter and the paper will still continue to careen on — until it commits a major blunder or bumps into an immovable object.

When the industry leader falters, those in the lead pack can then move to quickly overtake it — that is, if they have been pacing, preparing and have primed themselves for that unscheduled signal to surge forward to take the lead.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 7, 2002)

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