POSTSCRIPT / October 24, 2004 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Bunye revisits theory on Good vs Bad News

DIG FOR NUGGETS: Skip the front page and go straight to the inside pages, Press Secretary Ignacio “Toting” Bunye advises local newspaper readers.

Actually, long before Toting thought of dishing out this naughty piece of advice, most Filipino newspaper readers were already skipping the front page and turning to their favorite section.

Note that I said “section.” Wise readers do not leaf through the paper looking for the good news that Toting says lie “buried deep (inside) and you have to dig for (them).”

They go straight to specific sections, not to a big story that they know is hidden somewhere inside.

* * *

LO, IT’S RICKY!: Readers love certain sections not because they carry good news (in the Toting sense of “good news” as understood from his samples) but because, well, they “like” the stories there. They probably mean they find the items interesting and relevant.

Sports aficionados dash to the sports section. Businessmen take the business and related sections for their daily dose of news and intelligence. The women (half of the population and half of newspaper readers) drop everything for their undistracted enjoyment of the lifestyle and home sections.

A few readers just go straight to the crossword puzzle, and that’s it when it’s done. If along the way some stray story or picture catches their eye, that is a bonus both for the reader and the paper.

And when somebody tells you that most people he knows buy the Philippine STAR mainly to read Ricky Lo, you better believe it.

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SCS FORMULA: Toting might leave the impression that editors routinely scatter trash and trivia on the front page and hide the choice cuts inside.

Be assured that that is not so. But in fairness to Toting, I doubt if he meant to say or hint that in the first place.

If he was just thinking aloud that editors seem to love to splatter negative news on the front page on the belief that readers generally hunger for a “sex-crime-scandal” (SCS) menu, I must say that such thoughts are out of line.

Neither is the theory original. Many successful (but not necessarily great) newspapers here and abroad have been able to build big circulations using the same “sex-crime-scandal” formula.

That route is as old as original sin. And rather effective, to some extent.

* * *

BIG vs GREAT: But the story does not end there.

One difference between the Big and the Great newspapers is that after it grows big, the truly great newspaper discards the SCS formula (like a spaceship dropping its booster rockets after launch) and goes back to positive journalism guided by public interest.

That is one key element to watch for in a newspaper: Is it thriving on scandal as the be-all of its existence?

Some editors confess they might be willing to indulge in occasional sensationalism at that make-or-break stage of their paper’s growth when they are trying to catch up with the market leader.

It seems to them that a little sensation is sometimes needed to grab random (not habituated) readers deciding which broadsheet, tabloid, magazine or comic book to buy off the crowded sidewalk.

To ease the editor’s conscience I would say if asked: One occasional drop of sensation won’t kill you. Just keep a firm rein on the staff so it would be easy to lead them back to good old journalism once the circulation targets are achieved.

To the reader, we say that an editor is always on the lookout for good stories to splash on his front page. But he cannot be that productive everyday. Remember, he is only the editor.

* * *

VIABILITY GAME: In this business, viability is crucial. What is the point in our being assured of press freedom and being purveyors of the so-called “good news” — if sales never pick up from Day One and the paper folds up as soon as the owners’ investments or interest dries up?

I hate to report that the Good News formula as advocated by Toting will not work in the real world as I have known it in the past four decades.

If an editor wants to retire early, all he has to do is plaster his front page everyday with the so-called good news, mostly Malacanang press releases.

Some of the big papers sequestered by the government (because they were suspected to be owned by a brother of former First Lady Imelda R. Marcos) are a good illustration of this.

Their record pre-sequestration circulation and profits have dipped since their government-appointed managers and editors apparently have no choice but to stuff the publications with what Toting calls the “good news.”

(Despite waning sales, I guess they should be rewarded handsomely this Christmas for toting the line.)

* * *

HEADLINE READERS: When we talk of readers skipping the front page and heading for the inside pages, we have in mind only those who can afford to buy or borrow a copy.

In this country where at least a third of the population languishes below the poverty line, buying a daily newspaper is a major business decision for many Filipinos.

A great number of people read only the front page (actually just the heads and captions seen above the fold) as the newspapers lie on the sidewalk or hang from newspaper stands. That is the reason why they use pieces of clear glass to hold them down on the pavement.

There are others whose reading is confined to catching the headlines as the passenger seated in front of them on the jeepney or the light train holds up the paper he is reading.

To these countless headline readers, Toting’s suggestion to skip the front page and go straight to the inside pages is bit irrelevant.

* * *

STATIC STATISTIC: Metro Manila can support no more than three major newspapers and five tabloids. Yet we see more than 40 of them on the sidewalk jostling for readers everyday.

For any one of them to survive, I dare say that the formula is not Toting’s theory of the good news.

There are many problems besetting the industry. One of them is that we Filipinos are not a reading lot.

In a country of more than 84 million with a literacy rate claimed to be more than 90 percent, the combined circulation of all newspapers and magazines nationwide is not even two million!

This is the same static circulation figure we saw 10 years ago, which also happens to be the same one we saw 10 years before that.

In contrast, the audience and advertising share of radio/TV keeps rising, eating into the turf of the newspapers.

The last May election was a revelation of the new-found power of radio and TV. The broadcast industry not only gobbled up advertising revenue but also provided winning candidates for key posts.

* * *

RTV vs PRINT: I am curious to know if newspaper owners are ever bothered by the fact that not that many Filipinos buy newspapers and that the few who buy are shifting to the broadcast (radio-TV) media for news and entertainment.

There are also the Internet and hand-held devices for accessing information and entertainment or reading the electronic edition of newspapers worldwide. In the Philippine setting, however, paperless media are still a small dot in the horizon.

If it is any consolation, the printed word still has its own value as an education tool and as a market force.

It will be a long time before newspapers will fade away together with the manual typewriter as an artifact of a bygone age.

But we in the newspaper business better wake up to the reality that more tenable media are coming up fast.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 24, 2004)

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