In defense of today’s newspapers

News about the execution came too late for many newspapers in the Philippines. (Image from The Guardian;  Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

News about the execution came too late for many newspapers in the Philippines. (Image from The Guardian; Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

Filpinos rejoiced after Mary Jane Veloso was spared from execution in Indonesia, and then laughed at national newspapers which got their headlines wrong.

Veloso, sentenced to death in Indonesia for drug smuggling, was scheduled to be executed by firing squad early morning Wednesday.

Indonesia proceeded to execute eight death row prisoners but spared Veloso at the last minute. Veloso maintained she did not know about the heroin found in her suitcase.

Filipinos around the world signed online petitions, joined street protests, and participated in night vigils. They woke up to learn about the positive development as well as to read morning papers with wrong headlines.

Facebook teemed with posts ridiculing newspapers’ frontpages. Inquirer’s banner headline read: “Death came before dawn.” Manila Bulletin had: “No delay in execution.” Abante Tonite said: “Paalam Mary Jane (Goodbye Mary Jane).”

Philippine Star and Manila Bulletin managed to update their headlines in their latest editions.

Many social media users were harsh in their criticisms, describing reporters as stupid or sleeping on their jobs.

Inquirer's statement released via Twitter by @Team_Inquirer

Inquirer’s statement released via Twitter by @Team_Inquirer

This post is not to defend the erroneous newspaper headlines, not even that of the Inquirer, where I worked as reporter for six years (although I know for a fact that the Inquirer reporter assigned to monitor the Department of Foreign Affairs briefing was literally not sleeping—she was doing her job as late as 3am).

But this is a good time, I think, for some reflection on what is happening to journalism. This incident, it seems, is about three issues:

  1. This shows the changing expectations of news consumers. Having been socialized into real-time reporting they find online, news consumers appear to expect the same speed from their newspapers. This is, of course, an unreasonable expectation, given the nature of the newspaper medium.

Newspaper issues have to be ready between 9pm and 10pm to allow sufficient time for printing and delivery, which are not quick processes. Newspapers have to reach newsstands early the following morning, as very few buyers wait for a specific paper: Being late means losing out to competition (of course, the case is different when it comes to the subscription market).

From what I know, updates in the past have been made successfully until about 1am, but only for editions distributed within Metro Manila, where the time between printing and distribution is much shorter. But most readers don’t realize this. They also don’t realize that reporters, whose bylines appear with stories, do not write their own headlines. This is why we need media literacy.

  1. Given the changing expectations of news consumers, newspapers should reassess their roles. The nature of the medium limits its capability when it comes to breaking news. Newspapers cannot, and perhaps should no longer, strive to break news all the time. We have online platforms for that. Freed from this expectation, newspapers can channel their strengths into other forms of journalism, where they can remain strong.
  1. Finally, against this backdrop of changing expectations and changing roles, newspapers should also remain true to the traditional standards that guide journalism, at whatever platform. While it is true that newspapers face time constraints, it does not give them an excuse to predict spot news. It does not free them from reporting events as they are. When something has not happened, and there is no certainty as to what would happen next, that’s what should be in the story. And by story, I also mean the headline.

Today’s social media attack on newspapers, I think, is undeserved and uninformed.

But it informs us about how readers’ expectations are changing.

Such information, if used properly, can hopefully also spare newspapers from their projected demise.


Dinner with the idols (Part 2)

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is celebrating its silver anniversary this month. I left the organization in August. This is my small way of celebrating with the news organization that taught me many things about what journalism ought to be.

In February 2006, the Wowowee Stampede in Pasig City killed 71 people, mostly elderly women. Some 30,000 people had lined up for several days for the show’s first anniversary that promised instant cash rewards.

It was to be held at the PhilSports Arena, known as Ultra. It was within my regular geographical beat. It was a Saturday. Since it was my regular day-off, I was to meet my family to celebrate my birthday.

A call woke me up early in the morning. It was Ma’am Cookie Micaller, our daydesk head then.

Some 10 reporters were deployed to cover the tragedy. Our assignments were clear and precise. Some were deployed to hospitals and morgues. Some were deployed to interview witnesses and relatives.

I was asked to go inside the venue. I also attended ABS-CBN’s late afternoon press conference. No birthday party for me.

The year before I left the Inquirer to study, former President Corazon Aquino passed way. I wasn’t part of the team assembled to cover the wake and the funeral in August 2009. My beat then was the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan.

But I knew the funeral would be a historic event. That day was also declared a holiday. This meant the Sandiganbayan would not open. So I called Ma’am Juliet Javellana, who was planning the coverage, and volunteered to be part of the team.

The coordination was seamless. Some reporters were assigned to cover the funeral mass at the Manila Cathedral. Some were assigned to join the nine-hour convoy to the Manila Memorial Park. Others were deployed in the streets.

I joined a fellow reporter and went to the cemetery with our photographer early in the morning. The most difficult part was waiting for the convoy. And it was raining.

Inquirer’s team wrapped up the coverage with a well-deserved dinner in a restaurant paid for by the company.

The following day, I got fever that would not go away until after seven days. But that dinner remains fresh on my mind.

There, inside the Max’s Restaurant, I got to share dinner with my idols.

I treasure these three major events not only because I witnessed history, but because I felt how it was to be part of the Inquirer team. I got to share main story bylines with journalists I look up to.

The Inquirer is far from perfect, it is true.

But during these times when teamwork overcomes pride, when reporters are valued by their editors, when the superstars share the limelight with the rookies, the organization finally becomes one.

It is during these times that the Inquirer stands out.

Dinner with the idols (Part 1)

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is celebrating its silver anniversary this month. I left the organization in August. This is my small way of celebrating with the news organization that taught me many things about what journalism ought to be.

Seven years ago, as a fresh journalism graduate, I realized it was difficult to stand out in the Inquirer.

It’s usually hard to find the organization’s weakest link. The senior reporters are well-known in the industry. The new recruits go through intense training and selection. The editors are sharp and brilliant.

The newsroom is not for the faint-hearted.

Reporters are encouraged—make that pressured—to turn in scoops, write with flair and submit stories earlier than the deadline. No, make that immediately after an event, as reporters are also required to break stories to the website.

But six years with the country’s respected news organization made me realize it was not really about standing out.

The Inquirer is what it is now because—contrary to stereotypes of journalists working alone under heaps of cigarette butts—it flourishes as a team.

Teamwork marked the most memorable assignments I had with the newspaper.

It was my second year with the Inquirer and I was pinching in for the Quezon City beat when movie icon Fernando Poe Jr. was rushed to the St. Luke’s hospital in December 2004.

He passed away the following day, seven months after he lost the presidential race to Gloria Arroyo.

His funeral was scheduled at 4 a.m. The Inquirer editorial group had its annual Christmas party the night before. That meant many of our reporters, including me, had to leave the party immediately to go to our respective assignments with no sleep.

The coverage was carefully planned. Sir Gerry Lirio, then the daydesk editor, deployed more than 15 reporters for the event, making sure everything was covered.

We had one reporter stationed at every 500 meters or so to monitor the funeral march from the Sto. Domingo Church to the North Cemetery.

We knew the funeral would draw thousands, if not millions, of people, so our reporters were deployed very early.

Three reporters and photographers even went straight to the cemetery as early as 1 a.m. to wait for the funeral march that would not reach the North Cemetery until after nine hours.

To be concluded…