Pandemic-battered community press tries to rebuild from the ashes

Xave Gregorio - Philstar.com
Pandemic-battered community press tries to rebuild from the ashes
Stock image shows a bundle of newspapers.
Pixabay / Pexels

MANILA, Philippines — Bad news struck Marchel Espina just a few days before her birthday in July.

She and her colleagues at the Visayan Daily Star would no longer have work by the end of the month, they were told, as the Bacolod-based newspaper that had been in newsstands for 38 years would cease printing.

“We were actually in shock when it was announced,” she said. “I wasn’t really taking it well. I didn't even celebrate my birthday.”

The agony did not end there. Their misery dragged on with conflicting statements from top newsroom managers as to whether they would actually close shop, leaving Espina and her coworkers at the paper in limbo.

“We were patiently waiting for death,” she said.

The axe finally fell two months after the initial announcement that the paper would cease operations.

Final blow

In a letter to its workers, the Visayan Daily Star’s management said it was “remorseful,” but acknowledged that the closure was “inescapable,” given the finances of the newspaper which had been dwindling for two years — a fact blamed on the dominance of the internet.

"Print media has passed its threshold of viability and continues to be outdated commencing at the time when the internet became not only the fashion, trend and style but imposed its crippling stranglehold not only on our population but the entire word, gracefully pushing us out of the media market," the management said.

The "final blow" which knocked the paper out was the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

"This made us unable ‘to make ends meet,’ so to speak, leaving us with no last option but to cease operations at the soonest possible time," the management told workers.

The Visayan Daily Star is just one of at least 12 community newspapers, according to a tally from the Philippine Press Institute (PPI), that have either closed down or scaled back operations due to the pandemic.

"For some, they might think, ‘Oh, that’s only a small number.’ But one newspaper that goes down is one too many," PPI executive director Ariel Sebellino said.

The papers may have been downed by the pandemic, but their problems have long been festering even before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the world.

"The pandemic perhaps exacerbated their problems, but there were signs even before that community newspapers were already bleeding," Center for Community Journalism and Development executive director Victor Redmond Batario said.

As with the Visayan Daily Star, community papers had already been wounded by declining sales and advertising revenue — the pandemic just cut these wounds deeper, and for some, so deep that they could no longer recuperate.

Filling the gap

The decline of the community press leaves the public they serve with gaps in information at a time when it is needed the most, with the pandemic still raging and with elections creeping around the corner.

National media can step up and step in to fill the gaps, but Philstar.com editor-in-chief Camille Diola and ABS-CBN deputy editor Tarra Quismundo said in a recent webinar organized by Singapore-based Telum Media, that they tend to only cover communities in the provinces when disaster strikes.

"This just does not do any justice. Because we’ve only appreciated these places — the features of Marawi, for example — when it was already destroyed," Diola said.

The lens that the community press lends is different from national media, Sebellino pointed out, as community journalists have a feel for what is truly happening on the ground.

So, it will still be the community press and the individual journalists who will have to pick up the slack left by their colleagues from papers that folded up, Batario said.

Some community journalists, he said, have chosen to continue providing information through their own social media accounts, subjecting them to the same rigor of verification that they used when they were still working for newspapers.

The catch is that these efforts are unpaid and potentially unsustainable in the long run.

"They need support, actually, because they barely have revenue," Batario said. "It’s really more of your commitment to your craft and your commitment to your community. But as to how long you can sustain that, that’s another question."

A new hope?

Questions on sustainability also haunt Digicast Negros, an upstart media company founded by former ABS-CBN Bacolod and the Visayan Daily Star staffers following their closures.

"Nothing is certain for now, but we are hoping that Digicast is for the long term," said Romeo Subaldo, former news chief of ABS-CBN Bacolod and one of the founders of Digicast Negros.

DIGICAST NEGROS X sa Lunes na! ???? by: Kris Robles

Posted by Digicast Negros on Wednesday, October 14, 2020

But unlike the individual journalists who have been churning out content on their own, Digicast Negros is at least financially backed by billionaire Alfredo Benitez, a former congressman.

The digital news company is also ironing out business clearances so they would be able to accept advertisements, Subaldo said.

But the fledgling news outlet admittedly still faces challenges in terms of manpower and finances.

Despite these, Digicast Negros’ following has grown exponentially on Facebook, reaching over 18,000 likes in just two months. They also publish stories as they happen, release a daily newsletter, and mount a daily newscast in Hiligaynon every 5 p.m. 

At least two cable operators have approached them asking for permission to carry their newscast as viewers have been clamoring for one ever since ABS-CBN shut down their regional stations.

Espina, who was laid off from the Visayan Daily Star, soon found herself working with Digicast Negros, building their website and writing English news articles to attract a wider audience online.

“Even with the limited resources, there are still journalists out there who are committed to bring the news to the public,” she said.

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