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Miguel Belmonte: The story of Star |

Young Star

Miguel Belmonte: The story of Star

The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Could you share with us how The Philippine STAR began? What was the country like when it started?

MIGUEL BELMONTE: The Philippine STAR began July 28, 1986 when I was still working at the Mandarin Hotel. I recall there was a lot of uncertainty in terms of the viability of the business because we were a little bit late in the game. At that time, although Cory Aquino was the president, there were still some Marcos loyalists. And, as it turned out, all of those who were pro-Cory Aquino were reading Inquirer, which was a paper also founded by my mom. And then, on the other side, those who were still supporting Marcos were reading Manila Bulletin because at that time, that paper was known to be owned by Marcos loyalists and even by the Marcos family. So, where would STAR go? The market, which was divided at the time, already had its own newspaper to read. So it really took a lot of guts for my mom (Betty Go-Belmonte) and her partners, Max Soliven and Art Borjal, to start another paper.

What made your mom decide to start a new paper?

My mom’s side of the family, the Gos, have always been in the newspaper business. Her father, my grandfather, Go Puan Seng, was the publisher and owner of a Chinese newspaper called Fookien Times. And her brother, Andrew Go, was also a newspaper publisher. He owned two tabloids, an English tabloid called Daily Star and a Filipino tabloid called Pilipino Star. In many ways, these were the predecessors of The Philippine STAR, although these were pre-martial law and when martial law was declared all of them were closed down, and most of my mom’s family decided to live in self-exile, either in the US or Canada. So the only one who was left here was my mom.

What were some of your earliest memories when STAR began?

Well, in the beginning, I joined the company to handle the personnel department, so I didn’t know anything about editorial. Zero. I was not involved in circulation. I was really focused on the people, the employees. This was supposed to be a transition job only, because I was waiting for my contract to work in a brand-new hotel in China. In the meantime, Mom told me to help with the personnel department since I had some experience in management with the Mandarin Hotel. But I didn’t realize that, after starting here, I would never leave the company anymore (laughs).

What was your mom like as a boss?

Well, she was very strong on editorial. She was one of those managers who knew something about every department of the paper. Whether it was editorial, advertising, printing, production, whatever, she understood it all. But deep down, she really was an editorial person. She was a journalist through and through. Maybe not so much a businesswoman as she was a journalist.

How was her relationship with publisher Max Soliven? From what I gather it seemed they were like two sides of the same coin?

Oh, yes. In fact, Uncle Max would say that Mom was the angel and he was the devil in the partnership (laughs). I’m not saying Uncle Max was a devil but, you know, they were really like opposites. They actually had a great partnership because they were very different people but they both really loved their craft. They both loved journalism. That’s where they agreed. And they respected each other very much even if sometimes there was a difference of opinion between them. One would always give way to the other. I cannot recall any instance where Mom and Uncle Max would clash because of some disagreement. They had a great relationship of mutual respect and trust in each other.

What would you say was their biggest legacy to the STAR?

I think just the fact that they were able to put up a newspaper during a time in Philippine history that was so important for the future of our country. That was going to determine where our country was going to go, whether we were going to go up or sink completely, and history did show that we went up. And to be part of that, to play a role during that time in Philippine history, I think that would be to the credit of Betty Go-Belmonte and Max Soliven, and Art Borjal also. That is their legacy.

When the company was left for you to take over, what was that like for you?

The hardest part of the newspaper business, really, is still putting it out, and I cannot take any credit for that. To set up the paper — that, for me, is the biggest challenge. But, no doubt, sustaining it is also a big challenge. You know of so many other newspapers or operations that were not able to sustain and they ended up closing shop. I knew it was a very big job. I was not a journalist but I guess that I did have some skill and talent in managing the business side of the newspaper. And so, we managed to make the company grow so much more in the years even after my mom’s death, although no doubt her death was really a big loss to our company and our newspaper. So was the death of Max Soliven, and Art Borjal, later on even Teddy Benigno and Louie Beltran. It’s a lot to live up to.

Earlier you shared about your mom’s working relationship with Max Soliven. How was your relationship with him when you took over?

Uncle Max was not the easiest guy in the world to work with. He had very high expectations. He was a very dominating kind of personality. But he and I worked so well together. I think we were a good team, although, of course, he was much my senior. He gave me so much respect; in fact, he told me that after my mom’s death, if it were just up to him, he wanted me to be the president of the company back then, at the age of 30. And he was not making me bola, it’s true; I know that’s what he wanted. In fact, my appointment as EVP of the company after Mom’s death was largely because of Uncle Max. He was the one who believed in me. So during my short talk during his wake, one of the things that I said was that Uncle Max believed in me more than I believed in myself back then. He really supported me and I remember every time we had a board meeting I would always get a round of applause, which was initiated by Uncle Max telling the board about my good performance. After he died, wala na, no more applause (laughs).

Did he give you any advice about the paper or anything else?

He treated me like a son and I appreciated that he looked at me that way. As for advice, he was always a bit naughty (laughs). But then, I respected him so much that I wanted to impress him; I wanted to show how good I was. I always worked so hard and I always wanted to show good financial results because of my desire to impress him. He passed away at the end of 2006, but before he died I was so happy that he lived to see the day that the STAR was the most profitable newspaper in the country. For me, that was such a great satisfaction. I wanted to do it for him, and I was able to deliver it to him before he died.

If you had to pick three big breakthroughs that The Philippine STAR made, what would you say they were?

Okay, I’ll say right away that we were the first to introduce color printing in the paper — the front page — and to have the capability to print color in any and every page of the newspaper. Because there was a time that, obviously, color would incur more expenses, and to some other newspapers it didn’t matter if they were black and white. We were the first to believe that color was the future of the newspaper and we went for it, we made the investment, and we were proven right. Advertising moved to become color, and the readers appreciated looking at color photos rather than black-and-white photos, so that was one major breakthrough of the STAR. We were the pioneers of color printing in the Philippines for newspapers.

The other one, I would say, is when STAR made a conscious effort to make each and every section of the paper a joy to read on its own on a section-to-section basis and not just as a whole newspaper. Say, if someone picks up just one section, without the main section, without Sports, without Entertainment, they only pick up Lifestyle, it should be a joy to read even just that section. And we had that same attitude towards Business, toward all the sections, whereas the other papers were still doing the old style of having the whole newspaper in one section. Yes, they had other sections, but everything was hinged on the main section — the front page, the news pages. We were the first to do it and everybody imitated us later on. Remember I said we were late in the game? So we were the ones who had to come up with all the new ideas to catch up.

There was a lot of pressure to innovate.

Yeah, we really had to innovate. We had to think of something that was different. That’s why there was a time when the STAR’s slogan was “The only paper you read from cover to cover.” That was in line with our editorial efforts to improve every single section of the paper — to make them good sections that could stand on their own even without the main news section there. Yeah, and I think that’s another innovation. I would say that, in the last decade, the biggest improvement and effort of the STAR would be in the marketing aspect, especially when the STAR captured the No. 1 position in newspaper advertising, at the end of 2006. And we’ve never lost it up to today. That would be our biggest achievement for the last decade. But there are other achievements we’re very proud of, such as our ability to give all our employees 18 months of salary guaranteed every year, aside from other cash bonuses during anniversaries, Christmas, etc. I don’t know if others are doing that but the STAR is capable of doing it, and has been for so many years already. The fact that we have three housing sites where we subsidize our employees’ purchase of these homes, we have anywhere between 150 to 200 employees who live in these STAR housing sites. The STAR’s Operation Damayan, which was founded by my mom, has already built 60 classrooms in 16 public elementary schools all over the country. This is something we are particularly proud of. It’s part of continuing my mom’s legacy of helping those in need and of sharing our blessings.

How has the STAR evolved these last 30 years?

That question is not so easy to answer but I would say that the STAR still has that same spirit that we had on the first day that it was founded. For me, that has always been our guiding light. We still have that same inspiration we had back then: to fight for what’s right, to fight for truth. Our slogan is “Truth shall prevail” and today, that’s still what we’re fighting for, that’s still what we’re protecting. And for me, that is the spirit that keeps the company going. I would not want it to change, no matter what format of news we’re going to have or what form of media we’re going to use to disseminate our information. That spirit has to be there, because that is The Philippine STAR and it’s not necessarily any individual in particular but the STAR as an institution, that’s what we stand for — what’s right, what’s true. Interview by Jonty Cruz


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