The beginnings of The Philippine STAR

- Doreen G. Yu -

MANILA, Philippines - The story of The Philippine STAR actually began months before July 28, 1986.

Late in 1985, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos called for snap elections, and a hardy –– some say foolhardy –– group of seasoned journalists started a newspaper that sought to tell the truth about the situation in the country, and to fight the dictatorship.

Betty Go-Belmonte, Max Soliven, Art Borjal, Louie Beltran, Eugenia Apostol and Florangel Braid set up the Philippine Daily Inquirer with offices in what now stands as the headquarters of The STAR. There were only two small presses at the time, which the Belmonte family used in their business to print Bibles and textbooks.

The first issue of the Inquirer hit the streets on December 9, 1985.

When the 1986 People Power Revolution broke out, the Inquirer became the paper of the barricades. Everyday, Mrs. Belmonte saw to it that the paper was printed and distributed among the people at Edsa and all over the country, even carrying an extra set of flats in her car trunk so the paper could be printed in other “friendly” presses, just in case their office got raided. Soliven wrote his columns from his position at the barricades.

When the dictatorship was toppled and freedom restored, the Inquirer had become the country’s no. 1 newspaper. But questions about finances and a divergence of priorities caused a rift among the founders, and Belmonte, Soliven, Borjal and Beltran found themselves out in the streets — literally.

Soliven tells the story in his inimitable style: “One day, I decided to walk out. When I was walking out, Art Borjal saw me and asked, ‘What are you doing, Max?’ I said, ‘I’m walking out.’ Then Art said, ‘What? In that case, I’m going with you.’”

“So Art Borjal walked out and Betty said, ‘Wait for me, Maxie. We’re coming, too.’ But we forgot to bring the money. Betty was the treasurer and co-chairman.

“When we got out, Art Borjal said, ‘Max, where are we going?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘Then why did we walk out?’

“So there we were on the sidewalks, in front of The STAR building, our own building. We left all our P300 million. We didn’t take any provisions, not even back issues of the paper with us.

“So there we were, walked out of our own building on 13th Street and we didn’t know what to do next. After a few days, we realized that we had forgotten that the building belongs to us! So we decided to put up a daily newspaper, and it was called The Philippine STAR because the Go family owned the name STAR. It’s as simple as that.”

A deal to buy, on very favorable terms, the Madrid building on Edsa that Soliven had passed on to the Inquirer (decided on during a board meeting at his home in Greenhills) gave the Inquirer a home after the split.

“So that’s where they moved the Inquirer. Why? Because the printing press of the Inquirer was ours, the building of the Inquirer was ours, everything except the furniture which was brought into the partnership was ours. In fact, 70 percent of the investment in the Inquirer was put in by Betty Go-Belmonte.”

From those beginnings, The Philippine STAR was born.

Art Borjal served as the “recruiting officer”, interviewing applicants for reporters, deskmen, editors, etc. Belmonte and Soliven brought in other staff members, and a newsroom was set up in the cramped ground floor of the office on 13th Street in Port Area, sharing editorial space with Ang Pilipino Ngayon, a tabloid that Belmonte had earlier set up.

The early Philippine STAR was, to say the least, a rather unusual newspaper, with only eight pages and no advertisements. The paper also did not have a Sunday edition. “Betty, being a devout Protestant-Christian, said we should not work on the Sabbath day,” Soliven explains. “So we forfeited our most important earning day, the Sunday issue.”

The initial print run on July 28, 1986 was only “a few thousand copies”.

“Don’t forget, we were already the no. 23 newspaper then because when freedom came, everybody put up a newspaper... All the other newspapers collapsed later. We slowly moved up the ladder, and now we’re No. 1. They said The STAR would only last three months. And sure enough, we almost went bankrupt because we kept on calling for more money from investors. I had to borrow a lot.”

For about a year, The STAR went without advertising, intent on its mission to provide accurate information so that the citizenry could be active and constructive participants in nation-building. But in time, the insistence of advertisers and the economic sustainability of the paper opened its pages to ads.

The STAR moved on, slowly gaining in circulation and advertising, always guided by the Biblical exhortation, “Truth shall prevail.” As the only paper “run by God,” prayer and faith were the foundations of its operations.

“All our meetings were run by Betty, who was the chairman, and before that, we would all have to pray,” Soliven says, to this day incredulous about how things were done.

“Everyday, Betty Go-Belmonte and the prayer leader would round up all the people in The STAR. They would hold hands and pray except for Soliven, because Soliven would always arrive late. I represent the sinners at The STAR,” he guffaws.

It may violate every management principle and tenet, but this turned out to be a winning formula for The Philippine STAR.

From No. 23 to No. 1, The STAR is today the most respected newspaper in the country, distinguished for its balanced, objective and fair reporting. On the eve of its 20th anniversary, the Rotary Club of Manila named The STAR “Newspaper of the Year.” It is a fitting accolade, affirming what the multitude of readers, advertisers and supporters already know. (Reprinted)

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