For about a month now, I have had what I will call “an expanded role” beyond the column I write three times a week at The Manila Times. The specifics of that arrangement are not for public consumption (and would probably be completely boring to anyone who doesn’t happen to be in the newspaper business, anyway), but it gives me the opportunity to exercise a surprising amount of influence in the team process that eventually results in what you see online and on the printed page; in particular, the business section of the The Times that appears on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday has my fingerprints all over it. My prior experience with a legitimate newspaper (I once was a sportswriter, believe it or not) was about 30 years ago and at about 100 times a smaller scale, so the past few weeks have been a significant – and extremely strenuous – object lesson in how modern media actually works. Some of those insights are worth sharing, because a large part of the output here, in social media, and in other blogs is based on a high degree of skepticism towards what the media feeds us. Knowing how they do it helps us not be fooled so often, and can help us respond better to it when they try.
It is, first and always, a business: The success of that business is measured in eyeballs, whether they’re spending 18 pesos (and presumably reading) the printed paper, reading the paper online, or following posts on the paper’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. More eyeballs mean more advertisers, and advertisers are who pay the bills.
This can have an effect on what news is presented to the public because it can limit what is actually published. Ad space is inviolable; the Times’ business section is four pages long, but there is never a day when some part of that acreage is not occupied by advertising, which absolutely cannot be moved from its designated location or reduced in size. Although it does not happen every day, the reduction in publication space does sometimes result in one or more stories being bumped off for lack of room. We generally try to pick low priority stories that are not particularly time dependent if something needs to be cut so that their loss is not necessarily a disservice to the public, but there is always a risk that something important might be missed.
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It can also have an effect because the popular appeal of certain subjects is so overwhelming they cannot be ignored, even if they are pointless, stupid, and make the world a sadder place by even being acknowledged. For example, a couple weeks ago, a lifestyle section story about Kris Aquino and her gag-worthy love life elicited howls of derisive protest from the 15 or so people gathered for our daily story conference. No one in that room likes Kris Aquino, wants to hear or read a single syllable of any moronic utterance she may make, nor cares one whit about her relationship status. But we ran the story anyway, because there is, sadly, a population too big to ignore that eats that shit up. The media business, it seems, is a more-or-less constant struggle between idealism and pragmatism. Sometimes pragmatism has to win.
Hinduism might be the state religion of the media, because there are sacred cows all over the place: Anyone who says they are pursuing the objective truth at all times regardless of whom it might affect is lying, because it is utterly unavoidable that some subjects will be treated differently than others. Some media outlets are rather blatant about it; Rappler, for instance, so obviously kowtows to its commercial relationships (see point one above), that its site often appears to be one big collection of advertorials. In some cases, prioritizing longer-range plans or maintaining close access might encourage a media outlet to “go easy” on reporting about a certain official or agency, or – as most people believe outlets like the Inquirer, Philstar, or ABS-CBN network do – actively promote a subject. A sacred cow can be negative, too; for example, a particular corporate entity which has had a bad transaction with a media outlet might very well be given the silent treatment.
The outlets who seem to manage their sacred cows well – in this town, as far as I can tell, that very short list includes only the Times, the Manila Standard Today, SunStar, and maybe Solar News – are the ones who understand that the marketability of their product is wholly dependent on its credibility. No one has a sacred cow for purely intellectual or emotional reasons; again, see point one. The Inquirer does not kiss the ass of all things Aquino for any other reason than because doing so is, in that organization’s estimation, a business advantage. One takes a positive or negative perspective towards a sacred cow depending on what is ultimately better for the bottom line. But when credibility is kept at the top of the list of product quality priorities, that ties the sacred cow to credibility before profitability, and that’s a good thing.
Except for columnists, no one operates independently: Everything that is done is a team effort, from deciding what stories get published on a particular day, to the actual writing and editing of those stories, to the final arrangement of the pages in the paper. Yes, there is a hierarchy with one person who has the final say on what gets published and in what manner, but in order to reach that point an individual story will pass through many hands. Long gone (if they ever really existed) are the romantic days when sharp, critically-thinking reporters would make the story; stories these days are made in the editorial room, with the reporters getting due credit for doing the heavy lifting of gathering and organizing information from the outside world.
That reality places a considerable burden on the news desk. Putting the story in context, explaining why a certain thing has happened or failed to happen, and providing the analysis of what its implications are to Jose y Maria Average Reader is our job; excellent reporters (we have a few, and I’m damned lucky one of the best works a business beat) do take up a lot of the slack by either anticipating a direction a story will take once we get our hands on it and following up with the right questions to their contacts, or by responding quickly to frantic late-afternoon/early evening texts or calls for more information. The majority, however, are simply transmitting: They are handed information from their subjects – government spokespersons, corporate PR people – and pass it through, more often than not, in a completely unfiltered state. It’s not something they should be criticized too harshly for, because with the time constraints most reporters work under, even getting that much accomplished is a respectable day’s work. Where some papers fall down on the job is in not doing the second part of the job – synthesizing the information into something meaningful. And it’s easy enough to pick out which outlets do it right and which are half-assing it; just find the same major story (the story of the government “budget surplus” last week was a good example, as was the Inquirer’s barftastic banner story about “inclusive growth” over the weekend) in several newspapers and see which versions sound exactly or nearly the same. The ones that don’t are the ones with some critical thought and creative effort behind them.
The odd branches on this journalistic tree of life are the columnists. These are the only completely independent voices; everything else is an organizational product. To my knowledge, even when the editor-in-chief or others in the newsroom have not been happy with a particular columnist’s submission, none at our paper has ever been cut from its scheduled slot, or altered in any way apart from being checked for typos or minor grammatical errors. How well we columnists make use of the unusual opportunity that presents is something the readers can judge for themselves.