Pandemic hammers community press

by | Feb 6, 2021 | Articles, Prospects 2021

ABS-CBN supporters stage a protest to seek the renewal of the network’s broadcast license. A congressional committee rejected its renewal, forcing the network to shutter most of its operations and lay off thousands of staff. Jilson Tiu

Pandemic hammers community press

By Alden Monzon, Kyodo News

Marchel Espina has been writing for the Visayan Daily Star for nearly two years when the coronavirus pandemic struck early last year. As government lockdowns squeezed revenues, the community newspaper ceased publication after a 38-year run and Espina was one of the 31 reporters and staff who were let go.

The widely read newspaper in Negros Island cited two reasons for its closure: dwindling sales as newspapers struggled to stay afloat in a digital landscape and the coronavirus contagion, the final nail to the coffin.

“The print media has passed its threshold of viability and continues to be outdated following the stronghold of the internet in the media market,” Espina said.

The pandemic has forced 11 community newspapers to cease operations last year due to the economic fallout of the pandemic, according to a survey of the Philippine Press Institute (PPI), leaving thousands of Filipinos without access to information on local issues that national media no longer report on.

PPI Executive Director Ariel Sebellino said the community press plays a crucial role in the national discourse and must not be left to die, especially at a time when a pandemic is sweeping the country and reporting on “local realities” is a must.

“We really need to bring the stories from the ground to the fore. These are the unreported and under reported stories,” he said.

Stay-at home orders and other movement restrictions crippled many businesses, and some struggled to even print an issue due to the lockdown, Sebelino said.

“There were no advertisers and nobody were buying their newspapers at the time,” Mr. Sebellino said, noting that this, in turn, meant there was nothing to fund the salaries of the employees.

Melinda Quintos de Jesus, the executive director at the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said the closure of community newspapers also affect foreign correspondents covering the Philippines, as many of them rely on community news for their reportage. “If you are really looking at the stories of the country, well, you really have to know what›s going on out there. And these are the people that know about it,” she said.

In Albay, Elmer Bandol and his colleagues have not received their salary for the last three months. And the periodic raises and bonuses they were expecting were held back due to financial constraints.

“There were no revenues coming in and there were additional printing costs for us to catch up on back issues,” Mr. Bandol recounted. Bulk of its revenues stem from government ordinances and judicial notices, which dried up during the health crisis.

Mr. Bandol and his colleagues sought for government aid to get by, only to be told that funds have already run out.

CMFR’s Ms. De Jesus said many newspapers in the countryside struggled to even print especially in the early months of the pandemic.

“All of a sudden, with the pandemic, their circulation went to zero in the first week. Complete, flat-out economic impact,” she said, citing in particular the case of the Visayan Daily Star.

Newspaper deliveries also stalled due to movement restrictions. The 11 newspapers have started to bounce back in the latter part of 2020, but many have scaled back operations to cut costs.

“The ones that closed down are now trying digital, and the ones in digital are trying to combine the two,” Ms.de Jesus said, referring to print and online, but noted that these community papers are not yet in a situation where the market has completely recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

To help support community journalism, Mr. Sebellino said the institute organized webinars to help struggling journalists. PPI offered its online news platform, www. ppinenewscommons.net, to accept at least thirty stories from community journalists every month.

“This is a mechanism for us to help community journalists who are out of work,” he said.

Mr. Sebellino said they started accepting and publishing the submitted community- based stories starting May last year and will continue to do so until at least June 2021, paying a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 pesos per news article.

Mr. Bandol is not overly optimistic about the situation improving for journalists like him in the short or middle term. He may have no other choice but to simply ‘tighten the belt’ and rely on sheer passion for the job to see him through the difficult times ahead. “I think this will last longer than we anticipated because as the pandemic continues, so does the skepticism on how much the vaccines can actually help,” he explained.

On the other hand, Ms. Espina sees brighter prospects for community journalism in the Philippines, if it can adapt to the digital landscape.

After she was laid off, she found work as a writer, editor and webmaster for Digicast Negros, an online news platform in English and Hiligaynon, one of the regional languages in the Philippines.

“Digital migration is the future. Although working for a newspaper is something else,” she said, admitting that it feels like she is in a better situation now.

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