Not exactly mainstream

10:03 am Commentary

Mr. Guda is the editor in chief of Pinoy Weekly, a Philippine magazine which discusses and analyzes issues that affect citizens especially the marginalized.

Mainstream. In the beginning, that was all we wanted to be. This is not an unreasonable goal for aspiring journalists, especially those who came from journalism schools and the campus press in the Philippines. To be mainstream is to reach a wide audience, to be heard or read by an entire country, even the world. To be mainstream is to gain respect, admiration, prestige, even a following. To be mainstream is to make a name for yourself.

“We” in this case refers to fellow journalists in our little journalistic project called Pinoy Weekly. It was 2002, and the country had just undergone a tumultuous first year with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. A handful of small entrepreneurs wanted to put up a publication along the lines of the defunct Pinoy Times. But this time, they wanted it to target the C-D readership—the tabloid-reading public.

We wanted to be mainstream, but not really for anything other than wanting to popularize our advocacies. When we started, our composition was a curious mix of youngsters and veterans.

The former comprised us reporters who mostly came from the campus (meaning university) press, while the latter were mostly veteran journalists as well as writers from old school 1960s Filipino journalism, including from now-arcane but then radical publications like the Philippines Free Press. It was an interesting combination; but on hindsight this combination of youthful inexperience and old-school familiarity with the workings of the profession cultivated in us a desire to be mainstream.

Of course, at the onset, we were, shall we say, a progressive paper, with advocacies for the marginalized sectors of Philippine society. That was the orientation. The goal, therefore, was to be read as widely as possible. That was when wanting to be mainstream came in.

The vets, of course, knew all about the standard practices in Philippine journalism. They put a premium on those practices—after all, they were its successful products. They labored in the beat system for much of their careers. And they had reason to believe so, because for the most part, it is a successful system. Among dailies and mainstream publications and even in broadcast, the beat system was, and in many respects still is, a very effective way of news gathering.

Ma. Aurora Lolita L. Lomibao‘s article entitled “Revisiting the Beat System” in the Philippine Journalism Review (July 2008) problematizes this very system that has worked so well for many news organizations for years. According to Lomibao, the beat system, in which journalists frequent government agencies for information to be used in writing the news, “ensures the efficient and reliable gathering of news because of the established routines and sources of the beat system.” Given the fixed schedules and time constraints in news organizations, the system almost guarantees stories from these government agencies.

The problem starts, Lomibao writes, “when beat reporters uncritically accept the values promulgated by those in power, and report and interpret news using these values and standards as objective measures.”

This was less of a problem in Pinoy Weekly than in most news organizations, simply because we were trained to take a critical stance towards every piece information and statement that we encounter in covering government agencies like the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives (three agencies covered in our old beat system).

But what limited our work within the beat system, and one that Lomibao also discussed, was the actual practices of journalists in these government beats. In our experience, in these beats, it is next to impossible to work on enterprise stories, or important stories researched independently from existing government information dissemination systems. No matter how hard we tried, we found investigative work unrealizable in a setup where everybody is supposed to scratch each other’s back, and where “outscooping” the others could result in one’s being scorned and ostracized, rather than being admired. This is the reality of the beat system.

But our efforts to redefine the beat system in Pinoy Weekly have shown some promise. In 2007, we refocused our efforts from covering the Presidency, the Senate and the House to covering “sectoral beats.” By the term we mean coverage of major (quantitatively, that is) sectors of Philippine society: peasantry, workers, youth, women, urban poor, indigenous people, etc. This enabled us to radically shift our focus from simply exposing inconsistencies and untruths in the pronouncements of government officials to telling the stories from the point-of-view of the ordinary people who, in the final analysis, get to decide the fate of the nation.

This is a novel approach to covering the news, one that has been practiced in different ways by such media groups as the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the online publication

But having a sectoral beat system does not automatically mean a shift in focus from covering government agencies to the sectors. The government has, after all, its own agencies claiming to represent these very sectors, such as the various departments. The key for us, however, is not just the shift from a system of coverage but also a shift in viewpoint. American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh once endorsed this “bottom-to-top” approach to stories that he covers, differentiating it from the “top-to-bottom” approach supposedly employed by the likes of Bob Woodward. Hersh’s approach to covering the Iraq war, for instance, was by talking to the American soldiers who had returned home from the war. Woodward, meanwhile, covered the war from the viewpoint of the policymakers themselves—the Bush administration.

Pinoy Weekly‘s shift from a mainstream, government beat system to that of an alternative, sectoral beat system had its difficulties. For one, there is the issue of representation. How do you cover a sector of society that is as amorphous and dispersed as, say, workers? One solution is by covering the organizations and NGOs representing the different sectors. Of course, in some cases, this may not be enough. The reporter needs to actually spend a substantial amount of time in a chosen community or place to get the desired point-of-view.

Our new, sectoral beat system presents other problems, but none as basic as that which we encountered under the old, government beat system. At best, we strive to achieve the requirements of fairness through efforts to get the side of government agencies. For example, when we got wind of a story about a government employees’ union’s expose of a government plan to layoff thousands of employees under the Office of the Presidency, we sought the latter’s reaction. When we did a story on the New People’s Army enforcing “revolutionary justice” on a supposed executor of extra-judicial killings, we strove to get the side of the military and even the supposed executor’s relatives. In line with Hersh’s “bottom-to-top” approach, however, the government side would be obtained at the tailend of the legwork process, when the viewpoint of the affected sector would have been exhaustively examined.

Our alternative system of news gathering does not excuse us from practicing the basic journalistic tenets. In fact, we arguably enhance it.

For sure, this is a system that is far from perfect. But we believe it is a step forward. For her part, Lomibao posits that practices such as ours “[result] in more voices being heard.” What is needed, she concludes, “is for these efforts to become the rule rather than the exception.” In the situation of media today, we view that as a distant possibility, but one that we hope for in the future. In the meantime, we revel in our “not exactly mainstream,” progressive positioning.

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