Home in Just a Few Clicks

By Khin Maung Soe

MANILA – Almost a decade after they made their debut in the Philippines, online newspapers are still seeking to achieve mass readership. They have, however, succeeded in helping keep many Filipinos overseas up to date about their home country.

“We think that a large number of our viewers are really overseas Filipinos, especially in the United States and Middle East,” says Dan Mariano, chief editor of abs-cbnNEWS.com, the online news service of the Philippines’ broadcast industry giant, citing the top two destinations of Filipinos working abroad.

The Philippines has a population of more than 80 million, of whom only two million have access to the Internet. That partly explains why the country’s online newspapers are having difficulty attracting more readers among local residents. But there are seven million Filipinos scattered all over the globe, and while many of them now keep in touch with their families through mobile phones, nothing beats the online newspapers from home in knowing what is happening in the Philippines, often even in real time.

Javier Vincent Rufino, editor in chief of inq7.net, another online daily, says breaking news is one of the strengths of cyberpapers. Although most Filipinos still rely on television and radio for breaking news, their countrymen working abroad turn to the Philippine e-newspapers if they want to know how things are back home at that very moment. After all, even though the country’s top two broadcast networks have established their presence in some select cities overseas, their live programs are shown there as delayed broadcasts, including the news shows. International news channels such as CNN and BBC World, meanwhile, simply do not carry as much news about the Philippines as homesick Filipinos want to hear and see.

Knowing what was going on in Manila minute by minute became very important for most Filipinos – abroad or otherwise — in late 2000, when then President Joseph Ejercito Estrada was made to go through an impeachment trial in the Senate, through January 2001, when he was finally ousted through a popular uprising. At one point, the two most popular news sites – abs-cbnNEWS.com and that of the Philippine Daily Inquirer – were each having more than a million visitors a day, most of whom were from overseas. Normally, the sites average about 300,000 hits daily, with majority of these also originating from abroad.

According to Rufino, the online version of the Inquirer, the country’s most popular broadsheet, was the first to break the news in cyberspace that Estrada’s vice president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, had resigned as social welfare and development secretary. That act of Arroyo’s had signaled her withdrawal of support for Estrada. (Arroyo is now the president of the Philippines.) For the online Inquirer, posting that news in cyberspace was doubly historic because it was the first time a Philippine e-newspaper had featured breaking news.

The freshest news in a few clicks
Today the convenience of having breaking news at one’s fingertips is appreciated not only by Filipinos overseas, but also those who are right here but are deskbound and do not have a TV or radio nearby. Some also say that the younger Filipinos prefer online newspapers to print,  unlike the older generations that had grown up with broadsheets and are not that adept with computers.

“Most of the younger generation prefer reading online newspapers because it is more convenient,” says Helen A. Jimenez, sub-editor at BusinessWorld newspaper, which has both print and online versions. “They have computers in their office and they can read online news at anytime they like.”

In 1995, BusinessWorld and the Manila Times became the first newspapers in the Philippines to go online. Today they are still at it, although they have been joined by many others, including the top two broadsheets, Inquirer and the Philippine Star.

Inquirer first went into cyberspace solo, but later teamed up with the GMA-7 broadcast network, creating inq7.net. It isn’t the only Philippine news website with the backing of traditional tri-media, though; there is also abs-cbnNEWS.com, which draws material not only from the ABS-CBN network, but also from a newspaper, Today. Such an arrangement allows both sites to be updated frequently within one day. The ABS-CBN site, for example, goes through at least three editions a day, with the first carrying mostly news from Today. The second edition has updates from ABS-CBN radio stations while the third has fresh news from the network’s TV stations.

Mariano says that compared to traditional newspapers, “online newspapers can adapt more quickly to changing developments”. This is true even without tie-ups with a broadcast network. The Inquirer site, for instance, had yet to be linked with GMA-7 when it first carried breaking news. The site used the news gathered by the reporters of the broadsheet, which was still being prepared for printing at the time and not yet out in the streets.

Still, having a tie-up with a broadcast network has other advantages, such as being able to offer audio and video streaming content. Abs-cbnNEWS.com now has that, although unlike most of its other features, that one has a price tag: $5 a month.

Features with a price
In general, Philippine news sites are free, but some have features that can be accessed only if the user coughs up some money first. BusinessWorld, for example, has special articles reserved only for subscribers, which it divides into two groups: international and local. International subscribers pay $90 a year while the fee is $62 annually for locals who also subscribe to the print version of BusinessWorld. If they do not, the price goes up by $9.

Most of the revenues of Philippine online newspapers, however, do not come from fees; ad placements generate most of the profits for the e-papers. Not surprisingly, many of the ads are aimed at Filipinos overseas.

Some community newspapers have also wised up on the popularity of online newspapers among Filipinos abroad, and are now making good money out of that knowledge. For example, anyone who wants to have unlimited access to the Sunday Punch, which covers the northern province of Pangasinan,  has to be a member of the Punch Club. The Sunday Punch offers five kinds of memberships, with the fees ranging from the $10 a year for “kabaleyan” members to $100 for “platinum” members. Four subscriptions come with platinum membership. All Punch Club members get to have their birthdays listed in the Punch’s online and print versions and any news or photo contributions they make will be printed for free. At present, there are 75 members of the Punch Club.

Community newspapers are gaining a considerable audience among overseas Filipinos because they offer news about specific hometowns – stories that have almost no chance of being published in the bigger news sites, but are of special interest to those wanting to know how many children their neighbors now have, what businesses are thriving in their towns, or whether or not the local political warlord has been overthrown. The country’s major island groups – Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao – are well represented in the cybernews stand, from provinces up north such as Pangasinan and Abra to those way down south such as Palawan and Davao having at least one newspaper covering them.

Wary of the Web

Some journalists, however, find it ironic that while advances in information technology are now enabling Filipinos overseas to have access to local news, many of those in media are themselves still reluctant to make friends with the World Wide Web. Jose Torres,  senior editor at abs-cbnNEWS.com, says that even though the Philippines can already boast of many advances in technology,  many local journalists are still operating in pre-Net mode.

“We have (had the) Internet (around) for more than 10 years,” he says. “Unfortunately, a lot of journalists (still) do not know how to surf the Internet. A lot of journalists do not even have an email address.”

“A lot of journalists seem to be afraid of technology,” he adds. “They don’t want to experiment. They don’t want to enter into the unknown.”

Asked what would happen if the journalists continue staying away from new technology, he says,  “Our society has to face a terrible fate. If journalism is not advanced, society will not be advanced.”

For sure, says Torres, politicians, businessmen, and the powerful elite are aware of the potentials of information technology or IT and are not afraid to use it. But he says their motives will be mostly to advance their own interests and not those of the public. They may even use technology to suppress information, he says.

“So we journalists must continue to study and welcome the new technology,” says Torres. “We should not try only to advance salary (through it) but also to continue to improve our craft.”

Harnessing the powers of the Net
Yvonne T. Chua, the training director of Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) has a similar view. She says that the packaging of information is drastically changing because of new technology. “You must know technology,” she stresses. This is why in its training workshops for journalists, the PCIJ makes sure there is always a module devoted to research techniques using IT. This includes how to make full use of the Excel spreadsheet program, as well as introducing workshop participants to some vital sources on various topics available on the Net.

Although nothing beats good old-fashioned legwork out in the field, including face-to-face interviews, using IT can often speed up the research and helps journalists narrow down possible topics and target sources. In many cases, the Net is also useful in verifying material or in hunting down contrary views.

As Dan Mariano sees it, IT can only help the Philippine media, which he says tend to overstate the country’s problems for the sake of capturing larger audiences. Exaggerating the news of course distorts reality and thus presents a wrong picture of what is happening in the country.

“I think that is a major problem of Philippine media,” says Mariano. “There is a lack of perspective, a lack of background. There is a lack of discipline in the tradition of double-sourcing. You have one quotation and you run the story and paint the town red with it.”
“Philippine media tend to magnify certain issues and at the same time tend to ignore other issues that are of greater importance, for instance poverty, corruption, domestic abuse,” he says. “What sells is what is important.”

In this age of the Internet, therefore, Philippine media organizations need not concentrate their IT efforts on online publishing to widen their audience. They can also harness the powers of the Net to help them develop deeper stories that would enable Filipinos – whether here or abroad — to see the issues more clearly and perhaps participate in coming up to solutions to the country’s many problems.

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