MANILA--Months of coronavirus lockdowns have taken their toll on a Philippine print media industry already struggling with declining readership, forcing at least 13 community papers nationwide to suspend their print editions to cut losses due to dwindling advertising revenues.
With many journalists also forced to work from home, coverage has been limited, allowing the government to "control the narrative," especially on its response to the worsening pandemic, said Ariel Sebellino, executive director of the Philippine Press Institute (PPI), a self-regulating organization of more than 70 newspapers nationwide.
"I have to be honest. This is not just because there's a pandemic. It's also because of the present administration," he said, referring to struggles confronting the press under President Rodrigo Duterte.
The government's shutdown of ABS-CBN, the largest media network in the country, wiped out billions of pesos in revenues sending thousands of employees out of work in the middle of the pandemic, he said.
"It's not only print," he told ABS-CBN News. "It's the entire media industry that has been affected."
The following newspapers halted printing to apparently cushion the impact of the pandemic, based on a PPI list provided by Sebellino:
- Mindanao Observer (Dipolog City)
- Baguio Chronicle (Baguio City)
- SunStar Baguio (Baguio City)
- Mabuhay (Bulacan)
- Pahayagang Balikas (Batangas)
- The Northern Forum (Tuguegarao City)
- Palawan News (Puerto Princesa)
- Mindanao Times (Davao City)
- Mindanao Daily Mirror (Davao City)
- Ilocos Times (Laoag City)
- Visayan Daily Star (Bacolod City)
- SunStar Cagayan De Oro
- Mindanao Gold Star Daily (Cagayan de Oro)
"They're barely breathing," said Sebellino.
The Mindanao Gold Star Daily began losing "big ticket" advertisers even before the initial lockdowns in March, forcing the Cagayan De Oro-based newspaper to drastically reduce circulation from 60,000 copies to 2,000, said associate editor Cong B. Corrales.
Some of these companies later started placing ads, allowing the paper to print at least thrice a week to complement its online operations, he said.
Revenues from the website were used to pay correspondents, some of whom agreed to continue filing stories even for free, he said.
"The pandemic has posed an unprecedented challenge to media outlets like ours," said Corrales, who had to return to reportorial work aside from editing to sustain the paper's news operations.
"Kung ano yung nangyari sa mga big companies, syempre, nag-trickle down sa amin na maliliit," he told ABS-CBN News, adding that the paper needed a "massive dose of creativity" to stay afloat.
But even some of the biggest newspapers were struggling as well.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, arguably the most influential English-language broadsheet in the country, offered a generous one-time voluntary retirement program, citing "the steady decline of the print newspaper industry." Twenty-nine employees took the offer.
The Inquirer's tabloid, Bandera, also migrated to a purely digital edition, retiring its editorial staff of around 20 people last July.
"Devastating yun, lalo na dun sa mga tao namin," one of them said on condition of anonymity.
"Double whammy yun. Nasa pandemya ka. Yun yung time na kailangan mo ng suporta, ng trabaho para ma-sustain yung pangangailangan ng pamilya mo. Tapos bigla kang tinanggalan ng trabaho."
An Inquirer staff member said reporters got the impression that the retirement program was meant to prevent possible retrenchment.
"I think that's the max that they will do. The message we're getting is that the Prietos are there for the long haul," he said, referring to the family that owns that company.
Like ABS-CBN, the Inquirer had been repeatedly attacked by Duterte because of reports he deemed unfavorable to him.
Though journalists' movements are limited by lockdowns, news organizations "must continue to assert their roles as public sources of verified and contextualized information, as sense-makers and as watchdogs," according to a paper by former business editor Felipe Salvosa II, who now heads the journalism program of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila.
Salvosa cited limitations on coverage such as that of the president's weekly address on his administration's pandemic strategies. It is usually taped with certain portions removed before airing.
Reporters also rely mostly on Facebook and Zoom in covering regular Malacañang briefings, missing out on the opportunity to scrutinize government officials further during face-to-face interviews.
Given the current challenges to reporting, Salvosa said good journalism would set reporters apart from "state-sanctioned content or even propaganda" by "debunking wrong information, misinformation and disinformation."
"Lockdown or no lockdown, journalists cannot abdicate on these functions to anyone, especially to the government," he wrote.