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Pinoy Times publisher Eggie ApostolHERE IN Manila, the Pinoy Times seemed to have finally found that niche after months of meandering. Set up in September 1999, the paper had set out to be an intelligent tabloid written in the language of the man on the street, but was having trouble attracting a steady audience. That changed in mid-2000, when it began to gain tremendous following for its gutsy reportage of the controversies that surrounded then President Joseph Estrada, his mansions and mistresses. Pinoy Times was filling a void in Philippine society - publishing articles that the broadsheets refused to run at that time, because they feared either an Estrada reprisal or an advertiser boycott similar to what the Philippine Daily Inquirer experienced in 1999.

The public's craving for the controversial stories about Estrada became so great that the Pinoy Times put out weekly Special Editions—fashioned after the pre-EDSA I Special Editions of the Mr and Ms magazine—that were devoted mostly to articles about the then President. These Special Editions reached a peak circulation of 300,000 during the Estrada impeachment trial, or more than ten times the circulation its parent edition had started out with.

After Estrada was ousted, however, the circulation of Pinoy Times went into a freefall. Rues the paper's publisher Vic Tirol: "People stopped buying because they felt the problem (Estrada) was gone. There was no need to keep in step with the details."

In truth, with Estrada gone, Pinoy Times seemed to have lost its edge. "If there is nothing there that they cannot read in other publications or see on TV, why will… people continue to buy that?" asks Angelito Pangilinan, chairman of the Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies or 4A's.

Five days before Christmas 2001, Pinoy Times rolled off the presses for the last time. Among the 50 people who had to go were journalists and columnists carried over from the Gokongwei-owned Manila Times, who were being paid salaries almost at par with those offered by the broadsheets. As a result, Pinoy Times' staff salaries contributed to the paper's high operating costs.

When Pinoy Times was launched in September 1999, owner Eugenia Apostol had been in a hurry to put the paper out. The Manila Times had just been shut down, and that politically restive period was also seeing protests against charter changes. At that time, those immediately available were the former Manila Times staff, some of country's best writers and columnists who had been getting competitive salaries.

Although the presence of reputable columnists could be an added attraction for readers, they could also be a drain on the paper's budget. Indeed, a month after the Pinoy Times closure, the broadsheet Manila Standard admitted that it was experiencing similar financial difficulties; not surprisingly, among the first it let go were veteran columnists Nestor Mata and Larry Sipin, as well as Mahar Mangahas of the Social Weather Stations.

Salaries, however, were just one item in the Pinoy Times's list of big expenses. Much of whatever money it made went to printing and the cost of newsprint, which increased just after the "thinking tabloid" first hit the streets. Thus, it was still barely breaking even when its circulation shot up in late 2000. "Paper was a big expense," explains Tirol. "So the only ones making money were the paper supplier and the printer."

The cost of paper is a major outlay for any print publication. In the last few years, to cut down on paper costs, broadsheets in the United States began shifting from 54-inch to what is known as the 50-inch web or a "baby broadsheet" size that slices an inch off a page's width. The country's leading newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, has already made that shift, starting with its January 25, 2002 edition.

"Paper is the single most expensive expense in the making of a newspaper," said Inquirer editor-in-chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc in a message explaining the daily's resizing to readers. The Inquirer, she said, was simply going the way of 300 newspapers in the United States.

Yet as their overheads continue to soar, print-media organizations have been seeing a decline in their readership. Even the market leader, the Inquirer, saw its circulation dropping to 220,000 after it soared to 260,000 in the run up to and immediately after EDSA II. Dwindling readership has complicated the financial problems of the print media. Although they count on advertisements for income, they rely on these less than radio and television, and depend more on circulation or sales to keep them going.

In the Philippines, newspaper readership is traditionally low and rises dramatically only in times of political and economic upheaval. But the economic crunch has made Filipinos all the more reluctant to shell out money for a newspaper. Like other people elsewhere in the world, Filipinos consider the newspaper as one of those things they can do without when they have less to spend. Tirol concedes, "Between buying Pinoy Times and food, the choice was clear."

A study conducted in April 2001 for a select group of food and consumer companies and the Asian Institute of Management bears this out. Done by AIM Professor Ned Roberto, its results confirmed that newspapers, magazines, and even comics are among the first to be deleted in a consumer's shopping list in times of crisis. In Metro Manila, around 20 percent of the study's respondents from all income classes said they had stopped buying magazines and comics altogether, although the figure is less for newspapers. In Cebu, 40 percent of the DE class or lower-income segment eliminated newspapers from their list of daily needs, while in Davao the figure was 25 percent.

A year 2000 survey called "Trimedia Exposure Study," this time by the Manila-based Asia Research Organization, also found that two out of three respondents had not read any newspaper at all for one full week.

It is presumably this remaining third of the reading population that the country's 20 broadsheets and tabloids have to fight over. Magazines, which, since they cater to specific groups, have less volatile readerships, are feeling the pinch as well. No doubt, every publication is either applying or about to apply cost-cutting measures, if not repositioning or repackaging itself to attract a bigger share of readers. For instance, the weekly magazine Newsbreak, which just turned a year old in January, became a fortnightly publication beginning March 4 as part of a reformatting plan. It has also gone full color, and added more pages. Moreover, Newsbreak has merged with the three-year-old magazine Market Watch, which focused on investment opportunities in the Philippines.

These measures are being undertaken even if Newsbreak's circulation and sales figures are on the rise. Associate editor Chay Florentino-Holifeña says the magazine has been successful so far mainly because it has established itself as having inside stories on current issues. Newspapers don't offer that, she says. And, she adds, there is also the problem of "decreased credibility of newspapers and sensationalism among the broadsheets."

But Hofileña and the rest of the Newsbreak staff have no time to pat themselves on the back. As Pangilinan of 4As points out, more and more people are giving up reading because "radio and TV have become more aggressive in news gathering. Now, you have a 24-hour news channel, more sophisticated news gathering, so you practically don't have to buy a newspaper."

Pangilinan notes that unlike newspapers or magazines, which consumers would have to pay for daily or weekly, TV sets are one-time purchases that provide a steady source of news, information and entertainment. In fact, Roberto's study found that 97 percent of DE respondents in Metro Manila owned color TV sets, now considered a household priority more important than a refrigerator or a bed. (Only 74 percent had refrigerators, and 82 percent, beds).

"A newspaper is a losing proposition these days," says veteran business journalist Emeterio Sd. Perez. He probably already knew that when he joined the broadsheet Manila Meteor as its assistant business editor last September. At the time, however, the paper was oozing with cash from investors, attracting experienced journalists like Perez from now-defunct dailies such as the Philippine Post, the Manila Chronicle, and the Sun.star Daily. The newspaper managed to snag some advertisements, but even when combined with the initial investment, the income from these was just not enough to cover the cost of running the paper. On November 15, Meteor employees got their paychecks for the last time. But they would continue to come to work and put out the newspaper until the last week of January, echoing an experience that former Post employees went through during that paper's final months.

Perez recalls some employees coming to work even after the Meteor had already suspended operations and begging for transportation money to be able to cover their beats. "These people were willing to come to the office, as long as they had money for fare," he says.

But if the Meteor employees were so insistent on showing up for work, it was not only because they were hoping to collect whatever of their salaries was still unpaid. They also wanted to keep believing that investors would step in anytime and get the paper going again. After all, most of them had nowhere else to go, at least not in an industry where freeze hiring had become the norm. As it is, newspapers are seeing their numbers dwindling. Last year there were 12 broadsheets; today there are nine.

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