Student journalists and the future of community news
While many aspiring journalists nationwide look to the capital to cover national events unfold, I did the opposite.
I was already with a national news outlet and decided late 2015 that national news, listening to politicians repeat themselves and writing about high-level discussions and political events was no longer fulfilling.
This, along with personal life events led me to decide that I wanted to do something different. So in the beginning of last year I went home (sort of) to Cebu to cover the events of the 2016 elections.
I actually learned journalism as a local journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area after college in 2010. There, I’d cover school board meetings where the hot issues were funding for school instruments and the naming of parks. When real estate developers would propose to build commercial buildings over city parks, civically engaged residents would come out of the woodwork to protest in an effort to protect their community’s green spaces.
While rubbing elbows with past and future presidents in Manila was fun, I knew that going back to local journalism is just as important – if not more than – being a reporter in the capital.
Late February, I was invited to speak about community journalism at the Regional Tertiary Schools Press Conference in Region 8 (RTSPC8), which took place in Calbayog City.
It was an interesting conversation as someone on Facebook had tried to poke fun at my current affiliation with this community paper and considered it a downgrade from my previous affiliation with a national outlet.
But guess what? It’s not a downgrade.
Why? In a nutshell, Harvard’s Nieman Labs explains, “corrupt politicians only suffer when there’s no local media to cover it.”
And reporting on local corruption is something communities cannot rely on parachuting reporters from Manila to cover. Here in Cebu City, local reporters from dozens of outlets are in city hall every day to badger the mayor and City Council for answers to the city’s most pressing issues.
With the rise of online news, the walls that divide local, national and international news are no more.
And like former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neil once said, “all politics is local.”
A simple explanation of what he meant would be that his strategy in winning a national post was having knowledge and skill to navigate local politics to win elections.
The fact that the country is being led by two officials who had moved directly from the local scene to the national stage reflects this.
Those in the community press connected these dots early on.
Let’s rewind back to this time last year. If you based your prediction of the election on the analysts and coverage in national media, the win of then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte might have seemed farfetched.
But if you go back into the headlines of the local newspapers here in Cebu, most had seen it coming.
One factor, the talking heads kept repeating on broadcast media was that he did not have the machinery to win. But by the end of the campaign period, Duterte shot up to a double-digit lead over runner-up Mar Roxas, the rest was history.
What the local press watched closely in the provinces was that Duterte was able to deliver an infectious message that roused the emotions of a countryside that had felt left behind by a government that prioritizes Metro Manila.
His message of inclusion and promise to fight crime and corruption was more than enough to rouse volunteers to campaign for him.
It was around this time last year that in my mind, I knew who would win this election. But some journalist friends from Manila laughed at me or brushed it off for coming to what they thought would be an impossible victory.
Yet look where we are now?
If the last election would serve as a lesson on where community journalism should go in the Philippines, it’s that it would do media well for journalists working for national media to take the community press seriously.
Local journalists would have the better context, color and nuance that the national reporters might not have.
The media landscape outside of Cebu, however, is another story. Questioning local officials, many of whom are part of long-running dynasties, can be deadly. So the fact that not many are willing to cover local government in the countryside is understandable.
But at the same time, in order to curb corruption and keep local governments in check, community journalists must be there.
But how? As an outsider, it’s a tough dilemma to solve.
After my week as a guest speaker, judge and facilitator for RTSPC8, I am convinced that the future of community journalism in the Philippines is in good hands.
If students from Christ the King College in Calbayog, who ran a gutsy editorial in their publication on their administration’s questionable HR practices, are any indicator of the kind of talent community media will inherit next, then I’m optimistic.
The students who submitted their pitches for investigative reports showed bravery in the stories they will pursue: How did a staff member of a university get murdered on campus with stringent security measures? Why had one school been collecting Internet fees for over a decade, yet the campus still had no free WiFi available? One school even wanted to do a lifestyle check on the accounting officer who would show of her luxurious lifestyle on social media.
If these students take this courage they’ve developed on their campuses, and use it to hold their local governments accountable, I have no doubt that change will come.
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