Practicing ‘alternative’ journalism

Kenneth Roland A. Guda

WRITING – as well as editing and taking photographs – for Pinoy Weekly is often a hectic and exciting, lonely and daunting task. But it is never boring.

After all, we are a small organization. Some of our editors are in the academe, but most are also writers, photographers, even layout artists. If in the seven years of the paper’s existence I learned anything from working for Pinoy Weekly, it is the art of multitasking.

Which, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, after all, precisely this kind of training that honed a whole generation of journalists during martial law – the so-called “mosquito journalists” who worked under tight budgets, in small groups and with limited circulation. These journalists produced some of the bravest reporting this country has seen. They worked outside the ambit of Marcos’ “official media” that toed the Palace line and kept silent about the repression and violence that the state inflicted upon the people.

In many aspects, Pinoy Weekly continues that tradition. Though some say today’s media is freer than that during martial law, social conditions essentially stayed the same. One difference, though, is that Philippine media have become more profit-driven. This has led to some dearth in reporting social issues and perspectives deemed unprofitable or unfashionable. Pinoy Weekly seeks to subvert that practice. We have clear-cut advocacies, and service not just the general public but sectors of society that are maginalized and underreported.

We subscribe to the basic journalistic tenets of fairness and accuracy. But we are driven by a great desire to influence ordinary people to participate in social change.

Thrust into unfamiliar territory

As with most of our editorial staff, my single press credential was writing for a student paper, the Philippine Collegian of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, before making a leap into this small journalistic project called Pinoy Weekly. I was a Creative Writing (Filipino) major in UP, but was not a native Tagalog speaker. I thought of myself mainly as an English writer.

When a ragtag band of patriotic entrepreneurs formed Pinoy Weekly, they envisioned a publication catering to sectors of society deemed unlettered. They were the tabloid-reading crowd, who had no access to investigative journalism but possess the potential to influence society for the good. It was 2002, just a year after EDSA Dos. Eugenia “Eggie” Apostol’s Pinoy Times, which targeted the politicized middle class, had stopped publishing. The ragtag band thought it was time for a political paper catering to the working class.

I came in as a reporter. With my background as a features writer in English, I had difficulty shifting to writing news stories in Filipino. But the language and the news format was the least of my worries. Beat coverage was worlds apart from creative writing. For lack of more seasoned reporters, I was assigned to cover Malacañang – considered by many to be the important political beat, and an intimidating place for the inexperienced journalist.

It was fine, even thrilling at first, to be close to the seat of power. I was in the Palace when Oakwood happened. I was there when the US government declared war on Iraq and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called a press conference to profess her undying support for that tragic invasion. I remember being at the Palace when US President George W. Bush visited there.

It sure had its highs, but generally I was uncomfortable. But this was partly because of my initial inability to reconcile my progressive politics with the demands of what was supposedly “mainstream” reporting. I guess it was not so much timidity as revulsion for everything the institution stood for.

I later learned to compromise. I found useful something that Norman Mailer wrote when he covered the 1964 Republican primaries – an awful place and time to be in if you are a liberal like Mailer: “Unless one knows him well, or has done a sizable work of preparation, it is next to useless to interview a politician…Interviewing a candidate is about as intimate as catching him on television. Therefore it is sometimes easier to pick up the truth of his campaign by studying the outriggers of his activity.”

Shifting to new approaches

I find nothing wrong with mainstream beat reporting – they provide invaluable public service. It is just that I did not find myself, and by extension, the weekly paper, effective by aping reporters from the dailies, trying to get that elusive scoop of the day. Investigative journalists point out that the beat system tends to discourage independent investigative work.

Thankfully, Pinoy Weekly eventually shifted to a feature-based, magazine format. We shifted our attention to honing our investigative and narrative reporting skills. We shifted from a traditional beat coverage to a sectoral coverage. This entailed refocusing our attention from “official” sources of information, like government agencies, to the members of the sectors themselves as well as non-state groups representing those sectors. It is a bottom-to-top approach. It was alternative journalism.

I covered and wrote in-depth stories on women and human rights. It was 2006, when the Subic rape case caught national attention, when extrajudicial killings of activists intensified, when enforced disappearances reached alarming levels. Meanwhile, our renewed push for in-depth reporting compelled me to study photojournalism. I began to write about and take photographs of the cases and issues that I covered. At the same time, I was gradually asked to shoulder more editing tasks.

In November 2007, the paper’s editor in chief, Rogelio Ordoñez, resigned. I was obliged – forced was more like it – to take the helm. As a young editor with a pool of writers and photographers with an average age of 26, Pinoy Weekly’s print edition sought to reflect its staff’s youthful energy and passion. We jazzed up the covers, all the while taking to heart the paper’s advocacies.

Just last June, burdened with financial difficulties (we rarely had advertisements, which meant we got by through support from readers in the impoverished sectors), Pinoy Weekly opted to temporarily halt its print edition. We continue publishing online ( as we study better ways of sustaining the print for the long haul.

Yes, I even had to learn some marketing skills. Seven years into this small project called Pinoy Weekly, I have become a compulsive multi-tasker. No regrets, though, as I always keep in mind the readers – those unlettered, tabloid-reading public who have come to appreciate our work and our passion.

Published in the August 2008 issue of PJR (Philippine Journalism Review) Reports of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility(PinoyWeekly)


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