Part 1: There’s never enough time for news
I’m currently teaching students how to write for an online audience and why newspapers are different — in form mostly — from news they find on the web.
I start off with a question: Who reads a newspaper these days? No hands are raised. Among my students, the mere idea of reading a newspaper is unimaginable, bordering on laughable. Mind you, they read news online or, to be blunt, on Facebook. But how much context or at least back story do they still remember?
In my “quest” to understand why today’s generation are not reading newspapers, I find myself reflecting back on days when I myself hated newspapers.
Newspapers were as old as the people who read them, I thought back then. My dad was a good example. He loved reading newspapers. He would read them cover-to-cover, and later would cut out and clipped articles and stick them on a recycled newsprint, and tucked in a long, brown Manila envelope. I asked why he did it, he said it was for future reference. (Most of these clippings rotted away and gathered dusts months later).
I grew up devouring glossy magazines on tech and science. When I discovered science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, I graduated to pulp fiction. I abhorred AM radio because every morning I heard broadcast journalists reporting on the day’s event as if there was always something big happening (i.e. a huge fire somewhere in the city). My thoughts back then was that radio turned mundane news into entertainment. News on radio was always in a hurry.
Years passed. I found myself applying at a premiere state university. I had to choose between a course in computer science, psychology, biology or journalism — the very course that would land me a job in a newspaper or a magazine. When the college entrance exam came, I didn’t qualify for the first two choices since both courses had limited quotas. So I was left with journalism or biology — the latter because of my general interest in science fiction.
In College, I struggled with news writing. I sucked at writing leads, save for an attention-grabbing headline. I almost flunked that subject. Worse, I had to endure an afternoon of stressful, time-pressure-driven deadlines set by our journalism professor who later became the bureau chief of a national daily.
In journalism school, I learned the 5Ws and 1H. I thanked my high school typing class because it saved me a lot of trouble translating my rough ideas into words. But news writing was not a typing course. I had to think fast and clear. And I had to type fast, too. I had to follow a certain format. I was introduced to slugs — a two-word summary of a news item that occupied the first upper left-hand corner of a 8.5 by 11-inch newsprint. Every class, our professor would give us bullet-point details of a news item. In 30 minutes, we had to hack a news item — all without typing errors. Every Tuesdays and Thursday afternoon, that was the drill. Hack a news item in 30 minutes. And we had to bring our own typewriters!
Thank God (with some help from friends and family), I finished my university course in journalism. I didn’t finish with honors, nor did I end up with a latin phrase next to my name during graduation. I just made it and that was the end of it. Phew. Now, I wanted to pursue a career in classical music, or something that resembles a career in music. Music to my ears.
I struggled and was lost. I found myself staring at ads in newspapers. There was no job waiting for me in a newspaper — not even a city paper. My years in journ school did not prepare me for what I had to go through. I struggled, and had to find my way into landing a writing job. But first, I had to find a job!
I landed a job as a staff writer for a medical magazine, written by non-doctors. I struggled once again to find my bearings. I delivered one badly written story after the other. At one point, my editor said I had no future in journalism nor writing. I should stick to music.
That was the trigger. That lighted a fire inside of me. A glove was thrown at my face, and I found it a challenge to prove my editor wrong. In the next few years, I honed my craft. I threw myself at the mercy of good editors who taught me how to write and think clearly. I started reading newspapers more often. I read and read, and read — books, magazines. Fiction or non-fiction. Poetry. Literature I also wrote, and wrote, and wrote — some to my future wife.
The hard work paid off. I landed a job in a trade publication. I was assigned different beats (a journalism lingo that describes the industry or topic you write about). I started with medical and health issues. Then I moved on to covering science and technology when the Internet was on the rise. Later, I was covering business issues, politics, and the Philippine elections. I dove deeper into policies affecting government procurement. I also dabbled in trying to make sense of enterprise software and technology. All these, I did because someone challenged me. I wrote 3 to 5 stories a day. I was breaking news. I was shooting videos. I was doing multimedia news!
The biggest turning point in my journalism career was when I was hired by a local newspaper to join a newly assembled website team. Our task: create content for an online audience, 24 hours a day.
How should I be able to churn stories for a 24-hour news operation. Surprisingly, my training with hard-nosed editors paid off. I was breezing through press conferences, events, and interviews. I was provided the tools to deliver stories from anywhere, as long as I had my mobile Internet. I broke news from the field. If the Internet wasn’t working, I would call in stories. I was told I had to write news “for today,” and NOT for “tomorrow’s news. Breaking news was my breakfast, lunch and dinner. And blogging became my dessert. We operated at breakneck speeds, beating wire agencies to the BIG stories of the day — and eventually of the decade. I was witnessed to shifting world of journalism where speed was key.
Then, another break came in the form of the oldest Internet startup: Yahoo! My editor found me on Linkedin and after several interviews, I landed a job as editor for the Philippine portal. My job: build a news team that would deliver news, features, while also learning unique tools for curating content — while also minding our numbers. Once again, my team was breaking news faster than the wire services. Our team won internal awards for delivering unique coverages given the little resources we had. I also started learning new terms and concepts such as “attracting eyeballs” and that “content didn’t grow on trees.” Original reporting was still key in our news operation, but the bulk was being able to attract enough traffic to the site during big, live events and seasonal events and stories, namely the Philippine elections.
From writing good headlines, to picking the best images to complement our stories, I also started learning about the emerging social media networks, including the ubiquitous Facebook. We talked a lot about metrics, such as page views, unique users, and time spent. We took on this mantra that as online editors, we will live and die by our numbers. Poor traffic means you’re in much trouble. We also joked ourselves a lot, and we coined a phrase that best described our work: “Preditors.” We are producers and editors as well. This means, we operated our portal as producers, but we also wrote and edited our own work, allowing more control of the news flow and news. Our news team organization was flat. We had editors running portals and we had writers who delivered news and feature articles. Given our web publishing tools, an editor can practically run the portal alone. The site was amazing, and the CMS (content management system) — while it was not the best CMS in our eyes at that time — it delivered what we needed. And, we had our metrics at the end of the day. (To be continued…)
Author’s Note: This narration of events might not be exactly chronological, but are based on his working memory. Please don’t crucify him for some mistakes made along the way. There’s always an edit mode, if necessary. Comments and feedback are welcome.