At home in the world

Another speech.

That (apart from the usual and full-time Op-Ed related responsibilities) is how I’ve been spending most of my time these days: writing speeches and preparing presentations, and then imposing my thoughts on captive audiences. (That explains why four of the last five posts, and seven of the last 10, were columns. My apologies.)

After hosting the 3rd Inquirer Briefing on November 27, three engagements came in quick succession: first the Rotary Club of Manila (the so-called "mother club" not only of the Philippines but of all Asia), then the Philippine College of Surgeons and then,  just this morning, the First Business Education – Industry Summit, at the AIM.

If the 170 deans and educators who paid some serious loose change to attend the day-long summit (theme: "Developing the Global Filipino")  remember only one thing from my 25 minutes behind the rostrum, I hope it’s the looming possibility of "SM Nation."

The parts in italics are the parts I skipped; I also omitted the first two (introductory) paragraphs.

My remarks today, like Caesar’s Gaul, are divided into three uneven parts. First, I would like to talk about my newspaper’s commitment to quality education coverage. Second, I wish to discuss specific suggestions regarding the implementation of Memo Order 39. And third, I will recommend a common measure by which to gauge, in the expansive language of today’s summit, “our commitment to the development of the Global Filipino.”

The Inquirer is committed to education

The challenge of globalization is a daily reality for the Inquirer.

We do not, as yet, feel any competitive pressure from international publications circulated in the Philippines, but we do labor under the normative pressure of international journalism standards. That is why we have an Ombudsman and a Correction Box that is sometimes filled with embarrassingly basic mistakes. That is why we have greater use of bigger visuals and easy-to-read sidebars like timelines and factoids. That is also why we have narrowed the size of the broadsheet and pioneered the publication of free sheets. (There are many other innovations, but I think the point has been made.)

We join the local awards contests, like the Jaime V. Ongpin and the Catholic Mass Media Awards, religiously. But we are also active members of international associations which organize their own competitions, like the Society of Publishers in Asia and the World Association of Newspapers.

But we do not only compete under international standards; we also write for an international – or rather, an extra-national – audience. Please do not misunderstand me. The Inquirer is indisputably a national newspaper; we write for a community of some 2 million readers right here in the Philippines. But the Inquirer’s affiliate, Inquirer.net, is the country’s leading news website, and a solid majority of its readers consists of Filipinos residing abroad. Through Inquirer.net, millions based outside the Philippines read us too.

It is, then, in these two senses – the normative pressure of international standards for editorial content and business models, the competitive pressure of writing for an extra-national audience – that globalization can be said to be a daily reality for the Inquirer.

The Inquirer’s commitment to quality and high-profile coverage of education issues begins with – and indeed belongs to – the front page. This year alone, we’ve devoted a big chunk of prime front-page real estate to four special reports on education. We will continue to pay close attention to the challenges and initiatives and – I hope, with more time – also to the success stories of Philippine education.

Part of the reason for this unusual concern, I must admit, is the imperative of sheer self-preservation. Without a literate public, newspapers will have no readers – and no future. Doing our bit to help improve the fortunes of the education sector and, in particular, help raise the level of literacy in the country should help us build a new constituency of newspaper readers.

But a bigger part of the reason for our focus on education is that old reliable, the public interest. It is in the public’s deepest interest that the rot in the education sector be exposed; it is in the public’s long-term interest that the various crises in education are resolved. Hence, the continuing attention to education.

But our commitment is not limited to the news pages alone. For some time now, we have reserved weekly column space for Inquirer founder Eggie Apostol’s Education Revolution. Every Saturday, we publish commentary – sometimes understated, sometimes rabble-rousing – by an educator or a partner in education.

And beginning next year (if you will allow me to make a happy announcement), the Inquirer will publish a regular Education section.

Media “study” should be integrated into the BSBA curriculum

Now, to the nitty-gritty. The standardization that Memo Order 39 makes possible heralds a new age of promise for business education in the country.

As a political journalist, however, as someone who has seen both the political and the non-political refracted through the prism of media, I must say I found the curriculum described in Memo Order 39 wanting.

I hasten to add that I think I do understand why many business educators find the “balanced treatment of functional areas” that the curriculum describes a genuine breakthrough. But the world it assumes seems skewed to me.

Here’s why. The curriculum does not take media into account; it seems to operate in a media-free vacuum. I realize that the very same thing can be said about other disciplines outside of Mass Communication or Communication Arts. But I hope you will agree with me that, unlike most other disciplines, business is fundamentally interdependent on or with media. 

The late Roger Silverstone, the pioneering media theorist, once described media as “the texture of our experience.” Indeed, in all but the remotest locations, we can almost say that human existence seems to be predicated on access to media: think of the ubiquitous cellphone, or the universal television set, or the various forms in which music makes its omni-presence felt.

But even these – cellphone, TV, radio or MP3 – can be said to be old media.

The World Wide Web dazzles us with possibility, with its social networks and virtual worlds, its million books and unexpected discoveries. Any parent who has ever spent time in the Neopets universe or seen a teenager absorbed in Facebook knows what I mean.

But even the Web fails to catch, with its gossamer net, the true meaning of media as “texture.”

Once, in Bangkok, at a meeting of the World Association of Newspapers, I heard a presenter say the most extraordinary thing: Supermarkets, he said, are the new media. That would make Wal-Mart the world’s biggest media company – and would bring us closer to Silverstone’s central insight.

Of course the presenter was straining at hyperbole to make a point. But he was also being quite literal. Enter a good-sized supermarket now, in any of the country’s bigger cities, and you find yourself in an immediate, even tactile, media environment. Brand names are talking to you; interactive advertising-on-an-endless-loop is waiting for you in the next aisle; moving displays startle you. It isn’t the futuristic world of Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” yet, but does anyone doubt that, for the great majority, this is indeed the shape the future will take?

Perhaps, if that presenter in Bangkok had spent any time in the Philippines, he would have said: Malls are the new media. Indeed, in the Philippines, we can almost say that the country’s malls form a parallel republic. We shouldn’t underestimate the possibilities that arise when a poor boy from Lubao, Pampanga (and I mean a real poor boy, not the President’s late father) enters SM San Fernando and finds the exact same environment as would a yuppie shopping in SM Makati. In other words, teenagers in any of the areas with an SM mall can say, “Let’s watch a movie in SM,” and, even though they are hundreds of kilometers apart, visualize the exact same cinema: the same stars on the ceiling, the same popcorn stand, the same seating. Welcome to SM Nation.

Because “media is texture,” what prevents the SM Group from venturing into news media too? What prevents PLDT, with its MyTV breakthrough, from assuming the functions of a news network? What prevents San Miguel from producing the news, not merely subsidizing it?

Too many questions; not enough answers, at least not yet. But this is the world we live in; this is what the world is coming to. As broadly defined, media has become more and more the texture, even the very condition, of our experience. Does the new BSBA program prepare its students for this reality?

Perhaps only indirectly.

Business Communication is provided for, as a 3-unit Business Core subject. It is a necessary course, but as a reading of its course description will show, entirely inadequate.

“The course covers the different terms of communication used in business transactions. Students are taught to prepare business reports, memoranda, business proposals, minutes of the meeting, economic briefs, and executive summaries. Formal styles of communication are also covered in the course.”

Perhaps, in another time, this 3-unit subject would have sufficed. But to prepare the BSBA major for a world where SM could be the country’s largest media company, a world where a PLDT consumer can access different kinds of information from multiple media platforms, a world where beer drinkers can opt to listen to San Mig Light News, I think we need to add units in media “study.” Perhaps classes in Special Topics can devote themselves to understanding how the media works, or, even more important, how the media is changing.

I quite realize that, as a journalist, I have just maneuvered myself into the position of a fish giving advice to fishermen. But I am not here to tell you how to use better bait or which waters to cast your fly in. 

In fact, by media “study” I do not mean a course on how business can manage the media; that approach is ultimately counter-productive. I mean a deeper appreciation of the media environment – an environment in which it is not possible to do business without media, in which it is entirely possible that business becomes media.

Two case studies.

When I get the chance – that is to say, when I get up early enough to drive – I listen to a favorite show on radio. One feature the show has is what its three DJs call “Fab Finds.” It’s their take on the most newsworthy items in the day’s newspapers. So far, so 20th century. But what sets their take apart, at least to this journalist, is that their finds include not only news items but ads as well. Or obvious press releases. Someone says, I found this great ad on this page – and, just like that, the ad becomes news.

This is, of course, a flanking attack on a core concept of journalism, which holds that the news is what editors and reporters say it is. This core concept explains most everything you read in the papers, with the obvious exception of major events like a terrorist attack or a plane crash. (And indeed, in the case of newspapers with a track record like the Inquirer, loyal readers patronize them because they trust the judgment of those same editors and reporters.)

Question for the BSBA major: What kind of media environment do you have when sleep-deprived DJs choose what is newsworthy, and what does this mean for your business or product or service?

Google, as anyone with a computer knows, may be the biggest Internet success story since, well, Al Gore “invented” the Internet. (He didn’t really say that, of course, as a quick check on Google will tell us.) But Google has a feature that scares the 5Ws and 1H out of me, and should be included in the program of study of all five BSBA areas of specialization.

Google News is, in the company’s own words, “a novel approach to news.” Novel does not begin to describe it.

“Google News is a computer-generated news site that aggregates headlines from more than 4,500 English-language news sources worldwide, groups similar stories together and displays them according to each reader’s personalized interests.”

In other words, the news is what the algorithm says it is. An earlier version of Google’s About Google News description included a mention of the service as being prepared without the intervention of human editors – a detail which, when I mentioned it to a media executive a couple of years ago, elicited an enthusiastic “Yes!”

It is still a work in progress. I remember turning to Google News in the aftermath of the tsunami and finding a Xinhua press release, about a donation from the Chinese government, as the top news story of the day. But that was then; I wonder how good it is now.

Question for the BSBA major: What kind of media environment do you have when sleep-neutral computers in some server farm in California choose what is newsworthy, and what does this mean for your business or product or service?

My point: Article 1 of Memo No. 39 can be improved.

“The Business Administration program covers the integrated approach and interrelationship among the functional areas of business as well as sensitivity to the economic, social, technological, legal and international environment in which business must operate.” We should include media too.

By the way, in my first reading of Memo No. 39, I was struck by this sentence in a course description: “This course aims to provide thorough understanding about Advertising and the Real world.” Perhaps it was the capital “R” that caught my eye. Perhaps it was the unrealistic promise, in a 3-unit course, of thoroughness. But I could not help thinking that, forward-looking as the new BSBA program is, some educators still live in the past – the distant past.

A generation ago – that is to say, when I was still in school – we thought we had already discredited the whole notion of a “real world,” as contrasted with the “artificial world” of the school. A generation ago, we already realized that the school, in fact, was part of the real world. What happens there is not only as real as it gets; sometimes it evens shapes life out in the “real” world. Consider Facebook. Consider the First Quarter Storm. Consider Rizal.

Start with Rizal

Now on to the real question: How do we develop the Global Filipino?

We could do worse than to start with Rizal. His example tells us what we need to know to become a Filipino who is at home, at ease, at large, in the world.

Three quick thoughts, inspired by Rizal’s own experience.

The Global Filipino needs to develop a heightened sense of awareness. This sense is clearest in Rizal’s journals and letters, especially when he was traveling or away from home. But it is also there in his Borneo project or his Dapitan school. It is not usual to refer to the entrepreneur’s instinct in Rizal, but it seems to me his sense of possibility was positively entrepreneurial.

The Global Filipino needs to develop a sense of practical commitment. This sense is obvious in those scolding letters Rizal wrote, when he complained about his fellow Filipinos wasting their time on gambling and women (and not necessarily in that order). But it is also there in his intuitive grasp of the different opportunities of 19th century media: in his readiness to write for a newspaper, but also in his decision to compose the Noli in Spanish, not French; his appropriation of a 250-year-old history book as a teaching moment; his realization, after watching American Indians from the Wild, Wild West perform thrilling acts during the Paris Exposition of 1889, that a similar group he would call Los Indios Bravos could be potent propaganda too.

The Global Filipino needs to develop a deeper sense of common purpose. This sense was expressed in Rizal’s acute consciousness of why Filipinos were making so “little progress.” We needed, he said, to stop being individualistic. “There is then, a progress or perfecting on the individual level in the Philippines, but not one which is national, general. This is why only the individual perfects himself, and not the species.”

Conclusion

To be sure, the context of our discussion on developing the Global Filipino is not complete without reference to our turbulent democratic project. We look forward to the day when we have finally become worthy of our liberty. For that to happen, we need to do what Rizal told us to do: prove, once and for all, that we are indeed and finally “superior to our misfortune.” 

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