Column: Worrying about the future

Published on March 3, 2009

In Cagayan de Oro City last Friday, a high school senior named Niku Tindugan asked me a blunt question during the first open forum of the day. Aren’t you worried (“Hindi ba kayo nag-aalala,” he asked in Filipino) that young people don’t read newspapers anymore? His question was echoed by a college editor during the second open forum I took part in (held this time at the busy atrium of the SM mall in the city), who asked what school newspaper editors should do to reach students who no longer read school newspapers.

The short answer: Yes, working journalists are worried. The worrying is hardly confined to the Philippines. Consider the case of a friend who works in risky Mexico; her husband is a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, the venerable newspaper which may be shut down in a matter of days. “There are no words” to describe this reversal of fortune, she writes.

The long answer is, well, lengthy indeed: We worry, but we do not despair.

Despair, to quote a recent column of colleague Randy David’s, written in another context, is merely the other side of confusion. In the first place, the younger generations are still reading — mainly in other formats, of course, like Twitter and Facebook and by SMS, but like other information-processing generations they still require the hammer of news and the anvil of opinion to force the world into a recognizable shape. We — that is, “traditional” journalists — simply need to fill their need where they need it. Secondly, the decision-makers still read the newspapers, either in the traditional print format or in the now-tested online edition.

A blunt question deserves a blunt answer: A bright young kid like Niku may no longer read newspapers, but his teachers, his parents, the people in Cagayan de Oro who make decisions that reach all the way to his school and his home — they still read newspapers. Their reading helps shape the world Niku finds himself in. We can say this dynamic is part of the structure of Philippine reality. There is the critical few, and then there is the crucial many. Where, in five years’ time, does Niku see himself?

* * *

Implications for student publications are easy enough to draw; not privy to all the answers, I can suggest only a few: Reserve the printed page for “keepers,” must-read pieces (say, the hidden costs of education) and “pictorials” (say, the winning entries in an advocacy advertising competition). For the rest, go online, with a website or blog updated daily, loaded with features that don’t work in print, such as rotating photo albums or instant-messaging forums. Failing all that, write the next Harry Potter!

* * *

Over the past several days, Reuters has written profiles of four presidential candidates-in-the-making. I understand a fifth profile is in the works. It is possible that Reuters may write more profiles in the future, but I rather doubt it: At this point, while we can expect a crowded field of presidential candidates, only a handful have a real shot at victory. Surely the political reporters in the Manila office of Reuters know that.

A year and two months before the elections (if, that is, there will be elections): Isn’t all this rather speculative? Yes, of course. But the political wheels are grinding; no use denying the obvious. Besides, we should all be able to make a distinction between informed speculation and the other kind. In 2007, for instance, a colleague who works in television predicted that Tessie Aquino-Oreta was a shoo-in for the Senate. This prediction flew in the face of all indications at that time, and understated the residual resistance many voters still felt toward Oreta’s dancing in the Senate, on the night pro-Estrada senators voted to keep the second Velarde envelope unopened. By the same measure, and as I hope I have shown in previous columns, any prediction that a dark horse candidate still has a chance to win the presidency in 2010 should be seen as less than factual.

More recently, a colleague and friend who writes an influential blog suggested that Joseph Estrada could run for president (again) or, failing that, run as vice president, in which case “he would surely win by a huge landslide. And his Long Coattails could easily sweep whoever his running mate might be into the presidency.” Again, this prediction cannot be taken seriously, because it does not square with both the facts and human nature. When Estrada ran for the presidency in 1998, he was at the height of his popularity. For one thing, he did not suffer from the disadvantage of a plunder conviction-cum-pardon. His candidate for vice president, however, failed dismally. If Estrada did not enjoy long-enough coattails to lift his vice-presidential running mate, Edgardo Angara, to victory in 1998, how will it be possible for him to lift his presidential running mate to victory in 2010?

The point is: We can all engage in the favorite national pastime of presidential fortunetelling. (I guess one can say we all have the right to prophesy.) But we should also all note that all crystal balls are cracked, but some are more cracked than others.

* * *

Reuters profiled four senators: Francis Escudero, Loren Legarda, Mar Roxas and (only the other day) Manny Villar. I think Vice President Noli de Castro will be the subject of the fifth profile. In a way, these profiles help to narrow the field. Sen. Panfilo Lacson does not seem to me to be capable of generating a share of the vote larger than the 10 percent he won in 2004. And De Castro is eminently persuadable to run a second time for vice president, beside good friend Villar. The constitutional provision is phrased in the negative: “No Vice President shall serve for more than two successive terms.” But for Villar this, indisputably, is a positive.

PS (March 24, 2009): The college editor was Stephanie Go, a Development Communication senior at Xavier University. Unfortunately, confirmation of her name arrived after deadline.

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