Q and A: Sheila Coronel on diversity and the digital ‘eruption’

Ayee Macaraig
Q and A: Sheila Coronel on diversity and the digital ‘eruption’
Sheila Coronel talks to Rappler about the need for diversity in newsrooms, and how the changing media landscape affects news and investigative journalism

NEW YORK, United States – Since her days of exposing the mansions and dealings of former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, Sheila Coronel is now on a different assignment: increasing newsroom diversity and professionalism in the digital age. 

The investigative journalist-turned-professor was recognized over the weekend as one of The Outstanding Filipino Americans in New York, where she has been teaching as head of Columbia University’s Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism since 2006.

The founding executive director of the Philippine Center for Journalism (PCIJ) just took on a new role as Dean of Academic Affairs at the Columbia Journalism School. Since assuming the post in July, Coronel has been exploring ways to promote diversity in the white male-dominated US media, and to teach journalism after what she calls the “volcanic eruption” of technology.

“The problem is that investigative reporting has traditionally been done by newspapers. So if newspapers die, where is the home of investigative reporting? If there’s market failure, how can that public good be produced?”  

In an interview with Rappler, Coronel talked about the Filipino American community in New York, creating more opportunities for journalists of color, wine clubs and cruise trips as part of news organizations’ business models, and how journalism is changing in the classrooms, on social media and in the trenches.

Here is our interview:

The Awards celebrate the contributions of the Filipino Americans in New York. How would you describe the community here?

The community in New York is different. It’s more varied than in many other places. You saw lots of Broadway performers. There’s a lot also of politically active communities. There’s the usual health workers and doctors, nurses. There’s a lot of school teachers also. There’s older, second, third-generation immigrants. You have diplomats, bankers, professors. You have everyone, the whole gamut.

New York is probably the most diverse city in the planet, and Filipinos have been here for a long time but they haven’t really been very visible and they’re not a political force. I don’t know why.

My problem is I don’t really identify with the Filipino American community because my roots are in the Philippines. I don’t even consider myself Filipino American but more Filipino. I haven’t really integrated with the community except for people I’ve known for a long time like classmates in high school, journalists here or occasionally, I take part in some activities in the consulate.

You were appointed Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia while still heading the investigative journalism center. What has that been like?

It’s a lot more work. I’m doing two jobs. But I thought it’s exciting to be looking at curriculum and faculty at a time when journalism is undergoing such dramatic changes. So we look at what we teach, who we teach, who teaches. We have a more diverse student body from all over the world. Forty percent of our students are from overseas. We also want to have a more diverse faculty.

So what is it that students need to learn? How is the digital era transforming the fundamentals of journalism? Is it possible to train nimble, innovative, flexible people? Can you learn that in school? Can you teach a digital mindset is the question we’re trying to answer. 

What we find is that a lot of young people use Facebook for personal use. They can’t quite translate how to use it for journalism. Twitter is the same thing. It goes for Excel and everything else. It takes a shift in the mindset. Just because you’re a digital native doesn’t mean you can apply it to news. 

Can you teach journalism is the other question. I’m actually agnostic about that. I didn’t go to journalism school. I think what you learn in journalism school is what you will learn on the job in 5 years, a concentrated version of that. Given the state of newsrooms now where you don’t have editors who will mentor you and teach you, being in school is as about as good as you can get if you want to be on a fast track.

Also, there are very specialized skills now that you need. For example, data analysis, it’s hard to learn that by yourself. You can but you can learn that in school in a more organized fashion, less trial and error under the guidance of people who are more experienced. Even video is a very specialized skill. You don’t learn it instantaneously. Even audio or long-form narrative – structure in the story, finding the story – all these can be taught. Some skills, some mindsets, ethics can be taught.

TOP HONOR. Sheila Coronel accepts the Heritage Award at The Outstanding Filipino Americans in New York awarding ceremony in Carnegie Hall, New York on Saturday, October 25. Photo by Rolan Gutierrez

Columbia and BuzzFeed tied up for a fellowship that aims to increase diversity in American newsrooms. What made you look into this issue?

It’s always been a big issue here. You see that journalism, especially investigative reporting, is mainly white, male and middle-aged in the US. So if you look at who wins the contests, who is doing the investigative news programs on television, they’re all white men and that’s okay but I think diversity is important in the field.

My students are diverse in terms of gender. More than two-thirds of our students are female, and a lot of our students are not white. So we see that the opportunities for them don’t seem quite fair even until now. There are many reasons for that, very complex reasons but unless we are aware of the need to have diversity, it’s not going to happen on its own. We have to make it happen.

I had a lot of second thoughts about taking on this job because it’s much more work. But I think people like us, people who come from a different part of the world, bring a different perspective. Women in a male-dominated field should take on these roles. Otherwise, it’s not going to change if we don’t do it. 

How do you assess diversity in Philippine media? Is it as much of an issue in the Philippines as it is here?

Philippine journalism is actually much better than US journalism in terms of the number of women in top positions and also in overall representation. In the US, the number of women in leadership positions in newsrooms hasn’t changed very much since the 1970s. In the Philippines, we see women heading newspapers, news departments, online sites. Even in broadcast, we see many women in prominent, decision-making positions where they are able to influence content and strategy.

That’s because women ahead of us have laid the ground that allows women to be taken seriously. Women like [Inquirer founding chair] Eggie Apostol said, “We should not just be confined to the society pages or to the women’s magazines.” So when I entered journalism in the 1980s, that ground has been laid down for me and we owe all those women who worked to make that happen.

Actually, Filipino newsrooms are diverse in terms of gender but maybe not in regional representation. The Manila newsrooms are still very much people from Manila or Luzon. Maybe in terms of class also, I don’t know how representative it is. Generational-wise, I think there’s the entry of young people and young people are given the chance to rise up.

How does diversity affect the kind of journalism that’s produced?

In the Philippines, investigative journalism is largely female-driven. Apparently, it’s not an anomaly because in Eastern Europe, where I’ve done some training, there’s a lot of women doing investigative reporting as well. 

Here, traditionally, it has been male-dominated and gray hair-dominated because you rose up the ranks. It was a hierarchy. You entered the New York Times or CBS in your twenties and you go up and you never leave. I’ve met people here in their sixties or seventies, and worked for only one newspaper or one TV network.

Now, the media is changing. My students have been in two, 3 jobs because the media market is so fluid. There’s so much going on. So it’s no longer lifetime employment. It’s true not only of journalism but also all the other professions are being disrupted not just by technology, but economics, globalization.

I always think of this landscape as post-volcanic eruption. You know, like after [Mount] Pinatubo [erupted in 1991], the plains became rivers, the mountains became flatlands. So the landscape is changing. Not quite post-nuclear but post-volcanic eruption. 

The Internet has allowed a lot of things to happen and basically ruined the business model for news, and the way people receive news and disseminate news and the traditional gatekeeper role of journalists. It made journalism more democratic.

How do all these changes affect investigative journalism here and in the Philippines?

I think there’s a lot to do. There’s not enough investigative journalists. As usual, the daily pressures prevent more in-depth reporting. The pace is so much faster now.

It’s affecting big media companies because they cannot give up the revenues from traditional advertising. The revenues from print still outstrip revenues from digital. As they say, it’s print dollars and digital pennies. I think the Wall Street Journal is still growing. 

The New York Times has declined in the last 12 months but you see them trying really hard. It’s declined due to circulation because people don’t read newspapers anymore and this is why you look at the Sunday edition of the Times, it’s heavy and they bundle that with their online subscription because they sell their advertising based on the number of people who get the print copy.

So they are trying to make the most out of the transition because if they give that up, they’re not going to be able to sustain the size of the newsroom, the size of their operations. They’re already laying off 100 people. CNN is laying off. Gannett laid off.

The problem is that investigative reporting has traditionally been done by newspapers. So if newspapers die, where is the home of investigative reporting? So this is where you really see market failure. Traditionally newspapers have subsidized investigative reporting with the print ad because they got so much advertising. So if there’s market failure, how can that public good be produced?  

MEDIA DISRUPTION. Coronel says big news companies like the New York Times struggle to find an effective business model, organizing wine clubs and cruise trips to help make money. File photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images/AFP

You don’t see investigative journalism going online?

It’s going online but a different business model including philanthropy or audiences contributing, community support, that kind of thing. I think what will happen is there’s no single revenue model. It will be a combination of various things and every single news organization will have to work it out.

There will be a combination of events. A lot of non-profits and mainstream media organizations are doing that. There’s memberships. Like for public you’re a sustaining member and you give $10. 

There’s cruises, too. The New York Times is now doing cruises. Now the Times is having some of their journalists lead a cruise, being the guide to tour groups to New Zealand or Iran. The New Yorker has talks where they bring all their writers and charge for that. They sell wine. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have a wine club so now, they’re becoming a travel agent too.

BuzzFeed sells data also. Huffington Post, the same thing also, franchise. Basically, that model is you get bought out by a bigger company that will pay you. That’s the way digital news organizations have made money, by being bought out.

But you know, it’s really not that different. When I was in PCIJ, we sold coffee mugs, t-shirts, books. We printed all these joke books to make money. You find what works for you so there’s no single business model because let’s face it. Digital advertising is not going to be able to sustain news operations.

I think what will happen is there’s no single revenue model. It will be a combination of various things and every single news organization will have to work it out.

– Sheila Coronel on media’s digital transition


How long do you intend to stay as dean in Columbia? Do you see any opportunity back in the Philippines for you?

There’s no point doing this for one year because you spend that just trying to learn the job. On going back, I don’t know. Even before I was offered the job in Columbia, I was already thinking of leaving PCIJ and thinking of various things I wanted to do. 

One of them was maybe doing something in the educational field, teaching or maybe a different kind of journalism, maybe not investigative but intersecting education and journalism, not so much activism but civic education.

Where is journalism headed?

There’s no simple answer to that. The simple answer is we don’t know but we know people will consume it wherever it is, whether it’s in mobile or tablets or wearable devices or on the fridge. I think journalism is democratic enough. If you want to do nothing but long form print, that’s okay because there’s an audience for that, too. 

Journalism has many different forms but essentially what is it? It’s getting the facts right, providing context, having the competence to translate complex things and simplify them for an audience. If you boil it down, it’s the same whether it’s old or new journalism, having to produce on deadline.

Journalism has a DNA and that DNA, I believe, is writing for the public interest to have an informed citizenry, to be a witness to history and a watchdog of power. You try to teach students that. Knowing the tradition of journalism is very important. 

The values, the ethos, that’s important. Because a lot of young people go into journalism without that, without a sense of the public interest but because they have something to say or they want to be on TV.

If you don’t have that, what’s the point of journalism? So this is why everybody can be a journalist but not everybody is a journalist. – Rappler.com


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