Painful cuts: Inquirer offers early retirement as it struggles to survive pandemic

The Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), the country’s largest newspaper, is cutting its staff and operations to “survive” the coronavirus pandemic. (FAST FACTS: What you should know about the Inquirer Group)

The company has offered voluntary retirement packages to eligible employees, reduced the number of its columnists, and collapsed an entire section on Metro Manila local government units for streamlining.

In a letter sent to employees on July 29, the management said it needed to do more to ensure the company's survival.

“In the past several years, we have witnessed the steady decline of the print newspaper industry largely due to the surge of the digital/online platform," the management said in the letter signed by Renato Lao, PDI vice president for human resources and administration.

“Despite our continuing efforts to fight hard to mitigate the effects of these challenges through various revenue recovery and cost reduction efforts in the past several years, there remains a need for deeper and more impactful ways to directly address our need to survive,” management added.

PDI management also noted that "the COVID-19 crisis has driven our business to levels which make it difficult for us to sustain our operating costs, including compensation and benefits."

At least 30 employees have availed of the retirement package, 16 of whom were union members, according to PDI Employees Union president Jerome Aning.

“It’s a mix of the editorial and business groups (employees), but there are more from the business group who availed of the package,” Aning, himself a reporter, said in an interview with Rappler.

Aning said the union was hopeful that the vacated posts would be filled soon.

An employee, who requested anonymity, said it was a difficult and painful decision to leave his home for more than a decade.

“But what's the future like for someone who wants to be in the field of journalism?” the employee told Rappler.

Another staff member, citing management’s pronouncements during quarterly meetings with the union, said it was a sad development, as the company’s sales and revenue were already picking up before the pandemic.

In a separate tweet, Inquirer reporter and union vice president for internal affairs Marlon Ramos said that despite the challenges, the company honored the collective bargaining agreement on salary increases.

The company also released the midyear bonus as early as April and the yearly rice subsidy in July.

Metro section closed down

As the global health crisis continued to ravage communities, the paper also shut down its Metro section which focused on local government units in the National Capital Region.

The section, which had been reduced to a page or two in recent months, was last published on Sunday, August 30.

The national news section absorbed the metro editor and 5 section reporters beginning Monday, August 31.

Letting go of columnists

On top of this, the paper also reduced the number of its columnists, some of whom are considered institutions in their field.

Several Inquirer staff said it is usual practice to rehire retired employees as “consultants” on a contractual basis. Many of them, however, were also handed pink slips.

Veteran sports journalist Recah Trinidad bade his readers farewell in his July 22 sports column.

He retired from the Inquirer 12 years ago, following mandatory retirement at the age of 65, but stayed on as a columnist.

"Your overstaying reporter here was told by the accomplished young sports editor he had been ordered to pull off the plug. This column should be off by month’s end at the latest. Time [to] go, the game is over," Trinidad said in his column.

Another sports columnist, Percy Della, was also let go. Della was allowed to say goodbye through Trinidad's final column.

Rina Jimenez-David informed her readers on August 26 that the company has decided to stop her nearly 30-year-old opinion column.

“I was informed that the decision to cut short my column’s tenure was made as part of the paper’s ‘cost-cutting’ measures,” David said.

Entertainment columnist Ruben Nepales and lifestyle columnist Cathy Babao also advised readers about the end of their columns.

"I write these words with sadness: This will be one of my last columns for the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI). My editor, Rito Asilo, informed me that PDI will terminate my column of 15 years, as a cost-cutting measure, effective August 1," Nepales said on July 23.

Babao, for her part, said in her final column: "As you may have probably noticed over the last several months, this column has only appeared once or twice monthly, mainly due to page constraints. Now it will cease to appear, collateral damage to cost-cutting measures as many other columns in this paper. I cannot help but feel sadness as this chapter closes." Her column ran for 14 years.

Other cost-cutting efforts

Rappler sought the Inquirer's management for comment on Monday. Associate Publisher Juliet Labog-Javellana told Rappler that “the management will have no statement on the matter.”

Prior to these efforts, the Inquirer Group had employed the following cost-cutting measures:

  • Closure of the print version of Cebu City-based newspaper Cebu Daily News, which still operates online
  • Closure of printing presses in Cebu and Davao, printing now happens only in Manila
  • Closure of tabloid Bandera on July 5. The staff were given separation pay, while online operations are now managed by Inquirer.net.

Founded by Eugenia "Eggie" Apostol, Betty Go-Belmonte, Max Soliven, Luis Beltran, Arturo Borjal, and the late editor in chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, the Inquirer published its first newspaper issue on December 9, 1985.

The Inquirer covered the dying days of the Marcos dictatorship with the EDSA People Power Revolution taking place just two months after it began operations.

Best known for their stewardship of the Inquirer, the Rufino-Prieto clan has held ownership interests in the media company over the last 25 years. The company has survived several political and business adversaries.

Early in his presidency, President Rodrigo Duterte repeatedly attacked the Inquirer and its owners over alleged unfair reports on his administration – an act that would later set the stage for Duterte's pattern of assault on press freedom. (READ: Duterte's target: The Philippine Daily Inquirer) – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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