Closure, job cuts: Why COVID-19 spells death for community journalism

The effects of the global pandemic have hit closer to home, with many already struggling community papers on the brink of death.

Critical in a public health crisis, community journalism is now facing even lower revenues, reduced circulation, and more job cuts – making it harder to provide vital news to readers and combat disinformation about the pandemic.

“I think we can both agree that the pandemic is hurting journalism here and elsewhere. There is underreporting, undercoverage. Newsrooms are more undermanned now and….fieldwork is limited to what we perceive are more important stories,” Herbie Gomez, editor-in-chief of the Cagayan de Oro-based Mindanao Gold Star Daily, told Rappler.

“It is dangerous for the community and country to lose journalists and media outlets committed to the truth,” said Carla Gomez, an editor at Bacolod City-based Visayan Daily Star.

“Currently, we can really feel the crunch. With many businesses either slowing down or closing, our traditional revenue stream is getting thin," said Francis Allan Angelo, editor-in-chief of Iloilo City-based The Daily Guardian.

Local newsrooms even in richer countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia are also shutting down and laying off staff.

To alleviate the impact of the pandemic on local news groups, the Philippine Press Institute, a private organization promoting press freedom and journalism standards, launched COVID-19 Chronicles, a project that provides community journalists a legitimate platform for their stories, and compensation.

According to PPI, at least 11 publications nationwide have ceased printing temporarily and shifted to digital.

  • Mindanao Times
  • Mindanao Gold Star Daily
  • Mindanao Observer
  • Baguio Chronicle
  • Mabuhay
  • Pahayagang Balikas
  • The Northern Forum
  • Palawan News
  • SunStar Baguio
  • Ilocos Times
  • Negros Daily Bulletin

While some of the community papers transitioned to digital, not all Filipinos in their areas have access to the internet. 

At least 3 – Baguio Courier, Visayan Daily Star, and Negros Daily Bulletin – have resumed print operations but with reduced circulation and number of pages. 

Low sales, revenue

With the onslaught of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, community papers saw a steep decline in their street sales and revenues.

Most, if not all, were forced to stop operations during the enhanced community quarantine.

“We are picking up the pieces now. How do you sell newspapers at a time when people are afraid to touch?” Herbie Gomez said, referring to the pandemic-generated fear of touching objects that might have come in contact with COVID-19 carriers.

Iloilo's The Daily Guardian, which is circulated in Western Visayas, saw an income drop of at least 40%, according to Angelo.

“Many of our advertisers (national and local) stopped their placements, especially during the ECQ period in March and April. A handful have resumed their placements but it’s a far cry from the pre-COVID levels,” Angelo told Rappler.

Negros Daily Bulletin in Bacolod City experienced the same problem. Its editor-in-chief, Arman Toga, said a significant number of newsstands stopped operations, further reducing street sales.

“There were only a few advertisers and readers, so our sales also declined. People are buying fewer newspapers and many newsstands stopped operating. Of course, they had to look for other sources of income because they cannot be sustained by selling national and local papers," Toga told Rappler in a phone interview.

Reduced number of circulation, pages

It still wasn’t easy after the lockdown, with many community papers forced to reduce their circulation and the number of their pages to cut on costs. 

Mindanao Gold Star Daily “slowly resumed publication” in July but not without major production and delivery challenges. They ended up publishing twice – or if lucky, thrice – a week, according to Herbie Gomez.

And when they did publish, it was far from the usual. From at least 12 pages before the pandemic, the paper is now down to as few as 8 pages.

Visayan Daily Star, which stopped printing during ECQ and resumed daily publication after, is also down to 8 pages from its usual 14 to 16 pages.

Negros Daily Bulletin, which currently comes out 3 to 4 times weekly, is also down to 8 pages from 10 to 12. Its circulation is now limited within metro Bacolod.

They also reduced the copies they print – from 2,500 pre-pandemic to just 400 copies.

Reporting gaps

These changes have greatly affected the team’s news gathering at a most crucial time for their localities.

Physical distancing has also changed the way newsrooms, in general, gather information.

“Our reporters have limited movements so sometimes all our stories are focused on COVID-19. The other stories are left behind. Even the sources, the people who matter, daily newsmakers, you find it hard to look for them now,” Toga said.

“Since the cash flow stopped, we also stopped assigning stories to anyone. But to our surprise, the stories and opinion pieces continued being sent to our editors. And so, we are making do with whatever editorial material we have. We do it one day at a time,” Herbie Gomez said.

Mindanao Gold Star Daily's home base, Cagayan de Oro, is an apparent news desert.

“There used to be two TV stations here. Now, there is none. GMA-7 closed down long before the pandemic. The other is ABS-CBN-Northern Mindanao,” Herbie Gomez said.

ABS-CBN was forced off air after its franchise expired. The House of Representatives later on rejected its bid for a new franchise, causing thousands to be laid off.

“The local radio stations are also hurting. They are bleeding, and I do not know how long they can sustain their operations without clear sources of revenues,” he said.

Job cuts and uncertainty

With no end in sight, organizations struggled to pay their staff. Some newspapers shut down their print operations even after the lockdown.

Mindanao Gold Star Daily started paying its staff per story, instead of the usual bi-monthly scheme. Some of its reporters and editors received their last full salary on March 31 but still contributed content for free.

“We just felt a sense of obligation to our readers,” said Herbie Gomez.

There are around 16 to 20 staff on the payroll. Half of the workforce, he said, take turns working. He declined to join “so the other editors can get paid." He has since built a small food business to offset his lost income.

“In normal pre-COVID-19 time, we would be complaining of unfair labor practices and asserting our rights, but how does one complain now when you see your own company struggling for life?” he said.

Sunstar Cagayan de Oro shut down its print operations in July but said it will continue its online portal.

A report on MindaNews said SunStar CDO reporters and editors were previously told that their last day was on June 30.

“The situation is so difficult now that another daily here was forced to close down. SunStar CDO was a serious competitor and so we should have seen it as some sort of victory for us. But no, we are not happy knowing full well that it was COVID-19, the same enemy we are dealing with, that finished it off and displaced many of our kabaro (colleagues),” said Herbie Gomez.

The staff of Visayan Daily Star (VDS) are in limbo, too.

Carla Gomez and another staff told Rappler they were informed weeks ago that the 38-year-old newspaper is shutting down and “would reopen at a later date when the economy improves.”

But the next day, they were again told that the paper would not close. They were told everyone would be removed by end-August while some would be rehired in September. The staff said it looks like there will be new management. But until now, there is no clear information yet, further confusing employees.

“We have not received our notices of termination yet but this means some of us are bound to lose our jobs. It has not been easy for the staff; we have been on an emotional rollercoaster,” she said.

Editor-in-chief Ninfa Leonardia, in a July 30 column, said it is not the end of the paper but “is just a pause in our operations.” In her August 3 column, she said that the paper “has not thrown in the towel yet.”

As of posting, Visayan Daily Star staff, around 30, are still awaiting management's word about their fate.

With greater need for truthful and accurate reporting during this global crisis, Filipinos in communities – away from big cities – are hardest hit by the changing landscape of local journalism. – 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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