IT WAS a humid afternoon six years ago when three men sipped coffee and conspired against Philippine journalism.
“It’s a crazy idea but it could work,” one of the men, a reporter for The Manila Times then, said.
“What could be different…,” the youngest of the trio, who would fly off to Maldives in six months time, said.
His eyes flipped across the Ateneo de Manila University that housed an institution where the money for their plan would come from.
The third co-conspirator –the inside man, of sorts– finished the sentence: “…would be giving the news free to overseas Filipino workers and their families.”
The three men stood almost simultaneously. There were no handshakes; just nod of heads to signal a bond they knew would last even after the wheels of their grand plan roll into motion.
Today, the conspirators saw their plan –to influence mainstream media to come out with regular stories on overseas Filipino workers other than the cut-and-dried formula of heart-wrenching news– work.
Never before has the mainstream media took so much interest in generating news and information on international labor migration. Some newspapers allotted front page treatment to stories about remittance and the business of labor migration. Some unknown publishers even put up, successfully and falteringly, newspapers on OFWs. Online news groups came out with special sections on migration. And community-based media groups here and abroad carried stories on faraway Filipinos.
The OFW Journalism conspiracy was a success.
THE OFW Journalism Consortium Inc., the name the original architects called their group, operates on a consensus that information is a commodity that OFWs have a right to access almost for free.
“They deserve good stories without feeling they have to pay for something,” the founders believe.
Once every three weeks, the Consortium members meet – in restaurants or watering holes during the time the group couldn’t afford an office– to swap ideas for stories to write about.
Most of its contributing writers are reporters or employees of mainstream media groups and so work on their stories for the Consortium between deadlines.
Story ideas crop up as the writers cover their regular beats: banking and finance, general business, church, agriculture, among others.
Stories that couldn’t fit into the News-Now category of a reporter’s daily quota were deepened and written as lengthy articles, as much as a thousand words.
The ceiling on the number of words was dismantled; the window to style was opened.
While stories are swapped electronically between writer and editor, drafts are still printed on re-used bond papers and discussed during editorial meetings.
Before, it was Bill Huang, currently with Union of Catholic Asian News in Bangkok, Thailand, who wielded the red pen. Today, that burden falls on Consortium co-founder Dennis Estopace, currently with daily newspaper BusinessMirror.
They make sure that four stories they tried to polish and make palatable for reading are packaged into a news packet.
Funding from the Netherlands-headquartered Oxfam Novib and the Philippine office of the German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung was used to pay editors and writers.
The money from Novib, the Consortium’s first donor, and FES, the Consortium’s longest-running funder, also went to reprinting the packets and mailing these to more than 300 OFWs and their families, their groups, and mainstream and community newspapers in the Philippines and abroad.
These recipients are given the right to further edit, translate, and use the stories sans a demand for compensation, except for acknowledging the Consortium as the story’s source.
While the hierarchy of the newsroom is followed, the Consortium has become a training ground for greenhorns venturing into a new style of journalism.
While there are pressures to return to the comfort zone of writing short spot news (about 300 words), the Consortium writers sticks to the group’s rule that if it’s a good story, length wouldn’t matter.
With that, the Consortium remains the oldest service provider on news features focused specifically on migration.
NONETHELESS, the OFW Journalism Consortium Inc. also became a victim of its own success.
Changing the pace of journalism, coverage and writing on migration concerns proved difficult even for the zealous Consortium members.
The umbilical cord with the Institute on Church and Social Issues was cut to gain further editorial independence.
And as more and more media groups covered OFW news, funding stopped.
Though rare in arriving, criticisms by migrant rights advocates still stung hard. Several stories were also killed, straining friendships among Consortium members. Pressures, to cut stories to tailor-fit these to space-constrained media, weighed heavily. And writers struggled with the style of reporting and writing as they attempted to define Philippine migration journalism.
The passionate members of the Consortium discovered the path to new journalism is a lonely and treacherous road to tread.
Six years later, that kind of journalism remains undefined as the barometers for such type of journalistic practice comes from the Consortium.
It is difficult to measure one’s self by the very own standards one created.
Still, the deft hand and patience of veteran journalists, especially Huang and Paulynn Sicam, rewarded the Consortium the equilibrium needed to achieve day-to-day goals.
On the other end of the scale is the youthful passion of Consortium co-founders Jeremaiah Opiniano and VG Cabuag.
In the middle are younger and veteran contributing writers and advocates who added zest to the hope that creating migration journalism and changing Philippine journalism could be achieved.
They include Candice Cerezo; Julie Javellana-Santos, now working for Abs-Cbn Broadcasting Corp.; Patricia Marcelo, pseudonym of a foreign news bureau reporter; Jannis Montanez; Carmelita Nuqui of Development Action for Women Network; Maria Fe Nicodemus of the nonprofit Kapisanan ng mga Kamag-anak ng Migranteng Manggagawang Pilipino Neil Allende; Guam-based journalist Maria Victoria Cagurangan; Marlene Elmenzo; Jay Garcia; William Imperial;; Ruby Anne Pascua; Joyce Anne Robiño; Alexis Douglas Romero, now with BusinessWorld; Leo Santiago Jr., Romero’s mentor in his internship program with the Consortium; Kristy Anne Topacio-Manalaysay; Ruben Jeffrey Asuncion; Luis Carlo Liberato; Madelaine Joy Estrada; and Maria Criselda Uy.
Valuable friends gave invaluable support.
Some of them are the University of San Francisco-Center for the Pacific Rim and Mona Lisa Yuchengco, the Ateneo de Manila University-Economic Policy Reform and Advocacy (AdMU-EPRA) network, the Economic Resource Center for Overseas Filipinos (Ercof), and the International Organization for Migration.
Of course, media groups in rural and urban Philippines and in many countries, as well as the email groups and individual email overseas Filipinos with email accounts remain the Consortium’s partners in making stories travel far and wide to reach readers.
“ARE we ready to call it quits?” one of the three founders said as rain exorcised a humid evening six months ago.
“Have we told the story of each of the eight million Filipinos overseas?” one of the three said, glancing towards the headquarters of the country’s largest media business.
The drip-dripping of rain broke the silence as the Consortium founders, now with graying hair, emerging scalp, and paunch bellies, mulled the future.
“I guess not.”
“Yeah, me, too.”
“It’s a crazy idea but it could work.”
The three men stood almost simultaneously. There were no handshakes; just claps on each other’s shoulders and smiles to signal a bond they knew would last even after the wheels of their grand plan stop rolling.
The other members, now also their friends, stood up and smiled with the three men as they walked on musty asphalt road and under the stars of a cool evening birthed by rain.