Manila. The former president of the Philippines had been arrested on corruption charges. The chief justice of the Supreme Court had been impeached. Transportation workers were threatening to gridlock the city with a strike.
But People’s Tonight had the scoop: A child had been stabbed while its mother slept nearby.
“She screamed as she saw her child’s cradle dripping with blood,” the newspaper’s front-page story said. “With trembling hands, the mother pulled out the blade and scooped her mangled kid in her arms.”
Welcome to the world of Manila’s tabloid newspapers.
With names like Bulgar — the Filipino word for “vulgar” — and Police Files Tonite, more than 40 Manila newspapers publish in both the format and spirit of classic tabloid journalism. They offer readers a dizzying assortment of sex, violence, gore, celebrity scandal, strange news, spirited opinion and personal advice.
A quick scan through the Manila tabloids shows a victim of a motorcycle accident, whose head has been severed, lying in a pool of blood on the pavement with no attempt by the publication to mask the gore. Photos of scantily clad men and women, and some photos of completely nude women, sit alongside columns by priests, senior government officials and mayors.
Hard-hitting columnists link government officials and police officers by name to extortion and bribery, a practice not without risk in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of murdered journalists. One publication regularly features a cartoon cockroach that can be spotted throughout the pages making clever commentary on stories and photos.
A running feature of many of the newspapers is crime suspects with their heads hanging low being paraded before the news media by scowling police officers. Some feature photos of Mayor Alfredo Lim of Manila — a darling of the tabs — questioning the suspects.
While Manila’s traditional broadsheet newspapers cover the most important issues of the day in English for a relatively small readership of influential Filipinos and foreigners, the tabloids provide the news for the rest of the reading public, mostly in Filipino.
“If you combine the circulation of the tabloids, they have a much larger readership than the broadsheets,” said Marites Vitug, a respected Manila journalist and president of the Journalism for Nation Building Foundation.
Circulation figures are not verified for Manila newspapers, either mainstream broadsheets or tabloids, but the broadsheet Manila Bulletin says on its Web site that it prints 300,000 copies per day. The Philippine Daily Inquirer reports a daily circulation of 260,000.
The actual circulation of the tabloids is anybody’s guess. Some publishers claim figures exceeding 350,000 per day. Others joke that their circulation varies from 30,000 to 500,000 depending on whether they are talking to an advertiser or a tax auditor. What everyone seems to agree on is that the tabloids, over all, outsell the broadsheets and that they make money.
“Because they run on smaller production and editorial budgets, tabloids are sometimes more profitable ventures than broadsheets,” said the German research group Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, in the Philippines chapter of its report Asian Media Barometer 2011.
One indicator of their profitability is the fact that the major mainstream newspapers in Manila — The Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Manila Bulletin and The Philippine Star — all print tabloid versions of their broadsheet editions. Like other major tabloids here, they profit less from advertising than from low overhead and high-volume street sales.
The dozens of smaller, shadier tabloids that operate in Manila find other ways to make a profit. Some are run as completely underground operations. They do not have advertising, a business license, a taxpayer identification number or office contact information published in their pages. Much of their content is soft-core pornography lifted from the Internet and political attack articles sold to the highest bidder.
“During election time, these small papers are very profitable,” said Raimund Agapito, publisher of the popular celebrity tabloid newspaper Pinoy Parazzi. “They will malign any candidate. They will print anything for a price.”
The shadier operators do not help the beleaguered reputation of the Manila tabloid press. Media analysts acknowledge that the publications are popular, but they stop short of giving them credit for being influential or socially relevant.
“The tabloids fill all sorts of needs, the thrill of reading about crime and so forth,” said Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, based in Manila. “The only social value I see is that they keep up the reading habit in a sector that cannot afford to buy the daily newspaper,” she added, referring to more mainstream publications.
Ms. Vitug agrees, noting that the Manila tabloids do not break major news stories like their counterparts in Britain or the United States.
“The tabloids don’t shape the news agenda. They are seen as entertainment,” she said. “They are read by the masses, but the masses don’t lead revolutions or bring the country into the future. That sounds condescending, but that is how they are perceived” by the elite.
In a commercial building along a nondescript road in Manila, Agapito, the publisher of Pinoy Parazzi, sat in the back of a storefront office with a few scattered desks and a block of cement at the front door to block floodwaters. He disagrees with the assertion that publications like his offer little or no social value.
“Broadsheets have many different parties and corporate interests involved in their publications,” Agapito said. “I am an independent operator. I am not indebted to anyone. I can write anything I want as long as it serves the interests of my readers.”
“We serve the same function as the broadsheets,” he added. “We provide information. We are just more interesting.”
Agapito, a former linguistics professor, said he had started Pinoy Parazzi in 2007 in order to bring to the Philippines the paparazzi culture of candid photos of celebrities.
He was quick to point out that his pages host a mix of 70 percent celebrity coverage and 30 percent straight news.
“My primary purpose is to educate and help people decide what best serves their interests,” said Agapito. “How I am going to educate them if they don’t want to read the paper? We have to use the showbiz news to bring them the politics, the other news.”
Agapito added that he takes his news section seriously and that he does not publish gory photos. “I would rather ridicule and exploit celebrities who are earning big money than focus on victims of crimes and accidents,” he said.
At the press room in the headquarters of the Manila Police Department, in a gritty part of old Manila, it is all about crime and accidents. Bening Batigas, a columnist for the Pilipino Star Ngayon tabloid, shuffled quietly through the room amid the wheezing of dusty air-conditioners and the staccato rattling of AM radio news reports. In a corner was a small Catholic shrine.
“I write about crime and scalawags,” said Batigas with a smile, adding that he had exposed police brutality and gambling rings run by low-level officers.
As president of the police press club, Batigas acts as a liaison between the police and the news media. He noted that the press room had previously been located inside the main police headquarters, but had then been moved to a separate building in the parking lot. It is now attached to another office that police officials do not want located inside the main building: the bomb squad.
As he spoke, a beeping could be heard coming from his pants pocket. He pulled out his cellphone, listened for a few seconds and said: “Multiple vehicle collision on Espana” and started walking briskly toward the door.
At the scene, a truck and a jeepney — a local form of public transportation often made from old jeeps — had collided. Traffic was blocked, but there were no injuries. “The truck tried to beat the light,” said Batigas.
Back at the police press room, Kevin dela Cruz, a 21-year-old photographer for Abante, one of the largest tabloids in the Philippines, was not worried that the accident had not produced a usable photo. He said it would not be long before they were alerted to another accident or a crime.
“There are plenty of incidents,” he said. “Regular Filipino people are very interested in crime. Rich people don’t understand the experience of crime because it mostly happens to poor people. That’s why we cover it.”
New York Times