The Freeman newsroom

In the 1980s, first year Mass Communication students at the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu had the impression that being a woman and a journalist at the same time meant covering the “soft” beats of lifestyle and society.

This perception stemmed mainly from being taught print journalism and broadcasting basics by “news hens,” a term denoting veteran female writers and reporters that was still widely used in newspaper articles and class readings.

However, for the students, the tag was a pejorative. It underlined the contrast between the journalistic equivalent of scratching the surface of social realities and the “real” challenge of journalism that the “news hounds,” with their “nose for news,” carried out: cover government and expose wrongdoing. The term “news hound” was exclusively used for male journalists.

Careers would have been misaligned if the students were not assigned to research on “women trailblazers” in pre- and post-war journalism in Cebu. There were only a few women with “a nose for news” then, and all of them had to blaze a trail of their own in the absence of any formal education (also true for the males) and predecessors.

Through the University of San Carlos’s Cebuano Studies Center, the students learned of Maria A. Cabigon, whose post-war advice column, “Panid ni Manding Karya” in Bisaya Magazine, drew a fan mail of about 20 letters a day at the height of a 60-year writing career.

The students belatedly realized their UP Cebu mentors—Concepcion G. Briones and Virginia “Ginny” P. Vamenta—shaped journalism and community. Briones wrote about people, history and heritage for two local papers, The Republic News and The Freeman, and two national dailies from the 1950s until her death in 1985. The UPians were surprised to learn that the genteel professor whose lavender scent created an aura of somnolence in class lectures about journalism history co-founded the Cebu News Workers Foundation, which gives training and aid to promote the professionalism and welfare of journalists.

Once heard, never forgotten. Broadcast speech and performance students in UP Cebu could only aspire to copy Vamenta’s effortless delivery. Cebu’s first woman broadcaster began her 54-year career in radio when she was hired in 1947 by dyRC, the first to go on air after the Liberation. Then the dyLA program director, Vamenta impressed on students that the medium demanded not just a golden voice but hours of preparation before going on-air and precise use of English and Cebuano.

Feisty but part-time

“There are more women working as full-time journalists now than when I started in journalism,” recalls Juan L. Mercado, who began his distinguished career in the early 1950s as a reporter for a Cebu daily, the Southern Star.

The columnist of Cebu Daily News, Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), Sun.Star Cebu and its network of community papers comments that “a number of women journalists (then), e.g., the late Remedios Jayme Fernandez… were articulate, not intimidated by the males of the craft.”

Until Martial Law forced her to leave the country in 1972, Judge Fernandez drew death threats for writing about illegal gambling in Cebu and the government’s failure to stop this in her columns for The Republic News. She is regarded as Cebu’s first female editor.

Women practicing journalism in the early ‘50s worked part-time. Mercado recalls that most pursued full-time professions, such as law and teaching. While raising four children, writing four columns on different subjects and organizing and leading three socio-civic organizations, Fernandez taught law and served as dean of the College of Law and dean of women at the Southwestern University from 1958 to 1960.

Journalism as one outlet for female pursuits “reflected the economics of a still growing industry” that continued till the mid-‘50s. When Mercado moved to Manila and covered the Philippine Senate for the Evening News, where he later became associate editor, he observed that the women were still outnumbered by the males. Yet, some journalists like Carmen Guerrero Nakpil and Eugenia Duran Apostol, founder of Mr. & Ms., forerunner of the PDI, “towered,” in Mercado’s view.

The Evening News desk was already “manned” by an “overwhelming” number of young women, like Jullie Yap-Daza (who later moved to the Daily Mirror), Carmen Hernandez and the late Minnie Montemayor-Narciso.
Certain beats remain male fiefdoms. Mercado remembers that, “from Malacañang to City Hall, Armed Forces etc., majority (of the reporters) were men. They still are.”

Yet, on Oct. 5, 1997, Mercado wrote in his Sun.Star Cebu column, “Sidebar”: “Consider this demographic fact: a new generation of bright journalists (is) moving … into key positions within a still expanding and dynamic media complex. A number of these new generation journalists are post-martial law baby-boomers. Many are women. Some are better trained than their elders.”

Numbers and mentors

In the Sun.Star Cebu newsroom, there are 12 female and 11 male reporters. According to Sun.Star Cebu editor-in-chief Isolde D. Amante, the female reporters cover local government, general assignments, police, business, soft pages, specifically Live!, Show and Weekend sections, and sports.

Isolde Amante, Sun.Star Cebu editor-in-chief

The eleven male reporters are assigned to local government, general assignments, police, justice, soft pages and sports. And the newsroom has a male regular correspondent covering Cebu City Hall.

The paper’s editorial team exhibits the same gender parity as its reportorial composition. There are seven female and seven male editors for the news pages, one male editor handling the opinion section, and two female editors and one male editor for the special pages.

“It would be interesting to find out whether female editors promote more women than men, industry-wide,” muses Amante, the second editor-in-chief in Sun.Star Cebu’s 29-year history and the first woman to hold this post.

As a Mass Communication (Masscom) intern in 1992, then correspondent at Sun.Star Cebu, and finally, full-time reporter, in April 1993, following her graduation, with cum laude honors, from UP Cebu, Amante counted nearly all her mentors as women: then news editors Eileen G. Mangubat and Nini B. Cabaero who assigned her to the general assignments beat tackling health, education and labor, with shifting assignments in the justice, police and local government beats. Amante says she learned “a lot about features” from Weekend magazine editor Reina Bernaldez.  Amante’s UP Cebu Masscom adviser, Prof. Flordeliz L. Abanto, “encouraged and set challenging standards.”

“Of course, I can’t discount the influence of male mentors like (Sun.Star Cebu’s first editor-in-chief Pachico A. Seares) and, most importantly, my father Ely, who was a newsman for much of his professional life,” she notes.

During a stint from 1995 to 1997 as a Sun.Star copy editor, Amante learned that editing was gender-blind. “Contrary to common perception, men can be just as detail-oriented as women. Editors who stay curious, who listen and who read closely get sharper faster, whatever their gender.”

Michelle So, Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu] editor-in-chief

Skills, not gender

Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu] editor-in-chief Michelle P. So “can’t really say” that being a woman gives a journalist an advantage. While studying Masscom at UP Cebu, she signed up as a reporter with Sun.Star Cebu. By March 2010, she was executive editor of Sun.Star Cebu, chief of editorial services of Sun.Star Publications Network, the only network of regional newspapers in the country, and Superbalita editor-in-chief

“I had female journalists as mentors and colleagues and saw them hold top positions of the paper. I did not feel I was being favored by news sources or my superiors because I was a woman,” says the Cebuano daily’s first female editor-in-chief since its maiden issue in 1994. “I’d like to believe that I was recognized for what I did or accomplished, which a male journalist could have also done.”

At present, Superbalita counts a female editor and four male editors, as well as two female and six male reporters.

Preferring to be unnamed, a senior writer who has brought her flip-top 3.5 x 5-in. notebook to cover boxing, charity work in the Umapad dumpsite and former prison inmates experienced, too, that “gender was never a factor.”

This writer believes that, “What does matter is being prepared for the task, doing it with confidence, and reporting it with compassion, balance and truth.”

Up against binabayi

On the other hand, the same source believes that a female journalist may have to contend with “the social concept of binabayi (girlishness).”

“No matter what she does, her work, actuations and decisions will be judged as the result of ‘being a female,’ as if it were a disease,” she points out. “If she loses her temper on the job, everyone says she has PMS (premenstrual syndrome) or (it is) because she is a spinster. If a man acts up, he is (just) being assertive or brave.”

But Sun.Star Cebu managing editor for special pages and features Cherry Ann T. Lim actually prefers to work with women because “men might have hang-ups about taking instructions from women.”

Men, she observes, don’t take kindly to being nagged. “I don’t want to emasculate them, (but) I do tend to be obsessive in following up on reporters.”

Balancing deadlines and gender sensitivity has gradually become less of a challenge with maturity. “As I get older, the reporters are getting younger, and so I no longer worry about ruffling male egos as I can just look upon them as my children,” says Lim.

Quennie Bronce, The Freeman opinion editor

The family woman

The challenges are steeper for journalists who have their own families.

“I did not have problems with the demands of the job when I was still single. It all changed when I got married and had children,” recalls The Freeman opinion editor Quennie S. Bronce.

There are eight female and 10 male editors in The Freeman newsroom. Bronce was still a Masscom junior undergraduate at UP Cebu when she started as a correspondent covering the regional offices beat. She also wrote features for the paper’s other sections to pay for her tuition.

After graduating cum laude, she became lifestyle assistant editor and then was pulled back to the newsroom to cover Cebu City Hall. Later, she became copy editor, doubling as assistant to the news editor. After a colleague’s death in 2001, she took over as news editor.

In late 2002, Bronce resigned and worked as regional information officer for the Department of Interior and Local Government. “I got married that year, and my husband was always complaining that I was home late and (that) whenever I was home, I was still thinking about work, hence the decision to resign and try an 8-to-5 job.”

Two years later, she left her government job to return to The Freeman as day editor. Later, she was appointed news editor.

As news editor, spending more than eight hours to put the paper to bed was a challenge during the first trimester of her pregnancy and later, while breastfeeding. Going home late, Bronce found her kids usually asleep. She ate dinner alone.

Upon her request, she was reassigned as assistant lifestyle editor in 2008. This time, she was able to attend her children’s school activities and be home to join her family for dinner.

Rose Versoza

Burdens and gains

Crucial for longevity in media is extensive support from partners that understand the demands placed on a journalist, as well as workplaces that nurture the families of news workers.

“I was lucky to have Sun.Star Cebu and GMA 7 Cebu as my employers because these companies are very family-oriented. Somehow, they help lessen your agonies,” says lawyer Rosemarie O. Versoza, co-news anchor of “Balitang Bisdak.”

Months before graduation, Versoza (Olaño then) began as a co-anchor for ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol Cebu Morning Edition. After graduating with a Masscom degree, cum laude, from UP Cebu in 1996, she became a news reporter with the ABS-CBN Visayas Bureau. In 1999, she was taken in as a news reporter at Sun.Star Cebu, resigning after seven years in 2006 to practice law.

Wife of Earl and mother of two grade-schoolers, Versoza dismisses the challenges posed by her gender. “The greatest challenge was being able to balance my multiple roles as a journalist, as a law student then and a lawyer now, as a wife and as a mother, all at the same time.”

Time management and a strong support system help Versoza deal with multiple commitments.

“I am just so fortunate to have a very loving and supportive husband. Whenever my load was too much to bear, Earl willingly took over whatever tasks I had to momentarily forgo,” says the lawyer and broadcaster, who also teaches Masscom subjects at UP Cebu.

“Is having a womb a liability?” Mercado poses rhetorically. “Many didn’t return to the beat or news desk after they became mothers… Yet, journalism’s ‘loss’ was solid gain for the kids.”

Being unmarried and without kids are advantages, asserts So. “As an editor, I prefer to hire people whom I can send out at any time of the day and night without having to think of answering a phone call from a spouse about the whereabouts of the reporter.”

“If you look at the civil status of the female editors in Cebu’s newsrooms (or in most newsrooms generally), you’ll find many of us unmarried and without kids,” observes So. “It’s not by choice but by circumstance. We own our time at work and beyond it.”

Suzanne Alueta

Female edge

Gender does have advantages, says GMA 7 Cebu program manager Suzanne S. Alueta. “Many of the news sources are from the opposite sex, and admittedly women journalists have a different approach to getting their stories,” she observes from personal experience and from managing the news staff. GMA 7 Cebu has eight reporters, three of whom are females.

Shortly after graduating with a Masscom degree from UP Cebu, Alueta (then Salva) was a field reporter for GMA 7 Cebu from 1996 to 1998. For the next 10 years, she was a Cebu Daily News reporter and later, chief of reporters. In March 2008, she rejoined GMA 7 as its program manager.

Alueta views female reporters as being more organized, more focused on their assignments, and more capable of recalling the coverage of previous months.

Her UP batchmate and GMA 7 colleague, Versoza, believes that “an eye and ear for news, anchored on a proper ethical background” can help women and men alike succeed in journalism.

Yet, Versoza thinks “females do have the natural charm and personality to keep the trust of their news sources. Females are also better in cultivating friendships or even strong professional relationships with the news sources. Hence, news sources tend to be more open and revealing towards female reporters.”

Both Versoza and Bronce find women to be more focused in getting the details of a story.

More so than male counterparts, female journalists are concerned with safety and security. Alueta points out, though, that women seldom get dangerous assignments. “It’s like an SOP (standard operating procedure) that male reporters get to be assigned in conflict-ridden areas.”

Just as newsrooms can set in place safety measures for all workers on graveyard shifts and risky assignments, there are protocols to minimize the threat of sexual harassment, seen as more of an occupational hazard for women than men.

“Maybe some male sources view a female journalist, especially a pretty one, as girlfriend-potential,” notes a writer requesting anonymity. “As in all jobs, the best shield against sexual advances is real physical distance. When interviewing, keep distance and don’t return flirtation. Don’t go out with your sources.”

“Male or female,” Amante argues, “You need to maintain a professional distance from your sources.”

While Lim cautions that journalism is “not for the faint of heart,” Amante encourages keeping perspective. “Some beats are more male-dominated than others. That hasn’t stopped women from covering these beats well. Be realistic and know that the old boys’ network still operates in some organizations, but don’t let it discourage you. Treat people (co-workers and sources) in a respectful and ethical manner, and people will, in most cases, learn to trust you with the information you need to do your job well. Be yourself, be intelligent, and be sincere. You don’t need to put on a tough-guy act in order to cover ‘macho’ beats well.”

Mercado never thought that binabayi was a “barrier” on the beat. “What sticks in my mind, though, were young female reporters who thought the way to ‘belong’ was to out-drink or out-cuss the men. They were quickly dropped out along the way. Those who lasted the long haul were those who honed their skills as journalists.”

Seares, Sun.Star Cebu public and standards editor, concurs: “Cebu newsrooms have never been known for being anti-women, yet there’s no coddling there. If a woman journalist blends into the workplace, peers will consider her ‘just one of the guys.’ But woe to her editors and herself if she rants and blames her being a woman for (her) failing.”

“The valuable editor is he or she who recognizes talent, full-blown or incipient, be it in a man, woman, or whatever gender, and helps the journalist nurture that talent,” he adds.

Parity good

Despite the lack of data proving that women editors are better than men, Amante believes that the parity observed in Cebu’s print media newsrooms “has done the profession more good than harm.”

She also pointed out that women led most of the organizations that raised standards in Philippine journalism: Probe under Cheche Lazaro, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism under Sheila Coronel, Newsbreak under Marites Vitug and Vera Files under Luz Rimban.

“Once women took on leadership positions in the newsroom, they may have (consciously or unconsciously) enabled parity and the rise of more women journalists, but that’s just a guess for now.”

And while there may be parity in newsrooms, Amante doubts that “most media boardrooms have found (parity) yet.”

References: Cebu Journalism: The People and the Times, Vo. 1 (2004), Cebu Journalism & Journalists, Vol. 2 (2006) and Vol. 5 (2010)