This March, The Philippine Reporter, a leading Filipino-Canadian newspaper in Toronto, is celebrating its 25th year of publication.
For its founders – the indefatigable husband-and-wife team Hermie and Mila Garcia – it represents a quarter of a century of hard work and persistence.
Along with other journalists, they had been detained as political prisoners during the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos. They were released in 1981, but a subversion case dating back to 1971 had not been dismissed.
“At that time, there were still military courts and the judges were generals, so the cards were stacked against us,” recalled Mr. Garcia. “What chance did one have?”
They were advised by their lawyers to leave. His parents and brothers and sisters were in Toronto, so they came with their young children in tow.
Even after Marcos was ousted from power in 1986, the situation remained volatile in the Philippines and so the Garcias stayed.
It was supposed to have been temporary, says Mr. Garcia. “I was thinking of my children and grandchildren. They wouldn’t know how to speak Tagalog.” Not being able to go back right away remains one of his regrets in life.
His one consolation is that from its humble beginnings, The Philippine Reporter has earned the loyalty of Filipino-Canadians, and has made a mark in the city.
Their first issue was produced in a basement in Scarborough “using an Atari computer that didn’t have a hard drive,” recalled Ms. Garcia, in an article about the newspaper. Since then it has consistently won awards from the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, for its editorial content and visual presentation.
Hermie Garica, editor and publisher of The Philippine Reporter reflects on his newspaper’s life and legacy with The Origami’s Marites N. Sison. [Full disclosure: The Origami’s Beatrice S. Paez is a contributor to The Philippine Reporter.]
The newspaper at 25
We came to Canada in 1984, so the paper came five years after. Mila and I had three small kids; work was hard. Mila was able to get a clerical position at City Hall. I had part-time jobs.
We had applied to newspapers, magazines, publications we wanted to work in, but we never got hired. It was a very unstable market and you couldn’t practice your skills and profession. It’s still very much a reality now – you have doctors driving cabs. So Mila went into the bureaucracy. I did odd jobs: data entry, accounting… I bought a small car and I delivered the Toronto Star, Swiss Chalet, and pizza. It was hard, especially in winter. Sometimes I had to deliver in highrises. When I got back to the car I had a ticket. Lugi [a loss]. (Laughs)
The routes were also far, some houses had dogs and I was afraid of them. In highrise [buildings] I was afraid of being mugged in elevators.
I landed a clerical job at Metro Toronto. It paid well compared to odd jobs, but I had no satisfaction. I was used to being a journalist.
I saw other [ethnic] newspapers and they seemed to be flourishing. But we had no huge capital; we had to get a loan from the bank and use our own money.
We were losing money for a couple of years until we managed to break even and I became better at the advertising side of the business. It was hard because I wasn’t used to being a businessman. But I had to learn everything. I took a couple of courses in layout, accounting and statistics at Ryerson University. It still wasn’t easy, until the economy got better and the community grew. Big businesses started looking at the Filipino community as a target market for their products in the mid 1990s. That’s why the number of newspapers [in the Filipino community] also increased.
To quit or not to quit
We were incurring debt, every issue we lost money. But I decided to look at the long-term. I told myself that the community is growing, and mainstream businesses would see that it’s a big market for their products and services and inevitably they will advertise… Luckily the time came. I had talked to advertisers and I got a sense that they had the advertising budget for Filipinos, who are ever present around the city. They knew Filipinos who often taught them words in Tagalog.
Even South Asians and Eastern Europeans try to speak Tagalog – they have friends, officemates and relatives by affinity and would talk about their encounters with them everywhere.
The community was growing at that time, not just in terms of statistics, but their presence in the lives of others. I also looked at other newspapers and saw we were competing for the same ads and thought, “I have to get out of this box and shift to mainstream advertisers.”
Yes, we’ve paid our debts (laughs). In fact, we have no long-term debt. We pay cash for equipment.
From the very start, it’s been our standard to put out quality content. I talked to some publishers in the 1980s who said, “What readers want is garbage, so you give them garbage.”
I was shocked at how they viewed readers – they didn’t think they were intelligent. I wanted real journalism… We have permission [to reprint stories from several Philippine publications]. The stories have to be the latest… Now we can afford to assign stories to a few writers and pay them. But not just any writer – we had Kris Reyes [now an anchor at Global News TV’s The Morning Show], Dyan Ruiz and others with journalism degrees… We know they’re [writers] who won’t just use a press release; other newspapers don’t make a distinction just to fill up the space. But readers know that; they’re intelligent.
Community leaders and associations always see [the Reporter], it’s like an institution already. We also have an online presence…other newspapers have a tendency to rely on voices of government official, the voices of people in power. What about the grassroots, which have no budget and contact with editors?
These are organizations fighting for interest of people. But when we print stories about massacres and land grabbing in the Philippines, some [Filipino] papers would say, “Why will you wash dirty linen in public?” It’s not dirty linen, it’s happening. But some [newspapers] are just in it for business.
We were involved in many advocacies, including the shooting by a police officer of [Filipino-Canadian youth] Jeffrey Reodica in May 2004… We could only report twice a month but our coverage was comprehensive. Every issue we had included developments. We talked to his family, lawyers, the police chief and we were there as pressures mounted for an inquest, the jury recommendations…
We’re reported a lot on caregivers – if you look at our back issues, we were always in the midst of action. The provincial government was pressured to give in a 1-800 hotline for caregivers… We also cover community life and even celebrities.
Our older readers like the newspaper for the Philippine connection, but the younger ones read about issues here, which we cover.
Role of ethnic media
I don’t think print is out of the picture. We’re using a different printer and they’re expanding with the ethnic press. Maybe the readership of ethnic media is more in print than online.
I’ve been with National Ethnic Press Council for more than 10 years now and I’ve seen publications increase their pages…When you look at the dailies, the ethnic content is limited… Traditionally they don’t care about what goes until there are big events like the Tamil mass actions, when there was a war against the Tamil Tigers…If you combine circulation of all ethnic media, it’s bigger than the circulation of major newspapers. In other words, the readership is bigger but it’s just in different languages.
These are mostly non-English speakers – the Greeks, Italians, and Chinese… The audience is not necessarily older. Sometimes it takes time for a family to be detached from their home country.
I want to set up something that will allow The Reporter to continue, with me out of the picture. That’s my goal. I won’t forever be healthy and active, right?
I think I’ve done my part. [The Reporter] has had an influence on others as well, in terms of professionalism.