After 14 years, Manila Times' return is welcomed by many

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At the first staff meeting of the newly revived Manila Times, editor in chief Joaquin Roces was elated to see reporters show up in jalopies. ``I don't like reporters who live beyond their means,'' he said. ``It usually means they are on the take. These were the most honest reporters I could find.''

Honest or not, the return of the Manila Times is a welcome sight to many Filipinos and long-staying expatriates who remember the old newspaper fondly. From World War II until 1972, when President Ferdinand Marcos shut it down under martial law and jailed its publisher, the Times was the largest English-language newspaper in the Orient (250,000 circulation).

It was also considered by many to be the best. One of its most notable alumni was Benigno Aquino Jr., who covered the Vietnam war for the Times (the former opposition leader was assassinated in August 1983). Now the paper has been revived by its original owners, the Roces family, to ``bring about a ray of sobriety to a land divided'' and to cover the twilight of the Marcos years with the same standards of fairness as the old Times.

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The first issue hit Manila streets just two days before the Feb. 7 presidential election, providing a bright spot on an otherwise tense political scene. Picking up where the old Times left off has already proven to be difficult.

Being even-handed carries risks in highly polarized Manila, where the pro-Marcos press does daily battle with the anti-Marcos press. One problem: Access to government officials is difficult, because they believe a paper not under their control must be antagonistic.

``People are angry today,'' says editor Roces. ``They want angry newspapers. So being completely impartial is not easy. For instance, we have avoided taking a stand on the American military bases.''

``It's been very hard to ignore the temper of the people,'' Roces said. ``If you are for free elections, you are for Corazon Aquino -- but then you appear partisan.'' Objective journalism ``fills a space here,'' he says. The paper avoids personal attacks.

``We are trying to find out if there is a market for good journalism in the Philippines,'' Roces said. The old Times was the country's only real journalism ``school'' -- helping to train writers who now hold prominent positions in government, public relations, and advertising.

The Times has eight reporters (soon there will be 16) and a handful of editors who work in a small section of a publishing factory loft in metropolitan Manila.

The editor's cousin put the paper back into business. Octogenerian Ramon Roces, owner of a publishing conglomerate that goes back to the 1920s, invested about $100,000 in the Times. The Times' prewar predecessor was the Manila Tribune.

``Publishing newspapers is in our blood. It's our only business, and that's why people trust us,'' says Roces. Most other Manila papers are run by companies with diverse interests that tend to color their editorial stance. Times employees attribute the paper's success to its sole focus on publishing.

``By concentrating in the business, we were always ahead in modernizing,'' Roces said. With a first press run of 20,000, the new paper plans to reach 100,000 circulation soon, compared to the estimated 200,000 circulation of the leading daily, Bulletin Today, a pro-Marcos paper.

Reporters have had to make sacrifices to join the Times. And then there is the risk that the Times could close -- due either to bankruptcy or to government pressure. Salaries, however, are competitive at 6,000 pesos ($300) a month.

``It's difficult to get reporters who will not buckle under to advertisers or political pressure,'' says Roces. ``We live in a corrupt society.'' Many reporters at pro-Marcos papers get ``smiling money'' from government ministries to slant coverage, says Times writer Sheila Coronel. So-called ``blood money'' buys a story completely.

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