Fixation on Politics Feeds Press Boom in Manila

A YEAR ago, Teodoro Locsin and Francisco Tatad added their voices to the clamor of Philippines newspapers. During four tumultuous years under President Corazon Aquino, the Manila press has changed. No longer is it dominated by a few newspapers under the heavy hand of the government. Now, the Philippines capital boasts at least 20 newspapers, all scrambling to compete.

But lines are blurred and links are strong among politics, newspapering, and business here. When the newspaper industry took off under Mrs. Aquino, businessmen and the wealthy elite bankrolled many papers to gain political influence, journalists and political observers say.

Mr. Locsin, a former Aquino speech writer who comes from a family with newspaper roots, became publisher of the Daily Globe last year. Despite the recent bombings, economic blows from the Persian Gulf crisis, and political breakdown, he maintains the president will survive. The Daily Globe will support Aquino if she reverses her decision and runs for another term in 1992 elections.

Mr. Tatad, a former spokesman for the late President Ferdinand Marcos and still known to have links to the Marcos family, set up Newsday in 1989 as an alternative voice. Marcos was overthrown in a popular revolt in 1986 which led to Aquino's rise to power. Describing himself as ``a newspaperman who lost his way in politics,'' Tatad defends the Marcoses and says allegations of massive corruption ``are circumstantial and based on books written by foreigners.''

In 1992, the newspaper will fight the election of Aquino or her designated successor. ``We will exert every effort that the best possible personality becomes the standard bearer against the current government,'' says Tatad.

Manila's fixation with politics is feeding the city's newspaper boom. Most of the papers are read only in the capital since distributing nationally throughout the archipelago is costly.

Most of the publications have small circulations and lose money. For example, the Daily Globe and Newsday circulate at most 40,000 to 45,000 daily. Together, all of Manila's papers account for less than 20 percent of the city's 4-million-plus population, newspaper observers estimate.

In a study done last year by Social Weather Stations, an independent public opinion research organization, Manila residents said they rely on radio and television ahead of newspapers. The organization noted ``a severe drop in public confidence over time with respect to media credibility.''

Newspaper publishing, like many businesses in the Philippines, is politically volatile. The Manila Chronicle is owned by the Lopez family, which got on the wrong side of Marcos and had much of its wealth stripped by the Marcos government. It has since been returned under Aquino.

Each of the seven major newspapers as well as the dozen or so tabloids are read as purveyors of political news and scuttlebutt and has its own audience, analysts say. ``Political gossip is a world-class cottage industry in this country,'' says a government official.

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