Baguio media notes and anecdotes

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By Ramon Dacawi

Benchwarmer

Friday, March 21, 2014


THE first Baguio media pigeonhole was on the wall of Jimmy Tong’s Session Café, that favorite watering hole near midway corner of the city’s inclined main street with Calderon St. The café, a landmark of Baguio’s formative years, is no longer there, it has been taken over by Jollibee. The present crop of local journalists now repairs to Roland Wong’s (aka Chongloi) Luisa’s Café where a smaller vertical drop box hangs on the wall beside the staircase.

The original pigeonhole at Session Café could accommodate all kinds of press, praise, and “please” releases from all over, including from politicians. Anyone in media could have a niche, as you then could count the practitioners. Without having to organize another press corps, anybody interested got to serve as president of the Baguio Press Club that later became Baguio Correspondents and Broadcasters Club with the entry of radio.

These days, over a hundred claim legitimacy to the practice of community journalism here. They sport all sorts of identification cards and can decide to create a new media club in one meeting and, as a press corps, ready to execute a parade and review at the Burnham Park grounds. Aside from the BCBC, they have organized the Cordillera PNP Press Corps, Tourism Press Corps, Baguio PNP Press Corps, Cordillera Videographers and Photographers Press Corps, Camp John Hay Press Corps, Benguet Press Corps and, a few days back, the Cordillera Broadcasters Alliance.

Some of the few surviving veterans claim competition was keener then. Occasionally, enterprise would be inspired by a press release in the pigeonhole. An early bird at the café trying to fix a hang-over with coffee laced with brandy might scoop out all the copies, rewire the story from somewhere, feed it to the desk and then go see a movie. Later in the later afternoon, he would reappear at Session Café. Assured it was well past the deadline, he would share the story with the rest of the guys.

Powered by alcohol, evening conversations would turn spirited, ricocheting from one topic to another. During one of those regular sprees, somebody swore that girl, rubbed on balding pates, was a sure-fire cure for receding hairlines. Another turned attention to a tiny, winged lizard that had the uncanny ability to hop or fly from one pine tree to another.

No one took noted or listened, except the gentle Kalinga, Gus Saboy of the Philippines News Service. Baguio journalists often talk at the same time, especially when alcohol has already sharpened the brain and loosened the tongue – or the other way around. So Gus scooped them all with his boxed, front-page features on what he heard about Baguio’s flying dragons and the potency of garlic as a remedy for hirsute problems.

Enterprise was the name of the game then. Radio reporters broke developing news by the hour and those in print followed these up for the national dailies and the few Sunday weeklies.

Today, it appears the reverse. What you read in the papers, you hear it read verbatim by an FM radio anchorman the following morning, sometimes without acknowledging the source. The late George Jularbal, undoubtedly one of the best in both mediums, also noted younger broadcasters no longer report the news; they shout it.

The venerable Sinai Hamada, founder of the Baguio Midland Courier, spelled out the ethical guideposts for responsible community journalism: fair, fearless, friendly and free. Lakay Sinai, who also edited The Collegian student paper of the University of the Philippines, lived up to these standards he set. He wrote fearlessly with form and substance about issues then in the Cordillera, some of which remain issues of today. One of his first editorials was on the sad state of the Mountain Trail that took generations to be upgraded and deserve its nomenclature as Halsema National Highway.

Dependent on letterpress technology, newspapering then was a slow, tedious and stressful process. Stories had to be typed on the creaking Underwood, composed with hand-picked letter fonts or lead-cast on the giant linotype machine, bedded and then ran.

One time, I was told, Sinai dozed off while writing his editorial. No one in the staff dared to wake him up. The printer, fearful then Benguet Gov. Ben Palispis would be bristling if he won’t have his copy at breakfast, roused him up. The editor, who was known for his wry humor, looked at what he wrote, punched a single key, and pulled out the manuscript. Except for that period he just added, the piece was complete just before he fell asleep.

Sinai’s professionalism inspired G. Bert Floresca, Ben Rillera, Juan Valdez, Virgilio Bautista, Gabriel Pawid Keith Sr., and others who joined him in the Courier. Sinai eventually yielded editorship to his son Steve and to a younger staff the likes of Oswald Alvaro, my brother Joe and, later, Abe Belena.

Steve, who gave up a promising career in advertising, came home thinking he was ready to take over. He, however, repeatedly saw his old man crumpling and sending his initial reports to the wastebasket. So he learned fast, developing his own style yet keeping the personality of the Courier as established by his father.

Oswald never took notes and wrote by hand and from memory. His news-breakers seemed innocuous and harmless, but his follow-up stories would turn more controversial as they came, slowly developing into full-blown exposes. With ease, Abe, the only honest-to-goodness journalism graduate, turned seemingly trivial information into feature gems that matched the quality of the outputs of Peppot Ilagan, Domcie Cimatu, Jimmy Laking, Joel Dizon, Vincent Cabreza and Chris Bartolo, all of the Gold Ore.

Brother Joedax disdained flourish and embellishment, always maintaining sentence brevity and objectivity. He started out at The Mountaineer, under editors Lucio Dixon and Gerry Evangelista Sr., and later joined Oswald, Peppot Ilagan and Willy Cacdac in the Focus, a weekly magazine hatched by Des Bautista and editor by G. Bert. Like other second-generation practitioners, he doubled in radio news reportage, with Willy and George on dzHB, now dwHB.

Editor G. Bert one time apparently didn’t read Joedax’s story but, for one reason or another, directed Peppot to re-write it. Peppot typed it out as is, faithful to the original, and submitted. “Kastoy a ti agsurat, Joe,” G. bert boomed, slapping the recopy sheet with the back of his hand.

Steve was my editor at the Courier from 1980 until 1985, when he resigned and set up the Baguio-Cordillera Post. Courier founder Sinai also resigned and followed his literal son. I followed him as we were so close. We argued a lot over a lot of things, none of which we could recall, until he passed in April, 2004.

What I remember was that time work stress and gin lulled us both to sleep n our desks, before we could proofread his editorial. We woke up to a nightmare at dawn. His piece, set up in linotype, was garbled beyond comprehension, but which the printer ran after failing several times to shake us back to life.

Resetting the lead slugs to proper order and re-running 8,000 copies back-to-back would earn the ire of Lakay Oseo, the printing press manager and that of then Benguet Gov. Ben Palispis over having his copy late.

I couldn’t look at Steve, and turned more sheepish when the printer, his uncle, tried to reassure him like a Job’s comforter: “Saan ka kadi nga aburido unay, Steve. Ammom met nga awan agbasbasa ti editoryal.”
Proofreading improved when Steve took in Freddie Concu and younger reporters Nathan Alcantara and Leslie Hernandez. Freddie was also then working with the Baguio Water District but concentrated on issues affecting the Benguet Electric Cooperative. Nathan was assigned to the Baguio beat while Leslie covered Benguet.

When a town mayoralty bet shoved a fifty-peso bill into Leslie’s pocket during an interview, the cub reporter immediately handed it back. The political wannabe returned and Leslie gave it back with dispatch. Leslie eventually gave up on the exchange. But he couldn’t sleep, and came to me for advice.

We repaired to a canteen where I ordered snacks and then listened to his tale of woe over the bribe. Our merienda consumed, I advised him to take the tab, which equaled the problematic P50 bill. “You should feel better now as I had just imbibed half of your burden,” I reminded him. “Don’t interview him anymore.”

Steve and I grappled with shadows that had nothing to do with cash. He would rib me whenever somebody would ask how I was related to Joe. I would answer it’s the other way around, that Joedax is a brother of Mondax. It was easier for me to be in the shadow of my brother than for Steve to be known as a son of the respected lawyer and editor. As Frank Cimatu, Palanca award winner many times over and new BCBC president by acclamation noted then, Steve tried to climb Mount Sinai.

Domcie, who happens to be Frank’s elder brother, joined the Courier after Steve and I left to put up the Post. Unlike us, he didn’t stay long but still got separation compensation. Eliral Refuerzo, now publisher of The Baguio Reporter, and Alfred Dizon, now at the helm of the Northern Philippine Times, had their own stint the Courier, together with now syndicated pro bono columnist March Fianza.

With more time to quaff his beer now even as I can no longer, Domcie still goes to Luisa’s where the younger ones check on what’s on their pigeonhole and act like they own the place.

(e-mail: mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments)

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on March 22, 2014.

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