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Looking Back

A dinosaur from the analog generation

Press Freedom Day made me look back on my beginnings, writing in 1985, the tail-end of the Marcos period, for Weekend Magazine, the Sunday supplement of the Philippines Daily Express. We did not have the blatant fake news we have today, but we experienced real censorship. I carved a niche writing Philippine history because it was then considered “safe,” not political. But I learned later that it was possible to comment on the present by using the past. As an Express employee, I could not write for other publications, more so for outlets considered anti-Marcos and anti-establishment such as Veritas, Mr. & Ms., and even the Sunday supplement of BusinessDay where I contributed under different names.

At Weekend magazine, we had four desks, occupied by Millet Mananquil (editor), Ching Alano (assistant editor), Ricky Lo, and myself. Later, we squeezed in another table for Ada Dacanay de Leon. Lo, who wrote 30 this week at 75, had his desk next to mine, and we often raced to see who would finish first. We literally pounded out our copy on manual typewriters, the sound of the keys punctuated by the rough tug on the carriage release. We didn’t need to feed sheets of bond paper into the typewriters because we used rolls of continuous newsprint, sometimes the blank side of paper from the machines that printed out international news from the wire services.

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When Lo sensed that I was nearing the end of my article, he would interrupt my train of thought by asking: “Ambeth, how do you spell embarrass?” I would answer and lose momentum. To get even, I would leave chichiria (the best was butong pakwan) beside Lo’s typewriter before he arrived. He would chat and munch till nothing was left, giving me a head start in the race for the deadline.

Since most of the covers carried some showbiz personality, Lo almost always wrote the cover stories. He did his interviews on the phone as soon as he came into the office, and started writing as soon as he put down the phone. I learned from him how to angle a story, how to tease reader interest like doing the dance of the seven veils, and sustaining it till the end of the article. I learned by writing how to have a beginning, middle, and an end. Once, I put all my research into one long article, prompting a senior journalist to advise me that next time I should divide it into three or four articles.

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I was in charge of the regular features: The weekly horoscope and Teodoro Valencia’s column. There were days when Valencia’s column went to press clean, without my touching a period or comma. But some days it required rewriting, and Valencia being the “Dean of Philippine Journalism,” I asked the editor why this was so. She replied with a knowing smile: “The days when you need to correct his copy a lot are the days Doroy wrote the column himself.”

One time, I was called into the newsroom where the editor roared: “Tomorrow is June 12, you have two pages for an Independence Day supplement.” I wrote up an article on Independence Day facts and fallacies, gathered photos, and when I laid them all out there was not enough text even if I blew up the pictures. I filled up the space with an eyewitness account of the Kawit celebrations on June 12, 1898. In one afternoon, I learned how to put pages to bed. What I learned in college was useful, but a newspaper will teach you all over again.

After the Express, I wrote a historical column for Emmie Velarde’s Lifestyle page in the Philippine Daily Globe. The title of the column, “Looking Back,” was thought up by E. Aguilar Cruz. The Daily Express was one of the first Philippine publications to have word processors and computerized typesetting, but everything was done by hand on a “dummy.” The Globe was also computerized, and the newsroom was clearly divided: One side with manual typewriters, the other with computers. Some of the old journalists migrated well but complained that computers were touch-sensitive and so quiet. Without the noise and physical exertion on a typewriter, it didn’t seem like work.

In those days, I had to physically bring my column to the office on a floppy disk. Today, I email columns from any place in the world with an internet connection. I am one of the last of the analog generation, dinosaurs who actually experienced the transition from the typewriter to the laptop.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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