The making of a journalist

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Jan 3 2011

By Rina Jimenez-David

I WAS in high school when the First Quarter Storm broke out, and in the natural, inevitable course of events, I joined an anti-government student organization. Because I was editing my school’s student paper, I was naturally assigned to the “propaganda” section, delivering press releases to the different newspaper offices.

I remember walking through a narrow, filthy and muddy street then climbing a steep flight of stairs and emerging onto the city room of the Manila Times. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and ears. The room was teeming with people and desks and paper – in piles on the dusty desks, balled up and crumpled on the floor, spewing forth from the clattering telex machines. The noise level was also astonishing, with raised voices competing against typewriters going clickety-clack. But I was smitten – with the Times and with journalism. I went off to college determined to be working with the Times after graduation.

Of course, I didn’t reckon with Martial Law being declared just a few months later. I also didn’t reckon with having my other dream of studying in U.P. being dashed to pieces, on account of my intrepid mother’s conspiring to hide the notice of admission until well after the deadline. I ended up in the Royal and Pontifical University, telling myself I would be fine because the best journalists in the country had studied there. Even so, I was miserable, plotting ways to transfer to U.P. as soon as my mother’s back was turned.

And then, just before my freshman year was over, I took the competitive exams for The Varsitarian, UST’s student publication. Reading the V had been a source of comfort during my first year, and whetted my competitive instincts. When I passed the tests and the interview, I forgot all about my plans to transfer.

*****

I HAVE always said that whatever I know of journalism I learned at the V. There were lessons never taught in our classrooms: how to type stories straight from rolls of newsprint that your editors tore off even as you were thinking of the next paragraph; how to read copy in reverse in negatives as they were being “stripped;” how to read documents upside down on the desks of your sources as you tried to win them over with your charms; how to traverse the huge football field and avoid getting hit by balls and players as you hurried to do press work. About the only lesson I failed was how to type and smoke at the same time, which many staffers mastered, accounting for our naked typewriters strewn with ash.

One subject I never expected was Food Appreciation 101, courtesy of Felix Bautista, our publications director whom everybody called “Sir.” At our very first meeting on the first day of “apprenticeship” during the school break, Sir brought us all to a restaurant in Chinatown, introducing my virgin palate to such exotica as pig intestines (which Sir jokingly introduced as “snake meat”), lumpia you made yourself from ground pork wrapped in lettuce leaves, and century eggs with seaweed. The culinary lessons, as well as tutorials on imbibing wine and margaritas, would continue after college, when I came to work for Sir at Cardinal Sin’s information office. People are still astonished when I tell them I learned the ways of the world at the dining table of Villa San Miguel.

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DISCOVERIES made within the Varsitarian offices and during our annual outings to Maligaya Beach in Batangas remain with me to this day. This was where I met the man who would be my husband, and where lifetime friendships were cemented within a noisy, catty, and strangely comforting Sisterhood.

We didn’t know what sort of careers awaited us when time came for us to leave the V. This was still Martial Law, remember, and all the respectable pre-Martial Law newspapers, including the Times, had been closed down. But this didn’t stop us – in the years I made my way from reporter, to news editor, to editor-in-chief – from trying to put out the best damned student paper in the country. One learning I came away with was that while Martial Law restrictions, and the administration’s eagle eyes, prevented us from out-and-out militancy; it was still possible to push the envelope, to couch articles in seemingly innocuous terms that still brought home the message. Another lesson: it is still important to serve your audience. You may want to use the power of your medium to serve your ideology, but your readers still needed and wanted to know about events like games and competitions, and the restless pondering of young souls in poetry and essays.

*****

MY FRIENDS and I – we all grew up inside the V. We learned how to write and to report, amid the bedlam of busy offices; how to meet our weekly deadlines; how to get along, make friends with editors and staffers and yet not allow the chummy relations to get in the way of work and following orders.

Those were the years, I believe, that set me off on the road to being a journalist, though that road would take many detours, cross many barriers, and entail much heartache. But if only for such a beginning, I am grateful to the V.

Former Varsitarian editor in chief and famed journalist Rina Jimenez-David led the all-female editorial board in 1975. At present, her column, “At Large,” appears in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

This article first came off the press in the January 8, 2008 issue of the Inquirer.