A Reason for Discontent

By Raymund Magno Garlitos

(Raymund Magno Garlitos, writer at Manila Bulletin elaborates why a culture of unfriendly competition is “killing” the NSPC)

Last year, after conducting a three-day workshop in one of the most progressive cities in Mindanao, I had dinner with two of the region’s key education officials prior to my flight.

One official (who shall remain unnamed in this tell-all reveal) asked if I do other trainings for the Department of Education (DepEd).

I replied that I regularly receive invitations to conduct campus journalism seminars for teachers and students, including trainings for those competing in the division and regional levels of the National Schools Press Conference (NSPC), considered the “Olympics” of student journalism.

To cut the long conversation short, both the official and I shared views about the “press-con” circuit. In the middle of our friendly exchange of ideas, he/she said this very candidly to my face: “If you were to ask me, I’d be happy if the NSPC would be scrapped entirely.”

For a moment I was taken aback by the person’s drop-dead quip but I let him/her rationalize it with an explanation.

“You see, it has become a sanctuary for cheaters, of opportunists that prey on the teachers and students who think journalism is about the DSPC, the RSPC, the NSPC,” he/she said.

“Some of our colleagues have even gotten the mentality, hiring experts that get paid exorbitantly, in order to produce winners through rigorous trainings and seminars.

Nothing bad naman about the skills that students and teachers gain from the trainings from these so-called experts; it’s just that now, the preoccupation in people’s minds is that you’re a good journalist or trainer if you win the NSPC. But that doesn’t automatically qualify you to become an expert or a true professional journalist. Some do it for the fame, others do it for the promotion of their ranks.”

I would have wanted this spirited discussion to continue if not for my flight back to Manila that night. The DepEd official’s words left me pondering because, in a way, having conducted journalism trainings and judging in press competitions, I took it both as an affront and as a point of reflection. “Am I part of the problem because I get paid every time I accept the invitation?”

Still, I get the gist of that grievance—the NSPC has, in a curious way, twisted the idea of a goodwill competition into a rat race.

Rather than simply recognizing the work of school publications and student journalists, the so-called Olympics of Philippine student press competitions have become a gladiator sport of sorts: which region, division or school lords over the others; which can produce more winners.

It also goes for the professional journalists who moonlight as trainers to these groups—who can produce better results so that they become more marketable, more likely to be invited, more likely to get higher honoraria.

Now, the memory of those words reverberated in my mind with the recently published article written by a student named Micah Corin Salonoy on the online magazine Revolt, in which she categorically called out the “toxicity of contest journalism”, pointing out that “educators focus on contest culture, [and] not on the long-term gains of the responsible teaching and practice of campus press freedom and press freedom in general.” She harped on the tokenism over merit-based recognition, and press-con winners get “prioritized and appreciated over other hardworking staff of campus publications.”

What strikes at the heart of this issue is the idea of opportunism and generated by the flaws that Republic Act No. 7079, also known as the Campus Journalism Act of the Philippines, has engendered in the conduct of contests like the National Schools Press Conference.

Perhaps, it is the lack of teaching of the roots of campus journalism in the Philippines, such as the need for universities and schools of those times to start their own student publications. Or why these pioneer journalists, such as Wenceslao Q. Vinzons and his coevals, founded the very first student journalist organization, the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, which continues to exist to this day, defending universal human rights, including the right to free and uncensored speech.

Or why the NSPC’s progenitor, the Public Secondary Schools Press Conference (patterned after the National Student Press Awards and the Columbia Student Press Awards in the United States) that was started by a Rizal High School journalism teacher named Ricardo Castro in Pasig City 90 years ago, started this in the first place—that said endeavor was originally intended to promote goodwill and friendship among student journalists as well as share best practices in teaching and applying journalism by school publications.

Having been involved in the press-con circuit for only a few years, I have witnessed the many events and incidents that shaped the campus press scene in recent years. In this regard, I would like to point out what ails the NSPC and its lower iterations, such that it has engendered a culture of contest-oriented journalism:

  1. The ranking system during division/regional/national levels of the contest, in which groups (division/regional offices) are compared based on the number of winners in the competition, and the announcement of which school, division or region is proclaimed the “powerhouse”;

 

  1. The conduct of the said contest using DepEd’s file-and-rank, from the Central Office down to school level, which can be prone to mishandling the competition, from hosting to awarding of winners. Some critics of the NSPC also question the level of objectivity such as in the choice of judges or evaluators who choose the winners;

 

  1. The need to proclaim winners even when there are no deserving entries in a competition. One official who acts as a contest facilitator admitted to me that if they don’t proclaim winners, be it first or seventh or tenth, they would be questioned by their superiors, or even by the contestants or their trainers (or their division or regional officials) themselves. There should be a winner, no matter what; otherwise, the results become questionable;

 

  1. The finer details of the contest rules that have become the point of contention. Some categories have used platforms or standards that are very exacting or very limiting to the creativity and innovation of school publications joining the NSPC.

For instance, the NSPC school publication contest prescribes only a standard length or width (newsletter for elementary or tabloid for secondary), number of pages (12, 16, maximum of 20), or colors used (inside pages should be in black and white). It automatically closes doors to student publications that do not conform to these technical specifications—as in the case of student magazines or folios. Those that are outside the NSPC circuit do not subscribe to its rigid requirements.

In another instance, there are individual or group categories that prescribe only one platform applicable to all, like in the new category, Online Publishing, which prescribes only Adobe Spark in its on-the-spot competitions, even when there are other web design platforms that can be used such as WordPress, Blogger and Wix;

  1. The lack of newer categories that recognize newer forms of media, such as online student media websites or student journalism-oriented social media, such as documentaries, informational graphics and other genres;

 

  1. The lack of a means or platform to showcase winners in the division, regional and national winners. In the National Secondary Schools Press Conference (precursor to the NSPC), the winning entries are published in a widely circulated mimeographed publication. In recent editions, winning school publications are no longer displayed or circulated during the event—for fear of getting “copied’ or “stolen”, physically or intellectually. Instead, the non-winning entries get dumped in a bin where the school paper advisers claim back their school publications. This leaves to mind more questions than answers. “Why didn’t we win?” “Where did we go wrong?”

Unlike the NSPA which publishes the winners in a yearly anthology, the national organizers only publishes results in a memorandum that contain only the names of the winning student’s names, student’s trainers, school publications, schools, divisions or regions. In short, the NSPC has been reduced to a list of winners that get forgotten as soon as the next edition of the contest commences;

 

  1. The lack of an archiving system to store the winning school papers, on-the-spot entries and broadcast recordings of the winning simulated radio and television scripts and mock programs in the division, regional and even the national levels. Some former and current DepEd Central Office even confessed that since the inception of NSPC, the results do not get turned over to a library or an archive; they are instead kept in file cabinets for safekeeping, where some are left forgotten or become food for termites and vermin. If at all, people have very few opportunities to get a glimpse of what the winning entries read or look like because there is no publication for these winning pieces;

 

  1. Sharing best practices among student publications and journalists is no longer the ideal because of the culture of contest journalism; instead, winning regions, divisions or schools are encouraged to hide their practices out of fear of others benefiting from them. The NSPA and CSPA religiously conduct road shows and conventions all over the United States and Canada, bringing with them the winning entries and the winners get invited to share to attendees of these conventions.

In the Philippines, there are DepEd officials (past and present) involved in their regions (and these contests) that prohibit their trainers and advisers from getting invited to other regions or divisions to share their work to those that needed or wanted exposure—again, out of the same fear that drives them to promote good practices in their own turfs.

These problematic situations that I have mentioned have contributed to a culture that hinders transparency, objectivity, honesty and generosity not only in the NSPC but also in the campus journalism scene in general.

Worse, it normalizes secrecy, dishonesty, partiality and greed that is meant to serve the ends of those who benefit from it. It also “weaponizes” (a term much used by the beleaguered Maria Ressa) against those who have no opportunities or means to improve their school’s journalism programs.

This culture systematizes the training of aspiring journos into a proverbial North Korean boot camp—where the students are pried off from their normal school life to attend live-out writing clinics training and rehearsals, and forced to have sleepless nights conforming to their trainers’ yardstick of NSPC-winning journalism (never mind if some of these trainers might not have read even a piece of good, true-to-form award-winning journalism such the Pulitzers or the erstwhile Jaime V. Ongpin Awards).

This culture patronizes battle-scarred winners over diligent workers of journalism; personalities over bodies of quality work; and number of winnings over experiences and life skills gained by both mentor and student.

The 2020 pandemic has hastened an impending transformation of our notions of conventional journalism—the shelf life of print newspapers has been shortened, old guards slowly giving way to a more tech-savvy breed of editors and journalists.

Anyone with a computer or laptop and Internet connectivity can now claim to become a “legitimate” journalist. This is the opportune time to groom a new generation of journalists—those who are not afraid to try new forms of media, those that are uninhibited from telling inconvenient news and hard-hitting commentaries.

Looking back, I am now inclined to think that the DepEd official’s reason for discontent might be right after all – let us “kill” the NSPC and replace it with one that’s more forward-looking, free from bureaucratic maneuverings, truly independent and does not canonize victory or success over the importance and relevance of a student press to people and community.

Instead, let us reward the trailblazers of a new generation of student presses—student journalists who reveal a grain of inconvenience behind the beauty of a pearl; and trainers and mentors who, like Prometheus, stole fire from the gods and shared it to humanity in the form of enlightenment, wisdom and truth.