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The former president of the Philippines had been arrested on corruption charges. The chief justice of the Supreme Court had been impeached. Transportation workers were threatening to gridlock the city with a strike.
But People's Tonight had the scoop: A child had been stabbed while its mother slept nearby. "She screamed as she saw her child's cradle dripping with blood, " the newspaper's front-page story said. "With trembling hands, the mother pulled out the blade and scooped her mangled kid in her arms. "
Welcome to the world of Manila's tabloid newspapers. With names like Bulgar - the Filipino word for "vulgar" - and Police Files Tonite, more than 40 Manila newspapers publish in both the format and spirit of classic tabloid journalism. They offer readers a dizzying assortment of sex, violence, gore, celebrity scandal, strange news, spirited opinion and personal advice. Hard-hitting columnists link government officials and police officers by name to extortion and bribery, a practice not without risk in a country with one of the world's highest rates of murdered journalists.
While Manila's traditional broadsheet newspapers cover the most important issues of the day in English for a relatively small readership of influential Filipinos and foreigners, the tabloids provide the news for the rest of the reading public, mostly in Filipino.
"If you combine the circulation of the tabloids, they have a much larger readership than the broadsheets, " said Marites Vitug, a respected Manila journalist and president of the Journalism for Nation Building Foundation.
Circulation figures are not verified for Manila newspapers, either mainstream broadsheets or tabloids, but the broadsheet Manila Bulletin says on its website that it prints 300, 000 copies per day. The Philippine Daily Inquirer reports a daily circulation of 260, 000.
The actual circulation of the tabloids is anybody's guess. Some publishers claim figures exceeding 350, 000 per day. Others joke that their circulation varies from 30, 000 to 500, 000 depending on whether they are talking to an advertiser or a tax auditor.
What everyone seems to agree on is that the tabloids, over all, outsell broadsheets and that they make money.
"Because they run on smaller production and editorial budgets, tabloids are sometimes more profitable ventures than broadsheets, " said the German research group Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, in the Philippines chapter of its report Asian Media Barometer 2011.
One indicator of their profitability is the fact that the major mainstream newspapers in Manila - The Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Manila Bulletin and The Philippine Star - all print tabloid versions of their broadsheet editions. Like other major tabloids here, they profit less from advertising than from low overhead and high-volume street sales.
The dozens of smaller, shadier tabloids that operate in Manila find other ways to make a profit. Some are run as underground operations. They do not have advertising, a business license, a taxpayer identification number or office contact information published in their pages. Much of their content is soft-core pornography lifted from the internet and political attack articles sold to the highest bidder.
"During election time, these small papers are very profitable, " said Raimund Agapito, publisher of the popular celebrity tabloid newspaper Pinoy Parazzi. "They will malign any candidate. They will print anything for a price. "
The shadier operators do not help the beleaguered reputation of the Manila tabloid press. Media analysts acknowledge that the publications are popular, but they stop short of giving them credit for being influential or socially relevant.
"The tabloids fill all sorts of needs, the thrill of reading about crime and so forth, " said Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility, based in Manila. "The only social value I see is that they keep up the reading habit in a sector that cannot afford to buy the daily newspaper, " she added, referring to more mainstream publications.
Vitug agrees, noting that the Manila tabloids do not break major news stories like their counterparts in Britain or the US.
"The tabloids don't shape the news agenda. They are seen as entertainment, " she said. "They are read by the masses, but the masses don't lead revolutions or bring the country into the future. That sounds condescending, but that is how they are perceived by the elite. "
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