Negros Island’s paper of record closes shop

by Daryl Z. Lasafin

The Daily Star was established on April 12, 1982, with a circulation of 13,500 in the entire Negros Island.

A VENERABLE press institution closed down last month. After 38 years, Bacolod City-based The Visayan Daily Star published its last issue on October 17.

Like many other community-based newspapers in the country, the paper suffered as the coronavirus pandemic exacted its toll on the news market. Unlike other news organizations, however, the company did not consider shifting operations online. A management official said the closure may be temporary but did not talk about future plans.

The Daily Star was established on April 12, 1982, with a circulation of 13,500 in the entire Negros Island. Its history is only one year short of the Iloilo-based Panay News,  for 39 years has been the longest running newspaper in the Visayas.

Having worked at the paper from the start, the editor, Carla Gomez, recalled that the founders of the Daily Star “felt that Bacolod needed an alternative paper during those times.” In a 2007 article on the paper’s history, she wrote that journalists were disgusted over the influence exerted over the coverage of a strike at a sugar central. In a matter of weeks, Ninfa Leonardia, Primo Esleyer, and Modesto Sa-onoy founded the Daily Star.

Esleyer was chairman and first editor, Sa-onoy, president and Leonardia, treasurer and editorial board chair. Allen del Carmen, a college journalism professor, did the actual editing. Leonardia mentored reporters and the staff, and eventually retired from her banking job to work as full time editor-in-chief, a post she  held concurrently with being president until the paper closed.

Photo of the front page of The Visayan Daily Star, October 17 issue.

The paper started operating during a period of national ferment. There were street demonstrations which were not covered by the Marcos papers in Manila. The assassination of  opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. in 1983 provoked even more rallies and the “parliament of the streets” took hold even outside the capital region.  It was clear that, in that short period, the paper had carved a special niche for itself. It covered national developments but kept close to the pulse of the local population.

The working journalists established the paper’s credibility, said reporter Marchel Espina. She regards her editor Gomez as an institution in Negros media. “She (Gomez) doesn’t have to try so hard looking for news. It’s the news that finds her.” The Daily Star  earned a well-deserved reputation for its exclusive reports. Espina, who worked for competing newspapers before joining the paper in 2019, said, “If it’s not in Daily Star, it’s not news.”

Its claim as a paper of record was tested when Evelio “Bing” Leonardia, Ninfa’s brother, entered politics as Bacolod City councilor in 1988. Bing’s political career includes one term as vice mayor, one term as congressman and five terms as mayor. He is on his sixth term in the office.

Espina refutes the charge that the paper had become biased politically, citing the publication of stories that were sourced from the political opposition as well as stories that showed the city administration in a bad light.

According to Gomez, the paper strove to report with fairness and balance, making it “the paper to read” in Negros. “We always got the other side so we wouldn’t be accused of being biased.”

Commenting on the Daily Star’s coverage, Nonoy Espina, chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said the paper didn’t “lean too overtly” toward Leonardia but would “give the incumbent more play” as its apparent “default mode.” Overall, he observed, the Daily Star insisted on “sober, middle-of-the-road” reporting and built its credibility on this policy.

The editorial staff and other employees, Gomez included, were shocked to learn about the paper’s impending closure, about which they first heard in July. Notices of termination were received in September. Their last day at work was October 16. Gomez said the news staff gave their best up to their very last day at work “to at least end it with pride.”

General Manager Carlo Leonardia said 27 employees lost their jobs. By Gomez’s count, around 10 were from the newsroom.

Gomez was devastated. “I’ve worked for the paper for 38 years. It’s blood, sweat, and tears that we put in this paper,” she said. “You invested your entire working life into it, and then it just goes down the sink. It was painful.”

Gomez and Marchel both believe the management could have done more to save the paper. They said the Daily Star was already struggling financially prior to the pandemic as advertisers were shifting to digital platforms. The paper had begun to feel the pinch from the changes in the media market, which challenged the viability of print. But no one saw the end coming.

In a column on their paper, Carlo Leonardia said they were losing advertisers while trying to cope with rising production costs, and many of their readers were turning to the internet for news. But in the same column, he hinted of a return with “The Visayan DAILY STAR Reloaded”—a concept that at this point remains in the realm of imagination.