DESPITE ALL THE HURDLES Balita Stands Firm in Its Quest for the Truth

By | May 15, 2017

Toronto’s largest Filipino newspaper will be 40 years old next year, that period where life begins, it is commonly said. Those four decades are not without challenges. Disputes arise here and there but they only serve to strengthen the paper in its campaign to expose the ills afflicting the Filipino community. Every challenge it is made to face fortifies its resolve.

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“Did you think I’d crumble?
“Did you think I’d lay down and die?
“Oh, no, not I!
“I will survive.”

– excerpted from “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor

TORONTO – In contrast with the Washington Post in the U.S. or some mainstream newspapers in Canada whose circulation runs into the hundreds of thousands, Balita is much like a fortnightly supplement to add to one’s reading.

An underdog it may appear, but the English-language publication enjoys a preeminent position as the largest Filipino newspaper in Toronto at 80 pages and a circulation of 15,000 copies per issue. That’s a clear manifestation of trust, respect, and confidence in one seemingly small paper.

Ideally, the number is multiplied by four (15,000 x 4 = 60,000) on the assumption that families, particularly Filipino, consist of four members who read the paper one after another. It’s basically an advertising and marketing yardstick that keeps track of how wide a paper’s reach is. 

So in a month, Balita is potentially interacting with 120,000 readers, which is approximately half the Filipino population in Greater Toronto Area. This gives an idea why Balita is the newspaper of choice by advertisers; it connects them to their target market.

By financial, editorial and advertising standards, Balita admittedly pales in comparison with the Post, or with Toronto Star or Globe and Mail. It’s an ethnic newspaper serving the Filipino community in the GTA since 1978. But it does have a voice, and surely, that voice is not to be ignored.

It has no pretensions of being a national or regional player because of its size and reach. Nonetheless, the limits of its coverage do not stop it from practicing what the big leaguers do, and that is to engage in investigative journalism, or muckraking as we knew it from journalism school.

Balita’s founder, the late Ruben Cusipag, had been a muckraker early on. He had started a journalistic tradition in Toronto and when he passed away in July 2013, that tradition was left as his living legacy to his widow, Tess Cusipag, who, fortunately, continues on relentlessly. The Cusipags are advocates for transparency and accountability.

In the exercise of the freedom of the press, Balita had to face hurdles, the most virulent being lawsuits. A highly-informative paper that’s given free to the public and thrives only on erratic advertising revenues could hardly possess the financial muscle to carry on with legal battles in pursuit of its mission.

Its meager resources are not inexhaustible yet it stands solidly in its defense of principle to uphold the truth. There can be no worse time for a crusading paper than to be thrown down the gauntlet by clandestine conspirators and be made to look negligent. That’s the big challenge it faces.

Schemers, particularly those unveiled by Balita for their nefarious activities, lie in wait for the chance to cripple the paper in ways other than through the judicial process. There’s economic sabotage, for one. There’s personal and professional shaming, for another.

Balita knew the boundaries of its crusade. Like the mainstream media, it follows strict standards in reporting, i.e. checking and cross-checking claims against records, personal testimonies, documents, and available facts from trustworthy sources who either wish to be identified or stay anonymous.

Balita has this quixotic thrust to persist in its mission – the thing that drives it to fulfill a noble purpose but with little payback. Perhaps running the newspaper is an impractical, or even insane, proposition. If that is so, why would Balita continue, knowing its strength in investigative journalism comes with risks to life and property?

The answer lies in its commitment to ferreting out the wrongdoers, the criminal elements, the crooks, the impostors, etc. who dominate some sectors of the Filipino community through community associations, charitable organizations, foundations, and the like.

Several community newspapers in Toronto have abandoned the reasons for their existence and have become essentially advertising sheets or glorified advertising billboards, and entertainment calendars or personal outlets to promote individual businesses. A mere look at their front pages will confirm this. The hard news is left out, purposely, because it’s not only expedient, it’s also safe.

Perhaps six out of 10 belong to this category. Two are into homeland politics. One – Waves News – is devoted to uplifting the community with stories of Filipino achievements, thus appropriately calling itself the “feel-good” newspaper, and thereby creating its own niche. 

And the lone wolf (in the metaphorical sense of being independent, self-reliant, unfettered and fearless) of community newspapering – Balita – stands firm, albeit alone, in its quest for the truth through expository reporting.

In almost 40 years, Balita goes on with its struggle to survive the pain and obstacles thrown its way by parties offended by its reporting. And under these very conditions, the periodical thrives, which only goes to show the silent support it is getting from the community.