Friday, September 13, 2013

And I called it 'quits' on the second day

SO it was one humid Monday morning in February 2003 when I set out on my first day of work as a ‘reporter’ for Sunstar, one of the three major newspapers of Davao City.
My three other companions who were hired with me were already deployed to their beats to tag with the regular reporters. One went to the Business section, one to the Sports and the other one was sent to cover the political beat. I was given a trial at the police beat. 

With no experience to back me up, to say that my first day is a nightmare is an understatement. The regular police reporter told me to meet her at the regional police office at 9 a.m., and I had no idea where on earth it was. I just boarded a Jeepney and kept watching for the gate with a signboard. I was so busy looking and when I finally saw it, the jeepney was passing over another car on the road. I had to walk back over 200 meters in the sweltering heat and another 250 meters more to reach the police office.
The regular reporter had already left. She had no way of contacting me as I didn’t have a cellphone and she didn’t even remember my name or my face in the first place. I introduced myself to the police on duty and he handed me a thick police blotter.

I have never seen a police blotter in my entire life, and I could not make a head or tail of the jumbled pages of reports from all police stations in the region.I stared at the folder and started leafing through, hoping something will make some sense so I can get a story. I stared at one page for eternity, trying to make sense of the capitalized initials like OOA (how could I know it meant ‘on or around,’ to describe the time the incident happened, MOL for more or less, and NFA—I often hear those initials when the price of rice goes up and the National Food Authority sells low quality rice at lower prices. How was I to know it meant ‘No Further Action!’

Luckily, the police reports that came in at the regional police office were mostly typed, although obviously the fifth or sixth copy and barely readable. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. I was about to encounter police blotters with entries that look like doctor’s prescriptions, and in English constructed in such a way that looks like it’s still under construction. I gathered small bits from the report I was looking at and learned it was a stabbing incident and the suspect was detained at the San Pedro Police Station. 

I scribbled notes, which meant I literally copied that whole police blotter into my brand new notebook (digital cameras were not even in my bucket list yet)  and headed to the San Pedro police station, hoping the regular reporter is already there. She was, and she was interviewing somebody from the detention cell, protected by the bars. The smell was overpowering and I stayed as far away as I could, scared of the mass of jumbled bodies inside the detention cells. 

I stuck to feature writing in college and did not even try straight news writing and I definitely did not have an idea how to transform a police blotter item to a readable story. All computers were occupied and the regular reporters were busy beating their deadlines. It was as if we newcomers didn’t exist and when one some of them went out on cigarette breaks, we were told to use their computers.

Another shock awaited me. They were using WordStar and I have never seen it before. The newsroom admin was kind enough to set it for me and have it ready so I can start typing. It took me bloody forever before I even typed one sentence, distracted with the cursor which kept on blinking horizontally below the letters. Double terrible first day pains.  I sat there for a couple of hours, having no idea how police stories are made until in desperation, I copied the police blotter to the computer then left in a hurry, crushed with the realization that I always thought I had a good command of the English language and discovered that I knew nothing at all.

I reported to Sir Tony the publisher the following day and told him “I quit” because I can’t do the job. He asked me to stick it out for two weeks and the rest is history.

Read how I got my first banner story, and how it turned my world upside down so that I had to ask for a ‘reporter protection program.’

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How everything began

Sunstar Davao's former newsroom
No matter what kind of job you have—be it gloomy or glamorous, your first day at work is always bound to be full of embarrassing, awkward moments until you get familiar with the job. My foray into the world of journalism is different. It feels like it is my first day every day, even after 10 years.
I guess my career in writing began at the very early age of two, when I learned to use my right forefinger to write in the muddy front yard of our house during rainy days, and drawing figures in the dust despite the constant sermon of our babysitter. I thought I was going to be an artist then, judging from the complicated abstract figures I always drew but reality hit me full force in Grade one when we were told to draw our seatmate. My seatmate looked like a fat louse in my drawing, and she did not talk to me again until I moved to another school in third grade.

Frustrated with my elder sister who turned out to be left-handed, my mother decided to make it up to me and spent more time teaching me to trace lines and curves ever so patiently, with my right hand.
I guess I learned fast because after that, I think my mother regretted teaching me how to write, and that’s when I became a full-pledged writer. I wrote on walls, tables, chairs, and wallpapers, and everywhere, particularly on areas that are resistant to soap suds or chlorine solutions.

After a few months of writing, I decided I had enough and stopped. That's when I entered first grade, just when I was required to write.  Long story but to make it short, where are we again?

Oh, my career in writing industry was not handed down to me on a platter. Neither did I sweat and labor in college to get a journalism degree. I know I love to write but that’s it. That ‘love’ stopped the time I was ordered to go out and gather news and write four of them and submit them before the deadline day after day.
But seriously now, I never envisioned myself to become a reporter for a daily newspaper covering politics, court drama and the action-filled police beat. I dreamed of writing but it’s more of feature stories where I am my own boss, write at my own leisurely pace and time, travel and eat and get paid to write. Nice life, huh?
It all started with a deadline
The moment I got out of college I got employed right away—by myself. I was happy and earning good in the marketing world, never knowing what it is to quake and run when a boss gets cranky, until one afternoon 10 years ago when I saw a newspaper Ad announcing the need for a reporter.
It was almost 4pm on the deadline day, and I had barely an hour to make a resume and get to the newspaper office at the other end of Davao City two rides away, just when traffic starts to get heavy. It was a challenge I couldn’t let pass and I decided to try my luck, more of beating the deadline than actually thinking about the job.

At exactly 4:58 pm, two minutes before the deadline, I pushed open the doors of Sunstar Davao and submitted my papers to a woman who was sitting on top of the table nearest the door. Everyone was waiting for the two minutes to time out and leave work.
The woman briefly scanned my application and asked if I had  any experience. When I shook my head, she said nonchalantly “we’ll just call you”.
I told her I had no cellphone and no landline either. I just put the location of a food stall at the bus terminal as my contact point, if ever.
“We’ll just send you a telegram,” she said in a tone that dismissed me as she tucked my papers in her desk and got her bag. Experience was obviously important, and she was clearly not impressed with my application. 

Haha and good luck, as if telegrams still exist. I bit my lip to stop telling her RCPI and PT&T telegraph companies had closed shop years ago. I learned later that Miss Olive, that woman, was the general manager of Sunstar Davao. 

I forgot about it all until one day two weeks later at the Ecoland Bus Terminal when I waiting to board a bus for Cotabato City. A man with a big camera slung on his neck and a vest most photographers wear was staring at me. He looked at the papers in his hand, looked at me and back to the papers. I was getting alarmed when he hesitantly called my name and asked if he can talk to me for a moment.
Truly alarmed now, I glanced at the papers in his hand and blanched when I saw my photo. I grew up in a small town where bombings and gunshots and people getting shot and killed are considered normal, but when a stranger stares at me and my photo was in his hand, it’s a different story.
Then I remembered that application letter.

The photographer which I knew later as Kuya Seth told me to report to the office to take the entrance exam, and said I must have had a very impressive resume as it was the first time the office asked anyone to search for someone at a very busy terminal, one who doesn’t even have a cellphone.

The Exam
Needless to say I showed up for the exam and met three other applicants, all with journalism degrees and with the ‘right connections.’ I only had three units of Journalism, three units of Creative Writing and no connections. I also learned that of all the applicants, 12 of us were called for the exam and they need only four.
Reality sure slaps hard. 

The others were from Davao City and had published some stories in the newspapers for their requirements.
I stared at the questions and the sheets of yellow paper supplied for our answers. 
And suddenly I wanted to start laughing. The questions covered local and national politics. What do I know? I always read the lifestyle pages first and the headlines one week later. Name at least 30 elected and appointed officials of Davao City. Again how was I to know? I even get lost in the streets. Senators? I remembered only 12 of the 24. What’s my opinion on the pressing issues like the mining at Mt. Diwata? Nothing, except that everyone in my family has visited the place, except me.

Anyway I did not submit a totally blank answer sheet. I scribbled an unsolicited essay at the bottom, explaining the blank pages and being honest about being not familiar with Davao City, and how I could have copied from the others if I wanted to. 

We were told to wait for their call. If they call, that means we passed the written test and had to report for the interview. I waited and waited for the call, forgetting I had no cellphone, no landline, no nothing. I also only check emails every two weeks or so. Then I remembered I was told to call and check.
Which I did a week later,  although I knew I would never pass that test. Miraculously, Donna, the newsroom admin assistant scheduled for an interview right away.

No longer funny, oh i mean it's funny!
I was wearing my usual denim jeans with slits and holes in the legs, an over-sized t-shirt with huge cartoon prints all over, and open-toed sandals. I was not going to spend even a cross-eyed peso to shop for clothes or have a makeover just for an interview for a job I was not even serious about in the first place.   

A friend lent me a presentable blouse and I refused the jeans, telling her that if I won’t pass the interview just because of my denim jeans, so be it.

I was told to wait for the publisher, a “Sir Tony” to interview me. It was my first job interview and I was nervous, expecting to face a dignified looking man in a coat and tie on a swivel chair. Taking a deep breath, I I entered the conference room and found a shirtless man in shorts with a towel slung on his shoulders, shampoo and soap dish in his hand. Sir Tony was obviously on his way to the bathroom and stopped by to interview me. He had a room at the office, I learned later. Sir Tony bluntly told me I don’t know how to write a news story at all but he is willing to give me two weeks try out as a paid apprentice.

I never found out why he hired me, but I bet that unsolicited essay in my exam must have made some impact.
Anyways, I am still laughing.

 *Watch out for my real first day of work as a reporter, and how I quit on the second day.