Hawaii Filipino Chronicle Weathers Media Industry’s Economic Storms to Reach Its 30th Year in Publishing

by Edwin Quinabo

It’s been a long drought for ethnic media, newspapers and broadcast stations. Weathering the severe financial environment have left many media companies dried up and rolling like tumbleweed before finally disappearing and becoming statistical casualty.

As in other industries top-heavy by chain ownership dominance, in the newspaper industry the same market share dynamics exists – with big corporations cornering the largest shares of the market and midsize to small media companies resorting to cultivating niche markets.

Specific to ethnic media, while it provides invaluable service to their communities as nonprofits do, unlike nonprofits, ethnic newspapers receive little-to-nothing in direct government funding or private-sector grants and must rely almost exclusively on advertisers where competition for advertising dollars leans heavily on the side of market share giants.

Tech and social media companies have hurt traditional media further, siphoning off billions in advertising dollars that otherwise would have gone to newspapers and broadcasters prior to the digital-internet revolution.

What we are witnessing is a journalism crisis and collapse of traditional media, media analysts have been saying. According to PEN America, a professional writers-journalists advocacy group, in the last 15 years over 1,800 newspapers have closed in the U.S.  Many that survived have been bought and consolidated by hedge funds and media conglomerates – that have resulted in less local and community news content and more emphasis on national coverage.

In the same PEN America study, it found that the communities underserved, communities of color, immigrant and low-income communities have been most affected by newspapers’ decline because local content, valuable local information is not reaching these communities with the conglomerates focusing their attention on national coverage.

It is in this shaky, economically tumultuous period in media over the last 15-20 years, that the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle (HFC) has managed to survive.

And to their readers, many of whom say, surviving hasn’t come at the expense or downgrade of its product as the paper continues to deliver quality journalism. Having built a loyal market niche –Hawaii’s Filipino community — HFC this month marks their 30th year in the newspaper business.

Steep financial cost and HFC publishers’ labor of love
Publishers of the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle Dr. Charlie and Chona Montesines Sonido (also managing editor) said, “The greatest challenge of all through all these years of publishing is the financial viability of the paper. We have spent millions of our financial resources to support it.  We could have closed the paper many years ago but our drive and commitment to have a newspaper in the Filipino community to be their voice and advocate far outweighs our fear of losing.  We would like the Filipino community to look good, to have a newspaper that shows we are a progressive ethnic group.”

On reaching 30 years in a rough, merciless business climate for newspapers, the Sonidos said, “As publishers of the HI Filipino Chronicle, having reached our milestone of 30 years of publishing is the defining moment of our life, what the paper has achieved and what we have set to accomplish.  It is an achievement surpassing our vision we had for the paper when we established it!

“Personally, it is self-satisfying as we have seen the fruits of our labor of love grow, develop and mature!  Seeing a lot of newspapers come and go and failing to survive, we are truly blessed and fortunate to have the Chronicle survive — despite tumultuous, difficult times — due to the management team and staff’s commitment, hard work, tenacity, perseverance and motivation to be the voice and advocate of the Filipino community,” the Sonidos said.

They mention two proud moments for HFC close to their hearts. “One is when the Filipino Chronicle was awarded as the Small Business Journalist for 2016 in the City & County of Honolulu by the U.S. Small Business Administration. This award validated how successful we are in promoting and contributing to the success of Filipino businesses here in Hawaii!  Another one is when we launched the HFC Journalism Scholarship Program to develop future Filipino journalists to serve the Filipino community like what we are doing.  Others include being sought for interviews by mainstream media as a resource about Filipino matters especially in the political arena.”

As for HFC’s future, the Sonidos said “the future for HFC looks good only if the Filipino community continues to support it and rally behind it. We need the Filipino community to contribute and be a part of its growth!”

A few longtime staff integral to HFC’s growth have been interviewed to share their experiences with the newspaper.

Knowing our community beneath the surface
HFC contributor Carolyn Weygan-Hildebrand, who started with the Chronicle after learning about the newspaper while doing research for a report (“A Snapshot about Filipinos in Hawaii”) for the Hawaii Community Foundation, says her experience writing for HFC has enabled her to “know the community beneath the surface.”

Weygan-Hildebrand recalls one of her most memorable stories she did in March 2014 that speaks to this idea of knowing the Filipino community beneath the surface, that in part also means, being mindful that Filipinos are a much more diverse group than people realize and often break the mold of stereotypical perceptions.

She said that memorable article for her was a cover story featuring Tony Oposa. “It was quite a scoop to cover a Filipino who was larger than life in the world of environmental law and activism. He was quite unorthodox in a delightful way — impressing on his law students the law of nature rather than laws written by people. He persuaded law students about winning more hearts not just court arguments when it comes to environmental crusades.”

Contrast this Oposa cover story to another article that also speaks to knowing who we are beneath the surface, but at the opposite extreme of the spectrum, Weygan-Hildebrand mentions another story she did on Filipino poverty in the shelter for women in Iwilei. “One of the authorities who gave me permission to talk story with folks there was worried [about what I would write] but was thankful after reading the article. The voice that was reflected in the article was filled with humanity. It opened many eyes on who and where the poorest amongst us were. It was eye-opening also to learn how careless words can lead some into the path of substance abuse and totally lose family.”

Giving perspective from a Filipino American
HFC columnist Emil Guillermo says he’s always been aware of the HFC even as a Filipino living in California. “When I was lucky to work in Hawaii, I was fortunate to read it more regularly. When I left Hawaii, I knew I had to continue having a written presence. But not in the mainstream media necessarily — but in the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle.”

While Guillermo’s career was made in the mainstream (starting as a host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and later writing for various newspapers), the veteran journalist said “my heart is always in the community media. Here I can talk about what’s happening in the world, but not in a generic sense. Rather, I could share my perspective from a Filipino American lens. That’s what’s missing from other papers. That’s why I value being a part of HFC. I respect the commitment to community HFC has shown all these years. Without HFC, our voices would not be heard. Or they would be far more muted. That’s what 30 years of service means.”

Sharing perspective from a Filipino American lens includes looking at American history that Filipinos were very much a part in shaping, but whose stories are largely ignored. Guillermo says few people know Filipino American history which is why it is a recurring theme in his columns for the Chronicle.

“Whether it’s talking about the First Filipinos to North America in 1587, or the migration of colonized men from the Philippines to Hawaii and California, or talking about individuals like labor leader Larry Itliong, or Lorenzo Dow, the Filipino man in 1850 who was the real basis of the Dred Scott decision, there is so much history that needs to be shared and put in context.”

Guillermo said this sharing of Filipino history is another reason why HFC has an important function in the community, and all of society.

Featuring role models
HFC contributor Renelaine Bontol Pfister who joined HFC in 2014 commented on how the paper has been a source of inspiration by featuring role models in our community. “My favorite assignments are features, when I get the privilege of writing about remarkable people like Charlene “Cha” Thompson, designers from the clothing line Toqa, artist Leeroy New, Deputy Director for Harbors Eduardo Manglallan, and many others. They inspire and make the world better with their talents and capabilities.”

HFC has featured countless Filipino role models from Hawaii, the mainland and Philippines. To name only a few HFC has profiled: Simeon Alcoba, Jr., former justice of the Hawaii State Supreme Court, Dr. Amefil Agbayani, Emeritus Assistant Vice Chancellor for student diversity and equity, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and Loida Nicolas Lewis, Chair and CEO of TLC Beatrice, LLC.

Educating our community on Philippine culture, literature, and history
HFC contributor Rose Cruz Churma, former President of the FilCom Center, has been writing articles for the paper for years on an eclectic mix of subjects. She said two of her most memorable were 1) a profile on Philippine presidential candidate (in the last election) Leni Robredo and a personal reflection piece on Philippine Independence; and 2) the historical role her great grandfather had as a physician to General Aguinaldo’s army during that war, and as a signatory to the constitution of the first Philippine republic.

Churma also has been a source the newspaper would turn to at times for news in our community and information on Philippine culture. Since 2017, Churma has been our go-to Book Reviewer. Her Book Reviews is one of our most popular columns. HFC readers who are second-third generation Filipino Americans find it fascinating to be introduced to Philippine classical literature and scores of Filipino writers, historians and scholars FilAms have not been exposed to. The scope of her reviews is vast from centuries-old to contemporary works.

Her thoughts on the HFC: “It is a vehicle to share information that can provoke, inspire or even entertain–thus creating a community that resists apathy and encourages awareness of what’s going on in our neighborhoods but also of issues impacting our country of birth.  It is an honor to be part of this journey. It is a matter of pride to see my name associated with the paper—because I value its adherence to the tenets of journalism. The paper exists to serve, and to be the voice of the community.  It does not pander to self-promotion just to get more advertisers.  It strives for balanced reporting on current issues. It publishes articles that may not be “popular” to the majority but is necessary to ensure that the community is “educated” on these issues.

Involved in promoting and participating in community projects
HFC contributor Teresita G. Bernales, Ed.D., former officer for the Media Council Hawaii and community lead[1]er, started contributing to HFC back in 2000 when the Filipino Chronicle sponsored and helped to promote events of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Alumni Association of Hawaii. Bernales is a past president of the organization.

Besides the UST Alumni Association, HFC has supported and worked with countless other Filipino organizations in Hawaii over the years from the Philippine Medical Association of Hawaii, Bayanihan Clinic Without Walls to the Filipino Community Center, Inc. to name a few.

Bernales, who has done articles for the Chronicle on the role of ethnic media and the Ohana Medical Mission, said “being part of the HFC family has given me the opportunity to be part of a community of caring individuals dedicated to serving the Filipino community and the greater community.”

She gives credit to HFC not just for sharing information, providing unbiased reports and news, and recognizing individuals and groups in the Filipino community, but also for the volunteer work it does in the community and for its HFC scholarship program that awards students pursuing journalism or mass communications (JMC).

Promoting journalism and helping to support Filipino students pursuing it
HFC contributor Edna R. Bautista, Ed.D., retired professor in JMC, HFC’s Journalism Scholarship Program Chair, joined HFC in January 1995. “Back then the news office was in Kalihi. I would drop off my typed articles there on my way to teach at Chaminade and HPU. We did not have email yet. I moved back to the mainland a year later when I got married. With email, it has been a convenient way to contribute articles occasionally and still feel connected to the Chronicle after all these years.”

On HFC’s scholarship program that was established during the Chronicle’s 25th anniversary, Bautista said, “it is important that we financially help the local college students who want to have careers in JMC as they are our future. They can help us to continue serving the Filipino community in Hawaii. It is an honor that we can give a voice to Filipinos and provide them this service though the newspaper.”

What readers say about HFC
Marites Dumlao, Ewa Beach, has been reading the Chronicle since the 1990s. “From the start, I think the chronicle has done well in exploring the concept of ‘Filipino-ness’ beyond the label of ‘Filipino community.’ In the Chronicle we read stories of Filipinos from all walks of life.  The newspaper has expanded in a more positive and flattering light other people’s [non-Filipinos] perceptions of who we are. And this means a lot to be understood in a way beyond stereotypes.”

Dumlao says she likes that HFC’s cover stories, “whatever it may be from elections to the economy or pertaining to health, there is always a Filipino angle and people in our community are interviewed to give their opinions and experiences.

“Sometimes a cover story is about a Filipino personality. And mixed into the story is a larger issue of which Filipinos are a part of, then we have Filipinos commenting on both. Where else does this happen?” she asks.

Dumlao cites a recent example. “There was a cover story on Fil-Am comedian Jo Koy’s Easter Sunday, the first big production Hollywood-backed movie. Besides Jo Koy and the movie, at length also discussed in the article is the lack of minorities being represented in Hollywood and the Filipino American pioneering actors who’ve paved the way for Jo Koy’s project to be realized.”

She says, “then Filipinos in Hawaii, the mainland and the Philippines talked about this culturally historical moment [the first Filipino Hollywood blockbuster] as a part of our community’s journey toward leveraging empowerment. Now all these elements and angles combined is something you would only get in a newspaper like the Filipino Chronicle,” Dumlao said.

Fiedes Doctor, Honolulu, Donor and Communications Specialist, Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, said “HFC has played a significant role in building the Filipino community here especially in connecting us with our unique culture. The Filipino culture can easily get lost in the sea of other cultures in Hawaii. It’s great that HFC can keep us in touch with our roots and Filipino-ness as well as keep us informed about what is happening in the Philippines, the State and elsewhere.”

He said he enjoys the cover stories and the features, including the columns Candid Perspectives and Personal Reflections. “I love that HFC has so much variety of content!”

Nieva Elizaga, Honolulu, said she likes HFC’s medical and law articles. To get the Filipino community involved in the newspaper, HFC’s managing editor Montesines-Sonido regularly invites Filipino doctors and lawyers to write these articles.

Their patients and clients read the article, might mention it in a conversation in passing. In time over years, Filipinos and non-Filipinos begin expanding their perception of Filipinos to include that there are a lot of Filipino doctors and lawyers out there besides the common perception of the Filipino as hotel worker. And that perception could in part be rooted in Filipino professionals having a forum to share their expertise in a widely read newspaper like the HFC.

Elizaga also enjoys reading about Filipino activities and organizations. “HFC’s editorials are my favorite part of the newspaper. They’re always well written and succinct. They’re unbiased and factual,” Elizaga said.

Reporting during the most difficult of times
The longtime HFC reader Elizaga thanks the publishers and staff for continuing to publish HFC even in “these difficult economic times.”

Montesines-Sonido said it’s precisely during times like now, as Filipinos are struggling with inflation, housing shortages, and post-pandemic blues and fallout that the newspaper is most needed.

During times like these – and there have been cycles of such moments over the span of the newspaper’s 30 years – that the Chronicle has its greatest relevancy by telling the stories of Filipinos’ hardship, their determination to uplift themselves, and resolve to meet life’s challenges as best they can, Montesines-Sonido said.

She mentions “it is precisely during these moments, like the early years of the pandemic, when the Filipino community looked to places like the Chronicle for clarity and comfort that makes our work very rewarding.”

Challenging times spur transformation. “And we want our paper to be a part in bringing about positive changes either through policy when the powers-that-be read enough of the same concerns we report on, or positive changes can come about just by people deciding to do things differently that could have been inspired by a story they read in the Chronicle,” Montesines-Sonido said.

After decades in the newspaper business, she said she’s learned how powerful representation and visibility can be. “Favorable outcomes bend and land on the side of communities that have a strong voice and representation. We know this. And it motivates us to continue our work,” she said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.