80 years of the Free Press
After 80 years, the commitment to people and country lives on
Free Press, August 13, 1988
By Gigi Galang
FOR a publication that’s a byword in Philippine magazine publishing, the Philippines FREE PRESS ironically began life as a newspaper during the first decade of the American occupation of the Philippines. Its maiden issue came out on January 20, 1907 and contained both English and Spanish sections. Owned by Judge W. A. Kincaid and edited first by Percy Warner Tinan and then by Pat Gallagher, the first FREE PRESS was set up as an organ of the Moral Progress League, a group engaged in a crusade against vice in Manila.
The early venture proved to be a dismal failure. Unable to generate enough revenue, the paper, after only a year in circulation, stopped publication in 1908. Before the year was over, however, the FREE PRESS would experience a quick revival at the hands of a Scotsman and this time to stay and become an institution in the Philippine scene.
R. McCulloch Dick had worked on newspapers in the United States and Hong Kong before coming to the Philippines in 1900. Shortly after arriving in Manila, he found employment with the Manila Times, first as reporter and later as editor. It was during his eight year with the Times that Dick thought of reviving Kincaid’s Philippines FREE PRESS.
In 1908, Dick asked Martin Egan, then correspondent of Associated Press in Manila and managing editor of the Manila Times, to allow him to take the two-week vacation leave due him. He explained that he was going to sound out some businessmen on his idea of a new publication. Granted his leave, Dick set out on his project.
Of the 12 businessmen he approached to help bankroll the project, two came out in favor; three or four were lukewarm; the rest predicted doom. Despite lack of financial support, Dick went ahead and put his lifetime savings of P8,000 as capital for the venture.
Meanwhile, Kincaid had departed for the United States, but he had left behind a power of attorney with Charles A. McDonough. It did not take long for ownership of the defunct paper to change hands. With Kincaid’s approval, Dick paid the token amount of one peso for the newspaper’s list of subscriptions, name and goodwill.
A magazine for harmony
On August 29, 1908, a new Philippines FREE PRESS reappeared with Dick as reporter, editor and publisher rolled into one. Now in magazine format, the FREE PRESS was printed on 16 pages of cheap paper and newsprint. As before, it contained English and Spanish sections. The new edition was priced at five centavos per copy.
In the maiden issue of the new magazine, Dick spelled out the policy that his publication would adopt:
The FREE PRESS will be conducted as an independent journal. It’s chief aim will be to promote, in its humble way and in so far as it may, a friendly feeling between Filipinos and Americans think they are, and the Americans are much better than some Filipinos think they are. In any case it holds that more is to be gained by harmony and mutual forbearance than by suspicion, irritation and discord.
The new FREE PRESS offices were located at No. 44 Escolta, on the second floor of the same building which housed Manuel Pellicer, Manila Shirt Factory and Dry Goods Store, and another fledgling publication—the Daily Bulletin, which had offices and printing plant in the building. By arrangement with Daily Bulletin owner Carson Taylor, the FREE PRESS was printed by the Bulletin press.
Joining Dick on the staff were Don Alberto Campos who stood as first assistant and later editor of the Spanish section, Percy Warner Tinan who took charge of the advertising, and F. Theo Rogers who helped solicit ads and refused to be paid for his services. Rogers was later to become the magazine’s general manager.
Years of hardship
The early years were a struggle for the magazine. After just seven months of publication, Dick original investment had been exhausted and he was compelled to borrow P2,000 at 8 per cent interest per annum to continue publishing.
It was during this touch-and-go period for the FREE PRESS that dick displayed a strict sense of frugality. One of the off-cited accounts of his parsimony related to the time when the Spanish section editor left his light on overnight. When Dick discovered the deed the next morning, he called the electric company to find out how much it cost for a bulb to burn all night, then ordered the business department to deduct the amount from the Spanish editor’s salary.
After another six to seven months following the P2,000 loan, Dick had borrowed another P1,000 to keep the FREE PRESS going. The fresh capital infusion proved sufficient to sustain the project. Shortly after, the FREE PRESS began to turn a profit.
When the Bulletin transferred offices to the Cosmopolitan Building the FREE PRESS went along because of the printing services. The magazine continued to be printed on the Bulletin press until 1921 when the FREE PRESS finally erected its own building on Rizal Avenue and installed its own printing plant.
By 1925, with the publication doing good business and established as a regular reading fare, the FREE PRESS began publishing short stories, a new feature then in journalism. Not long after, it launched its annual short story contest.
In 1929, the P1,000 prize in the short story contest was won by Jose Garcia Villa for his story “Mir-i-nisa.” In 1936, the first prize was bagged by Manuel Arguilla for his “Epilogue to Reconciliation.”
The Free Press Staff
Aside from the handful of people who joined Dick in the early years of the FREE PRESS, the pre-war staff members of the magazine included composing room foreman Domingo Magsarili, writers Leon Guerrero, Frederic Marquardt, Leon Ty, Filemon Tutay, Juan Collas, Alfonso Torres, D.L. Francisco, Ramon Navas, Roberto Anselmo, Federico Calero, Jose Joven, Jose G, Reyes and Teodoro Locsin, Sr. Artist Esmeraldo Izon drew the satirical cartoons that appeared on the magazine’s first page.
By the time World War II broke out, the FREE PRESS had become the most popular weekly publication in English and Spanish. Before the conquering Japanese closed the magazine in 1941, FREE PRESS circulation had gone past 80,000 copies per week.
Besides the paper’s becoming a journalistic casualty during the Japanese occupation, both Dick and Rogers were incarcerated at Fort Bonifacio. There, the Japanese attempted but failed to destroy the formidable Dick who kept his sanity by lecturing on Shakespeare before his fellow prisoners.
After the liberation and on the eve of the restoration of Philippine independence in 1946, Dick resumed publication of the FREE PRESS. In its post-war issue which came out on February 23, 1946, Dick explained the reasons for resuming publication of the FREE PRESS in an editorial entitled, “A Word to our Readers”:
After four years of “Blackout,” the FREE PRESS resumes publication. It is not the old Free Press as our readers know it. But we trust they will make allowances. We had really intended to postpone publication to a “more convenient season,” when conditions would be normal, but demand became so insistent with so many people asking “When is the FREE PRESS coming out?” that we finally capitulated—whether wisely or not, time will show.
Besides Dick and Rogers, of the pre-war staff members of the FREE PRESS only the triumvirate of Locsin, Ty and Tutay, plus artist Izon and composing room foreman Magsarili remained. But the magazine was joined by new talents, among them writers Nick Joaquin and Napoleon Rama, Artist Gene Cabrera, and Robert Hendry who was associate editor from 1947 to 1955, and who was later succeeded by Dick Kennewick.
Locsin, aside from writing two or three feature articles each issue, wrote almost all the editorials and was for some time the short story editor. (Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. would join the editorial staff in the sixties when he was barely 20. Later, Supreme Court justices would candidly tell Locsin Senior that they preferred his son’s pieces to his.)
The nation’s premier magazine
The years following the liberation of the Philippines from Japan were exciting, eventful and glorious for the FREE PRESS. Shortly after its revival, it won more and more readers and advertisers. By the time it reached circulation of 100,000, the vigor that marked the FREE PRESS’ style of journalism had made it the most successful magazine venture in the country.
The FREE PRESS came to be known as the publication that explored every significant event and issue without regard for the influence of people involved. During the American administration of the country, the magazine vigorously campaigned for an early independence of the Philippines from the United States. It also did not waver in its expose of venalities even in the highest office of the government.
For the FREE PRESS, exposing graft and abuse of public office was nothing less than a crusade. The commitment brought unrivalled influence on public opinion. It was said that no public official could afford to overlook the publication.
Nor was recognition limited to just inside the country.
In its August 26, 1955 issue, the New York Times paid tribute to the influence of FREE PRESS on Philippine life:
“Philippine elders have laboriously learned to read English so they could spell out for themselves the printed words of the FREE PRESS.
There’s many an argument in the barrios, a long-time American resident of the Islands said recently, that is settled for good at exactly the moment when someone remarks, “Well, the FREE PRESS said…”
“One reason for is that readers write more than half of the FREE PRESS. Subscribers report on a gay village fiesta; on an energetic mayor who gives medical injections and legal advices, teaches the catechism class and ghost writes all the letters of the community; on the successful mechanization of a small farm; the problems of a little barrio where all the water has to be carried by a cart a distance of three miles; a wedding of tribespeople in Zamboanga; a community ruined by hot feelings over politics; the only Filipino woman in Congress.”
One more significant fact that might be pointed out—the FREE PRESS was a newsmagazine long before Hadden and Luce developed Time. To this may be added that the many exclusives, explosive and otherwise, written by Locsin, Ty and Tutay came from tips furnished by people who had complaints against the government, other people or articles printed in the magazine.
A touch of libel
Proof of the courage that made the FREE PRESS a standout in the industry were the many libel cases brought against Dick (for an editorial written by then staffer Teodoro Locsin) by former governor Eliseo Quirino. The court acquitted the accused with commendation for service to the cause of good government. Governor Quirino gave a lechonada for Dick and Locsin. There was also the libel case filed at the behest of then Senate President Manuel L. Quezon. Dick himself was once ordered deported by Governor General Francis Burton Harrison. The case even reached the Supreme Court of the United States. It was later dropped when Harrison left the Philippines and placed administration of the country in the hands of Vice-Governor General Charles Emmet Yeater.
In August 1958, during the celebration of the FREE PRESS’ 50th anniversary, Dick and Rogers were awarded the Philippine Legion of Honor by the Philippine government for their service to the cause of Philippine freedom. The same year, Dick received the Ramon Magsaysay award for literature and journalism.
On June 16, 1965, the FREE PRESS came out with a weekly Pilipino edition. Called the Philippine FREE PRESS Sa Wikang Pilipino, it had the same format and content as the original FREE PRESS. It reached a circulation of 40,000 quickly, largely the provincial school system which used it as reading material. Then it experimented with radical articles and “sexy” stories by avant garde writers. Circulation took a nose-dive. In December 1970, the Pilipino edition was closed; it was a flop.
The pioneer passes away
In September 1960, R. McCulloch Dick passed away. His death marked the end of his more than 50 years of influence on Philippine Journalism. At the time of his demise, Dick owned 99 percent of FREE PRESS stocks, which he bequeathed to Rogers and his own employees under certain conditions. The corporation eventually bought the stocks of Rogers who had returned to the United States and lost interest in the magazine. Rogers died in the United States in late 1963.
In the hands of Teodoro Locsin Sr. as publisher and editor, the FREE PRESS remained the fightingest publication in the country.
Twenty months before Marcos imposed martial law, the FREE PRESS painted the scenario of life under military rule:
With the courts and Congress reduced to impotence and the independent press shut up—with publishers who dare to disagree with Marcos placed under house arrest or in concentration camps where they would be joined sooner or later by outraged justices of the Supreme Court, senators and representatives who would not lick the boots of Marcos, as well as others who would not submit to tyranny—the nation would be polarized. The Philippines would be divided into Marcos collaborators and those who love liberty and are branded misguided elements (as during the Japanese Occupation) and declared enemies of the Marcos state.
Life under a regime of martial law or a Marcos military dictatorship would be little different from the life during the Japanese Occupation. How many would submit to it? And how would Marcos ever dare restore civil law? Would he dare to leave Malacañang? Would he not be compelled to declare himself President for life, that is, a dictator forever? And how long would forever be?
On September 21, 1972, martial law was declared. The following day, Marcos issued Letter of Instruction No. 1 ordering the Press and Defense Secretaries to “take over and control or cause the taking over and control of the mass media for the duration of the national emergency, or until otherwise ordered by the President or his duly designated representative.”
Newspapers and magazines, including the FREE PRESS, were closed down, Leading media men, including Manila Times’ Chino Roces and the FREE PRESS’ Teodoro Locsin and Napoleon Rama, were arrested and imprisoned—without charges.
With the government clampdown, the FREE PRESS ended its many years as the country’s premier weekly magazine. It was not until 1986, 14 years after it was closed down, that the FREE PRESS reappeared in the country.
The magazine came out shortly before the February 7, 1986 snap elections to join the candidate Corazon Aquino’s campaign for the presidency.
After the EDSA revolution and the accession of a new regime, the FREE PRESS was relaunched as a fortnightly publication. But if the frequency was altered, the commitment to good government and the public interest never wavered.
That commitment—from the very birth of the magazine in 1908 to the present—in a sense explains the return in August 1988 of the FREE PRESS as a weekly journal of news and opinion.
Eighty years now lie behind the FREE PRESS. Unless catastrophe once more descends on the Philippines, it is certain to complete its first century of publication and offer more years of service to the life of the Filipino nation.