Born To The Broadsheet: Inquirer's Thelma San Juan On Her Career In Lifestyle Journalism
You may know the Philippine Daily Inquirer — it is, after all, one of the most prolific broadsheets in the country. Its name — a household one by now — is undoubtedly captured as an image in your mind's eye: white text against an honest blue background. What had started off as a weekly publication during a time of unrest (the death of former senator Benigno S. Aquino Jr.), has flourished into a daily broadsheet trusted by millions. In its 35 years in print, the Philippine Daily Inquirer has reported on some of the most pressing events of our history. In the 80's, during the time of the People Power Revolution, the Inquirer had circulated over 300,000 copies in print, a feat in itself due to the hindrances of now-outdated printing technology.
Touching onto the present, the Philippine Daily Inquirer has expanded unto more contemporary types of media. Definitely, it has kept up with the times: taking with it the current, more liberal, ideologies of the 21st century without sacrificing the core of what Eugenia D. Apostol and Betty Go-Belmonte had set in place some thirty years ago. So while its roots had firmly been planted into the domain of the political, its dynamism cannot be dispelled — it has taken the reins in the fields of sports, fashion, food, and society. In other words, in lifestyle.
As Inquirer’s Lifestyle Editor, Thelma San Juan has had more than her fair share of the crazy, the scary, and the life-changing. Although the profession seems glamorous — she’s rubbed elbows with the likes of Tom Ford, Novak Djokovic, and National Artist Rolando Tinio — it’s actually a lot of hard work. As a student journalist in the time of Martial Law, her liberal ideologies were often a cause of anxiety for her parents. So although her forte today lies in lifestyle, particularly in fashion, she tells me she’d originally been well on her way to becoming a political writer.
“I didn’t choose lifestyle. I was placed there accidentally. I didn’t want to cover hard news because I knew then that the media was controlled [it was Martial Law at the time], so my teacher, [documentary writer] Bibsy [Carballo], knowing my political beliefs, referred me to the soft section, which at that time had an opening.”
That opening, at the Times Journal (some may remember this as one of the three newspapers operating during Martial Law), was an eye-opener for Thelma, who was then a neophyte in the world of journalism, outside her campus newspaper. “I had to learn [everything] from scratch: writing, editing, proofreading, layout, photo selection. [...] I’d work from 8 in the morning to way past 9 in the evening. I made so many mistakes. [...] But I felt a high — again — being in the same newsroom as the names I admired and used to read. I couldn’t believe I was pounding on the [same] keyboard as they were.”
Although she’d had experience at the Theresian Register (her school newspaper at St. Theresa’s College), journalism in the real world — particularly during the Marcos era — was a whole new game at a whole new ball park. But it helped that she’d had mentors: Lino Brocka, Laurice Guillen, and Romeo Vitug, all of whom had helped mould the journalism students at St. Theresa’s (of which there had been less than five, including Thelma).
Today, Thelma is successful as one of the country’s pioneers in lifestyle journalism and magazine publishing. She’s worked at ABS-CBN Publishing and has helped found Metro Magazine. In 2011, she launched her bestselling book “I’m afraid of heights (or why I can’t social-climb)”. In many ways, her success in her career that has helped shaped who she is. "Journalism opened not only a world to me; it brought me people I have come to love," she says.
Journalism opened not only a world to me; it brought me people I have come to love.
Needless to say, Thelma has been living in a world of words since the beginning. Her early start at writing and editing — she was only 23 — had been the pressure that has formed the diamond. Having edited broadsheets since her 20’s, contending with deadlines even before then, she has much to tell me about what it takes to make it as a writer.
First, don’t be picky. Much like in cuisine, in writing, you have to take the good with the bad. If your mother didn’t let you get picky when there were vegetables on your plate, your editor sure isn’t going to let you get picky when there’s something to be written. “Don’t write only about the topics you love. Do even the topic that’s farthest from your mind. No topic should be beneath you. That’s how you learn and grow.” Perhaps times have changed, but Thelma tells me: "I grew up in a newsroom where we weren’t allowed to choose what we wrote. When the editor asks you to jump, you just ask, ‘how high?’"
I grew up in a newsroom where we weren’t allowed to choose what we wrote. When the editor asks you to jump, you just ask, ‘how high?’
— Thelma San Juan
Second, if you want to write, then read. Learn grammar, do sentence diagramming. “There are no bad stories, only bad writers.”
Third, do the work, be the best writer you can be. “If your competition works hard, work harder. If your competition is good, do better. If your competition is best, kill it; if you can’t, accept and learn from it.”
Last, and most importantly, always be grateful. It’s something that cannot be repeated enough. Have utang ng loob — to your mentors, your friends, your colleagues, and all those you work with. Build trust among them; when you have that, you have already been blessed.
Read also: Mary Prieto: The Quintessential Society Lady Of The Philippines