Blazing a Journalism Trail

Sheila Coronel was named as Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia University Journalism School (Source:

Nearly 15 years ago, a small group of journalists helped bring down a Philippine president. The non-profit group Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) broke the story of how President Joseph Estrada had allegedly acquired fancy mansions for his family and his mistresses.

The expose, combined with allegations that Estrada made millions from illegal gambling operations, eventually led to an impeachment trial and an uprising that led to the overthrow of the actor-turned-politician.

It was a high point in the history of the PCIJ and in the career of its executive director, Sheila Coronel.

She would later receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award and be named to head Columbia University's Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting in New York.

In January this year, Coronel was named academic dean of Columbia University School of Journalism, considered one of the best J-Schools in the U.S.

It’s undoubtedly a big, important job. And it was noteworthy that Columbia was turning to a veteran Filipino journalist to help map its strategy for training future American journalists.

In naming Coronel, Columbia J-School Dean Steve Coll called her “a superb journalist, teacher and leader,” and cited her “deep commitment to investigative reporting, data science and global journalism.”

It’s not surprising that, in the era of global journalism, a top American J-School would turn to a journalist from Southeast Asia.

Under Sheila Coronel, the PCIJ’s influence extended beyond the Philippines, helping inspire other independent journalism organizations in neighboring ASEAN countries. One veteran American journalist based in the region described the PCIJ’s work as “revolutionary.”

What made the group’s work even more extraordinary were the challenges the PCIJ faced in embarking on ambitious investigations, many of which led to meaningful political and social reforms, and even the ouster of a head of state accused of corruption and abuse of power.

The PCIJ is a small organization that relied mainly on foundation grants and donations, and it did not have a huge staff.

It’s undoubtedly a big, important job. And it was noteworthy that Columbia was turning to a veteran Filipino journalist to help map its strategy for training future American journalists.

Then there are the hurdles faced by investigative journalists in the Philippines who have to wrestle with threats of harassment and even violence and with corrupt bureaucracies with antiquated record-keeping systems that make chasing paper trails a long, arduous process.

The fact that the PCIJ overcame these obstacles apparently was what made Columbia turn to Coronel to lead the Stabile Center which was set up in the mid-2000s as a way of boosting investigative reporting as a core component of the J-School’s curriculum.

She’s taking on a bigger role at a time of when Columbia and American J-Schools in general are facing major challenges.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, the tool that dramatically changed the way information and news are published and distributed.

For American journalism, the rise of the Web marked a major disruption.

By the mid-2000s, only a decade after the Web revolution began, the business model that had sustained the U.S. media for nearly a century was gasping for air.  Ad revenues that made it possible for news organizations to run robust, well-financed newsrooms steadily dried up.

Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll calls Coronel “a superb journalist, teacher and leader.” (Source:

Suddenly, embarking on a journalism career meant embracing a life of uncertainty.

I witnessed and lived through this change. When I was a student at the UC Berkeley J-School, the paths to a meaningful career were fairly well defined.

You start with internships in order to gain experience and “clips,” samples of work. The internships could turn to full-time jobs usually at small newspapers or TV stations, and you then work your way up to the bigger news organizations.

That’s no longer true today. Newsrooms have been decimated by job cuts and many longtime news organizations, including some longtime newspapers, have been shut down.

There are now more, dynamic, rich ways to tell stories and publish news, but the career paths for young journalists are not as clear and well-defined as 20 years ago.

The journalism landscape is still being transformed in the United States. At Columbia J-School one of the Philippines’ most respected journalists is about to help shape it.

Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel

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