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Sunday, May 3, 2009

COUNTERPOINT

It's tough times for type — but too soon to write off newspapers yet


Back in the early 1990s, my wife, children and I were visiting my in-laws when one of my daughters, then aged 6, pointed to something on the table and exclaimed, "Daddy, what's that?"

"Oh," I said, "that's a typewriter." In fact, it was my old electric one I'd left there a decade earlier.

"Someday," I added, "your grandchild may be going through your old photos and ask, 'What's that you're holding in your hand?'

"Well, dear," you will say, with a gentle and wry smile on your lips, "that's a newspaper. We used to get our news on paper."

There is no doubt that the printed media are in decline. Will the daily newspaper survive the coming decades in its present paper-and-ink form? And if it doesn't, what will become of the hoary profession of the journalist? Will "journalist" be defined in the electronic dictionaries of the future as "proto-blogger"?

In the United States, newspapers all around the country (with the exception of USA Today and The Wall Street Journal) have been experiencing annual declines in circulation of about 2 percent. But in the past two years, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, this rate of decline has doubled to around 4 percent on average.

U.S. newspapers derive up to 80 percent of their revenue from advertisements. A drop in circulation means that they are obliged to charge advertisers less. Ad revenues fell by a precipitous 20 percent in 2008 following a 7-percent drop the year before. Also, with the housing market effectively frozen, real-estate ads — a long-standing pillar of newspaper revenue — are now down 40 percent in many places.

This vicious cycle is exacerbated by the fact that some advertisers are turning to the Internet, where they feel they can better target their prospective customers with personalized approaches.

The Los Angeles Times, one of the country's major dailies, has seen its circulation drop in the past decade from 1.1 million to a little over 700,000. The Boston Globe, a very high-quality daily, lost 20 percent of its sales in 2007 alone. The Baltimore Sun has been forced to close all its foreign bureaus.

The situation in Japan is similar.

Here, all five major dailies operate in the red, with the exception of the business-oriented Nihon Keizai Shimbun. But even the Nikkei, as it is known, suffered a decline of around 13 percent in ad revenues in 2008.

Worst affected by plummeting ad revenues have been the Mainichi Shimbun and the Sankei Shimbun. Urging employees to take early retirement is an option, but there is a risk that a company's best staff members may opt for this, so reducing the quality of content.

The Mainichi has stopped distributing its evening editions in some parts of the country, while in Hokkaido it ceased publication altogether last August — by which time it was selling a mere 15,000 copies a day.

Evening newspapers in Japan basically carry "soft" news, about culture, lifestyle, sport, etc. More and more people are getting this electronically, on computers and phones. These new media represent a rival that print — slower and not as handy — can never defeat.

Meanwhile, ad revenue at the Asahi Shimbun, which many consider to be Japan's best newspaper, was down to about ¥8 billion last year — less than 5 percent of what it was during Japan's economic bubble in the 1980s.

The problem now is that the big advertisers, having been hit very hard by the recession, have drastically cut back their marketing budgets. The five top spenders on media ads in Japan are, in order: Toyota, Sony, Honda, Nissan and Panasonic. But as car and electric- goods sales have plunged both here and in Japan's export markets, the knock-on effect to newspapers has been immediate and painful.

This is a tragedy for the newspaper business; but is it a tragedy for those who read the news? I am not so sure.

Let me be the devil's advocate . . . and, indeed, snap at the hand that feeds me.

What if print media disappeared? Is this any different from the motor car replacing the horse or the DVD the video cassette? Won't people still want to get behind the news; crave ideas; long for those wonderful insights that brilliant and tireless journalists strive to give them?

The medium of how the news is disseminated may be changing. It may be diluted by millions of gallons of bilge overflowing from the blogs of self-styled mavens and Little Lord Fontleroys. But I strongly believe that first-rate journalism will survive, and that the real news will out.

However, this will, I also believe, require a firm commitment from government to nurture and protect it. For this reason, in the not so distant future you might be seeing a highly polarized press world. This could be one in which there is a free (electronic) press protected by democratic governments on one hand, and on the other an even more highly controlled and suppressed media than there is today in countries with an autocratic government.

In such a scenario, the protection will come in the form of publicly funded free journalism. (That's why a robust democracy is required. You can count the likes of Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi out.) Institutions such as the BBC in Britain, PBS in the United States, the CBC in Canada and the ABC in Australia should be expanded, with government subsidy but not government control, to provide the wide-ranging services on the Internet that newspapers give us at present.

Private foundations should also develop generously funded programs for journalists, who can post their articles on their own Web sites or elsewhere. This sort of grant-giving has been going on for years, but it needs to be done on a far grander scale.

ProPublica, a New York-based independent nonprofit organization, comprises 31 professional journalists who carry out in-depth investigative journalism thanks to $10 million in grants that ProPublica receives annually from a number of foundations.

The American journalist Seymour Hersh, who exposed his country's practices of torture in Iraq and elsewhere, is well known for his brilliant investigation of the March 1968 murder by U.S. soldiers of some 500 innocent Vietnamese in several villages. What is known as the My Lai Massacre may never have come to light if Hersh had not been awarded a grant of $2,250 by the Fund for Investigative Journalism to investigate it.

In other words, ways must be found to sustain such vibrant, serious, profound and stimulating dialogue as that between journalists and the reading public. People themselves do not change: They will always want to know the truth and be inspired by its eloquent portrayal.

Just because your grandchild doesn't recognize a newspaper, it doesn't mean he or she will not crave and demand its contents. But how those contents will be transmitted, no one in 2009 — least of all our press barons — appears to know.



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