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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

News photo
Backstage passout: Members of the Japanzine team (left to right) Rangi Thomson-McCall, J.P. DuQuette, Carter Witt, Daniel Ostrander and Adam Miller (supine) pose backstage at the Gaijin Sounds Live event in Nagoya in November. SEAN BRESLIN PHOTO

THE ZEIT GIST

It's innovate or die in today's mad mag world

Outside the metropolis, how English titles are coping — or not — in the digital age?


By GIANNI SIMONE
Last in a two-part series

In few countries are the most vital political, economic and cultural activities as geographically concentrated as in Japan. All the main institutions can be found in Tokyo — one can only shudder to think what will happen not only to this city, but to the whole country if and when a massive earthquake strikes the capital.

The media and publishing industry is no exception to this Tokyo-centric trend. Still, any discussion of the world of English print media would be woefully incomplete without an acknowledgement of the important role other cities have played over the last 30 years.

Osaka is often portrayed as Tokyo's rowdy, unbuttoned alter ego, and has traditionally boasted of its cultural independence. It was in this city in 1977 that a Briton named David Jack and his wife, Sachiko Matsunaga, founded Kansai Time Out. The publication soon gained a well-deserved reputation for in-depth, thought-provoking journalism, a reputation it maintained when another editor hailing from the U.K., Dominic Al-Badri, replaced Jack in the editor's chair after 20 years. When KTO finally succumbed to bankruptcy in 2009, it was Japan's longest-running monthly English-language magazine, but its sales had dropped to a third of its late-90s peak of 12,000.

"I'm not sure about what finally did KTO in," says Al-Badri, who stayed at the helm of the magazine until 2004, "but of course at the time the Internet was luring more and more readers away from printed media. Unfortunately for us, embracing the new technology was not financially feasible.

"Speaking of financial problems, collecting the money from our advertisers was always a struggle, and then of course when distribution giant Yohan went bust in 2008, it was a big blow for KTO."

The way Al-Badri sees it, one of KTO's biggest strengths — its devotion to people over profits — could also have played a role in its untimely demise. "KTO was born and thrived because an established community of foreigners and Japanese was very active in supporting it. We were always getting involved in causes that rarely offered financial gain, media publicity or awards but gave all of us a lot of satisfaction. The Kansai Bangladesh Project was one such thing. Also, we used to put on underground rock concerts to raise money for a local charity, and film screenings for minimum cost of old, mostly forgotten, Hollywood films about Japan."

Asked what he would do differently if he could go back, Al-Badri mentions the cover price. "It stayed at ¥300 to the very end — maybe too cheap to keep a publication going. We actually debated raising the cover price, but in the end we preferred to keep the magazine accessible to everybody."

Ten years after KTO's debut, it was Kyoto's turn to establish itself on the English-media map, courtesy of American expat John Einarsen. Highly regarded both in Japan and abroad for its award-winning design and focus on the arts, spiritualism, environmental issues and all things Asian, Kyoto Journal differs in a number of respects from other English-language publications.

For one, it's an all-volunteer effort, collectively managed by a group of dedicated editors and contributors. Since its inception, the magazine has been sponsored by Shokei Harada, the head of Heian Bunka Center, a Kyoto-based educational institute. This financial support has allowed the magazine to stay relatively small (in 2010 it had a circulation of 2,800) and concentrate on the quality of its content, says PR coordinator Michael Lambe. "Because of Mr. Harada's financial contribution, we don't have to accept other donations or rely on advertising or even sales, so covering our costs has not really been an issue."

This year, though, the harsher economic climate, compounded by Yohan's bankruptcy, has forced the journal to go completely digital, says Lambe. "Mr. Harada offered to pay for a complete update of our website, which has become essential in these difficult times, and we are currently working on redesigning the site." The change in form will add to the magazine's appeal without detracting from its usual high-quality content, he promises.

About halfway between Kanto and Kansai, Nagoya has suffered for its geography: Unfairly derided (mainly by Kanto and Kansai natives, admittedly) as an intellectual wasteland dwarfed by Japan's top two population hubs, the "Detroit of Japan" is more famous for its car industry and odd cuisine than its high culture. Yet Chubu's capital — Japan's fourth-biggest city — has provided the creative spark for not just one, but two lively recent additions to the English media scene.

Japanzine (originally The Alien) was founded in 1990 by Carter Witt. "At the time, the Internet had yet to appear, and so we basically became a kind of analog version of a local Facebook page," says Witt. "When I started, the humor column or jobs section of The Japan Times was my only lifeline to the world around."

He decided to make humor and parody the main focus of his magazine. Among other things, the (in)famous Charisma Man and Ask Kazuhide were born on its pages.

What for many years distinguished Japanzine from other publications was its national coverage. "In the late 90s the opportunity for satire was rife, so we changed our name and began editions for Kansai and Tokyo," explains Witt. "Over time, paid magazines essentially fell by the wayside and free magazines and newspapers like ours took over."

Japanzine ceased publishing outside of Nagoya in July of last year, but Witt is adamant that the spirit of Japanzine will live on in a digital quarterly reincarnation currently under development for use with handheld devices such as the iPad. Each edition will focus on a different issue, starting with "The Bands of Japan," says Witt, who sees the transformation as a logical progression considering the way readers now handle information. "Today websites have to face social media and group buying sites that offer granular advertising strategies, so we have to be ready to constantly change the way we present our contents."

Asked about the future of English-language media, Witt seems to be up for the challenge.

"Look, it isn't pretty," he says. "Anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn't know what is going on or is kidding himself. Everybody seems to move to the Internet, but we still have to solve the problem of how to monetize content in the digital age.

"I believe in a multilayered approach: Blend the digital property with a print entity; embrace social media in a conversational way; add value to your customer by propagating their message in a variety of media formats.

"In addition, I think we should support those that are doing something to diversify and augment our community. It makes good sense from a business perspective and it is also the best way to keep yourself relevant."

Adam Pasion, editor of the recently born Nagoya magazine RAN, is more optimistic about the future of paper media. "I think people like to panic, especially about new technology, but radio didn't disappear after TV was invented. The market will certainly change as markets are bound to do, but print will never be threatened. Some people may lose a lot of money because they are not prepared for change, but we never made a lot of money anyway!"

At the same time, Pasion acknowledges the power of the Internet. "When we got featured on the front page of a major referral site, our hit count on the website went up into the thousands in a single day, far beyond what our biggest print runs could ever do."

Naturally, the shift to online, usually free content is not only affecting media outlets, but also the journalists who rely on them for their livelihood.

"The print media always seems to be scaling back," laments C.B. Liddell, art editor at Tokyo magazine Metropolis. "I got a few pieces in the Mainichi Daily News, but then that switched to an in-house online thing. The Asahi (Shimbun) cut art and then later music, both of which affected me. The Japan Times cut their fees. Even Metropolis recently scaled back, dropping pages. Rather than growing with one employer, to keep a position as a journalist in Tokyo you constantly have to root around for new publications and areas to write about."

Former Metropolis editor Steve Trautlein remembers the good old days when Tokyo was a thriving hub of the press corps. "It used to be that Tokyo was at the edge of the so-called free world. Journalists faced heavy restrictions traveling to places like China or Russia, so during the postwar era Tokyo was an important point for the dispatch of news and the main place in Asia for print media outfits to establish themselves.

"In fact, as recently as 10 years ago, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Yurakucho saw a lot of action. These days — other than the occasional press conference with a local or international luminary — it's a ghost town."

Asked for a piece of advice for the aspiring writer, Liddell has this to say: "Nothing can really be done to remedy the situation. We can't change it, only adapt to it. I would advise anyone seriously interested in journalism to do it in their home countries, simply because the numbers are better; and if you do it in Japan, have another job."

The current situation might look bleak, but many media hands also see the changing times as a chance to start afresh. While in September 2009 Japan Times writer Eric Johnston, writing in the final issue of Kansai Time Out, was pessimist about the "end of printed media," others are taking a glass-half-full approach.

"The Internet is clearly a mixed bag, but it's an interactive one, so people are encouraged to test their ideas, data and opinions instead of meekly accepting them from established sources," says Liddell.

For Japanzine's Witt, coming to grips with the new media environment means moving beyond the outdated question of print versus Internet. "I find the term "Internet" increasingly dated. In reality digital communication is massively more complex, as are the methods by which it is employed. Importantly, these new media have the ability to empower a conversation that both engages and involves those who were previously simply considered media 'consumers.' "

Whatever form future media may take, Witt is convinced they will flourish only as long as they stay faithful to the local community.

"There was a serious effort to consolidate English-language media in Japan recently. I think it had some merit from a business perspective, but it fell victim to the recession and, in my opinion, a lack of understanding that each foreign population is localized and distinct," he says. "Local media must cater to what is going on in their 'hood."

While Japanzine ended its print run last year, Witt continues to serve his host city of Nagoya with Nagmag, a free monthly that's also downloadable in PDF format.

Summing up back in from Tokyo, Trautlein too sees reasons to be cheerful about the future of journalism in Japan. Print media may be in a mess, he says, but the mess is not the message.

"What I find ironic . . . is that while everybody says that print journalism is dying, it's never been easier for English-speaking readers to find out so much information about what's happening in the city. Which is why the situation shouldn't be described as a 'crisis.' When it comes to Japan, this is a golden age of on-the-street reportage and media consumption."

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