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Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011

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Keynote speakers: Pictures of various guests who have appeared at press conferences held at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in the past are displayed on a wall in the club in central Tokyo. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTOS

FCCJ retools to remain relevant

Internet, lack of big news weigh down foreign correspondents


Staff writer

With the Internet pressing down on traditional media and interest in news from Japan apparently in decline, many foreign journalists say reporting with a Tokyo dateline is increasingly becoming a challenge.

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The FCCJ's nameplate is displayed in the entrance elevator hall.

In this environment, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan is also facing difficulties, due partly to the decline in member journalists since the peak in the early 1990s.

Many foreign media organizations have closed or downsized their bureaus here, but this is taking place elsewhere as well.

"Worldwide, the trend is one of decline because the traditional media is losing its influence and more networking activities are moving online," said Jonathan Watts, now a Beijing correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian but who was based in Tokyo from 1996 to 2003.

The last two years of his stint here he was the FCCJ's vice president.

"FCCJ has the added challenge of being in a Japan that is aging, economically moribund and increasingly overshadowed by China."

Georges Baumgartner, current president of the FCCJ and a veteran reporter for Swiss Radio and Television, expressed his frustration with the lack of news in Japan that would interest people elsewhere.

"It's quiet, like a little country like Switzerland," said Baumgartner, who has been reporting from Japan since 1982. Japan is "blocked and paralyzed by the politicians and bureaucrats who don't have the political will and courage to restructure the country to give a chance to young people. There is no new energy. . . . There are days that you can't sell any story to your editors back home."

The number of FCCJ member journalists is almost like a barometer of the state of the economy, Baumgartner says.

Indeed, the prestigious club saw its journalist members peak at 493 in 1992, when Japan's economic power was constantly in the news. But the bubble burst and the number gradually declined to around 330 by 2000, where it has since remained.

In comparison, membership in the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China more than doubled to top 300 in the five years leading up to the Summer Olympics in 2008, according to Watts, who led the Beijing club from 2008 to 2009.

In addition to the decline of journalist members in the FCCJ, Baumgartner has made public the club is suffering from financial difficulties, largely because of poor money management.

Last year it lost about ¥2 million a month, he said. Relying mainly on membership fees, the club's annual revenues run about ¥800 million.

The total number of members is about 2,150 today, but this includes associate members who are nonjournalists from both the public and private sectors. They make up about 60 percent of the FCCJ's membership.

To improve management of the FCCJ, which is run by its journalistic members, the FCCJ is planning to restructure, including outsourcing its restaurant.

"If we manage it better, we will have more time and resources to do journalistic things," Baumgartner said.

To invigorate the FCCJ's journalistic ranks — who are also aging — the club will try to recruit new blood from Asian media outlets based in Tokyo, as well as younger professionals, he said.

Meanwhile, the club is also looking for ways to better expose its activities and the work of its members to the outside world by improving its website, live streaming and tweeting the news conferences it hosts, and making better use of its press conference archives, Baumgartner said.

The Internet has changed the way reporters work, and that also seems to be affecting the FCCJ's operations.

David McNeill, a correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education and an FCCJ board member, said the club's benefits for journalists have diminished over the years because the research they used to do in the FCCJ library can also be done anywhere with access to the Net.

However, Baumgartner stressed the club can continue to serve not only journalists but also the public's right to know.

"I believe the FCCJ still has a big role to play. Most of the big companies, government officials and anyone in town who want to send a message outside Japan, the best place is this press club," he said.

Founded in 1945 by journalists here to report on the events following Japan's defeat in World War II, the FCCJ is known for big news that broke during the news conferences where figures from heads of states to award-winning authors have taken the podium.

One of the most famous episodes was the October 1974 press conference by Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. He took the FCCJ podium right after a magazine ran a story about the alleged bribes he took from U.S. aircraft maker Lockheed.

None of the Japanese newspapers and television stations touched the scandal until foreign correspondents asked Tanaka some tough questions, which immediately made headlines. Tanaka resigned within about a month of the FCCJ press conference and was arrested in 1976.

In addition to news conferences, the FCCJ has served as a place where Japanese journalists, business leaders and even bureaucrats can exchange information, including things that don't appear in the domestic media, Baumgartner said.

He cited the time when The Washington Post broke the news of Crown Prince Naruhito's engagement to Princess Masako in January 1993.

Japanese journalists already knew about it, but their news outlets couldn't break the news, he said.

"In every country you have taboos, and self-censorship within media organizations. Sometimes they cannot express themselves in the (Japanese media), but they can come to (the FCCJ.) The club is a little island of freedom in Japan, and people can express themselves in a very open way," he said.



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