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Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2012

Group hopes to resurrect newspaper in tsunami-hit Tohoku community


OTSUCHI, Iwate Pref. — A group of journalists and volunteers are up against the challenge of developing a fledging news outlet into a sustainable business in a town where the devastation from last year's tsunami forced a decades-old local newspaper to cease publication.

News photo
Phoenix rising: Takeshi Abe (right), a resident of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, peruses a pilot version of the Otsuchi Mirai Shimbun (Otsuchi Future Newspaper) delivered in mid-August. KYODO PHOTOS

The group, based in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, is sending out news online via Facebook and Twitter, and printed 5,000 copies of the first issue of the free new monthly on Saturday.

But the group, NewsLab Otsuchi, formed in July to publish the new Otsuchi Mirai Shimbun (Otsuchi Future Newspaper), hasn't been able to secure sufficient editing equipment and funds needed to operate.

The Japan Center of Education for Journalist, which is leading the project, said NewsLab Otsuchi has secured more than ¥1.5 million in online donations but said it is uncertain whether that will be enough for it to afford the rent for its newsroom and pay salaries.

Otsuchi, a town set along the Pacific Ocean in northeast Iwate, lost about 1,230 people, roughly 10 percent of its population, to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Although most of the debris has been cleared, a wide swath of town remains as empty as it was just after the tsunami.

The waves flattened most of the community, some 4,700 people were still living in temporary housing as of Aug. 27, according to town officials. More than 30 percent of the population is now aged 65 or above.

The tsunami also deprived the town of the Iwate Tokai Shimbun, which had served as the region's major newspaper since 1948. Two reporters died and its printing press was swept away by the massive waves.

The surviving staff gave up efforts to revive it, while some started publishing a newspaper in the neighboring city of Kamaishi in June 2011. But Otsuchi isn't covered by the new paper due mainly to a lack of reporters and delivery personnel.

"Residents have been left without sufficient access to accurate information," says Hiroki Matsumoto, a leading member of NewsLab Otsuchi. Since the paper stopped publishing, "people here have become frustrated and anxious about the future course of its reconstruction" because of the lack of information, he said.

Matsumoto, a 51-year-old native of Ibaraki Prefecture, moved to Otsuchi in July to support the project. He had worked as a reporter and editor at a major newspaper in Ibaraki for nearly 30 years until June.

Researchers say relatively small news outlets play an important role in pulling together communities after natural disasters.

Hiroyuki Yamamoto, associate professor at the Center for Integrated Area Studies of Kyoto University, said this proved to be the case in a community in then Aceh Province in Indonesia after it was hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 170,000 people.

"In Aceh, people who lived near the coastal area scattered widely following the tsunami, but they managed to share information about their village by reading newsletters published by a local nongovernmental organization," Yamamoto said.

The Otsuchi Mirai Shimbun, has decided to not only carry content detailing community events and progress on reconstruction, but also information that can help people track down friends and neighbors, as well as stories about those who survived the disasters, Matsumoto said.

News photo
The town of Otsuchi is seen on Aug. 13.

Last month NewsLab brought out a pilot version of the newspaper that was well-received by many residents who saw it as a potential replacement for the defunct daily.

Mitsuko Uchikanezaki, a woman in her 60s who lives in a temporary housing unit, said she appreciated the new paper and keenly feels the loss of the old one. "I feel that everyday information doesn't reach us . . . I used to take it for granted that we had a newspaper."

Takeshi Abe, 63, who helps manage a temporary shopping area, said, "I also want to know the small and funny things that happen about town, something that we can read to feel relaxed."

The center said it aims to encourage residents to take up the role of citizen reporters and participate in publishing the new newspaper.

"We hope that the newspaper will continue to serve as a media outlet for locals, by locals," said 39-year-old Hiroyuki Fujishiro, who heads the center.

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