Future of Web-based journalism in Japan

Thursday, April 28 2005 @ 05:29 PM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

Now that Fuji TV Network of the Fuji-Sankei media group and Livedoor, an Internet service provider which is dwarfed by the media behemoth, have reached an amicable, face-saving and empty agreement after a couple of months of the dirty, un-capitalistic "bidding battle" for a controlling stake in AM-radio broadcaster NBS, some of us find ourselves wondering what the future of the media, printed media in particular, should be like. (See April 19 TFP story "Horie's bid comes to an end in anticlimax, whatever it was all about.") Unfortunately, and quite naturally, the mainstream media cannot address this issue head-on because there, they cannot get around the question about their own survival. For one thing the April 21 issue of the Daily Yomiuri ran an analysis headlined "Battle for NBS triggers debate over journalism" by its staff writer Yoshikazu Suzuki. But his arguments betrayed the intriguing headline because the only specific proposition the staff writer could elaborate on was totally irrelevant to the issue. He argued there that every TV station should further enhance its "closed captioned service" in the interest of 6 million people whose hearing is impaired.

Below here I will try to specifically identify the critical points at issue when discussing the future of the Web-based journalism in this country:

(Enabling technologies)
Obviously enabling technologies are already there for quite sometime now. What is still missing is, as usual, know-how to apply them to innovate the formats of the Web-based media. The single most important thing the TokyoFreePress would like to point out is that as is true anywhere else, it's a sheer waste of financial and other resources to attempt to apply a revolutionary technology such as the one at issue here to a business model while trying to keep the legacy format involved in it essentially intact.

(Fate of conventional media - converged or supplanted?)
Web-based technologies are disruptive in nature. They are revolutionary, not evolutionary. In theory that should mean the new formats of the Web-based media will supplant at least some of the conventional formats, if not overnight. The way the TFP sees it is that at least the newspaper, the 19th century's media format whose technology further dates back to the 15th century when Johann Gutenberg invented the "movable type," will become obsolete and be totally replaced by the Web-based journalism. I don't think it's our wishful thinking that we will most probably see the demise of the Japanese printed media in the near future. In the stupid book "Stupid White Men," Michael Moore laments that only 11% of Americans bother to read a daily newspaper ("beyond the funny pages or the used car ads.") On this side of the Pacific, however, practically every adult is a "paper worm." Take the Yomiuri Shimbun daily for example. It boasts the world's second largest circulation (10.3 million), only next to China's People's Daily. If the Americans are stupid as Moore insists, I don't know how to describe the stupidity of these subscribers to the Yomiuri Shimbun. (For your reference a 10 million circulation translates into almost an incredible US$ 10 million in daily subscription revenues, alone.) If and when we see the demise of the Yomiuri Shimbun, or any other mainstream dailies in Japan, we will see at the same time this dysfunctional system lined with the morbid culture collapsing altogether, or at least transforming itself into a sound and viable system. On the other hand, convergence between old media formats and newly-emerging ones, if ever that's what's going to happen as Takafumi Horie, founder and CEO of Livedoor, predicts, will take place somewhere else than in the printed media although the likelihood looks extremely remote that the "business tie-up promotion committee" being formed between Fuji TV and Livedoor will come up with a new, valid formula which synergizes the conventional media formats with the new business models. The TFP's crystal-ball tells that at any rate, the existing TV format will not be supplanted by something really new, just like apes haven't been supplanted by mankind. Maybe you had better get prepared to watch even more apes appearing on Channel 8 (Fuji TV) or any other nation-wide networks.

(Interactive/participatory journalism)
When Horie and many other people talk about interactive media formats, what they have in mind is little more than conventional call-in programs, letters to newspaper editors, or push-polls conducted in the middle of the programs. The best we can expect them to realize when converging the old and new media formats is a faint flavor of the Business-to-Consumer, or Consumer-to-Consumer, e-commerce added to conventional commercials. There's nothing new in these propositions. In fact what we are seeking is a format that enables real interaction. In other words, the flow of information should be two-way. Both sides should play the roles of providers and those of receivers, real interchangeably. Talking about the case with our blog named TokyoFreePress, it's really encouraging to see its traffic getting busy everyday. Although we couldn't afford to take any SEO (search-engine optimization) measure when launching the blog, the site statistics says the "Total hits to the system" have topped 50,000 in the first 7 months. Our major problem lies with the fact that its audience, by and large, still remains a group of "lurkers." It would be a breeze to make its exposure much broader by taking up more popular topics from more conformist perspectives. But then we would end up with something other than an interactive journalism in which a bunch of "trollers" are pelting each other with eggs. As we've said in "Rules for posting", the TFP is allergic to eggs.

(Commercial viability)
To the best of my knowledge, not a single analyst has discussed this issue seriously. On March 11, the Daily Yomiuri carried an article contributed by Tom Glocer, chief executive officer at Reuters Group. ("Why media must get personal.") The CEO's analysis was quite intriguing as far as the issue with the news agencies' efforts to enable personalization of the news they are providing is concerned. But he failed to address the question of how to create "revenue generating models" because he took it for granted that the new media landscape will still involve two different groups of people, i.e., providers and recipients. He argued: "The real legacy problem of the Internet is that people expect to get content for free. Gradually, this perception can and must be changed." I find his arguments there more or less true and valid, but that's as far as the wire service businesses are concerned. There he was certainly making sense because these news agencies will most probably outlive newspaper publishers, let alone the infamous "Nippon kisha kurabu", or Japan National Press Club", which plays a pivotal role in making the entire journalism of Japan something like a government's lapdog. (See October 31 TFP story titled "Japan ranks 42nd in press freedom.") But the problem that more concerns us in this respect is, simply put, how we maverick journalists can make their living on the Web. Thus far these Web-based reporters and analysts have been classified into two groups. One of them is a group of wealthier people for whom running a blog is just a pastime. Instead of exploring a professional journalism, they are just seeking a greater exposure to and recognition by the existing media. I'm on a mailing list based in Hokkaido, Japan, where predominantly foreign members celebrate among themselves every time one of them wrote a letter to the editor of the Japan Times to nitpick over the slightest sign of racial discrimination in Japan, and the letter somehow got printed despite the JT's dubious, or arbitrary at best, letter-screening criteria. To them professionalism is not at issue at all. The other group of Web-based journalists is relatively new. Although I will refrain from inserting his link here, an American blogger has recently switched his blog activities from part-time basis to full-time. On his blog he declared that since he'd lost such-and-such amount he'd been receiving in paycheck from the former employer, he was expecting a certain number of bucks per access in donation from those who sign in on his website. If this should still be called a revenue-generating formula, then I would call it an online beggar business model. But most of us are not yet ready to put a virtual hat on the Web. Admittedly at this stage, I cannot but remain sketchy about the future business models for the web-based journalism. But I'm reasonably certain that in the foreseeable future, we will see a commercially viable media format emerging to supplant the conventional journalism. Believe it or not, we are eyeing the smallest cut in the US$ 10 million subscription revenues the Yomiuri Shimbun is enjoying everyday.

(Which should be revolutionized - medium or content?)
Which should be our ultimate goal, revolutionizing the media or revolutionizing the contents? The answer is obvious. If you are reasonably satisfied with what the Japanese mainstream media keep feeding you with day in, day out, you can live without the new disruptive technology no matter how it's considered trendy to talk about the Internet revolution. Be reminded here that the Chinese people are exploiting the Internet in a much smarter and more sensible way as compared to the Japanese Internet users these days, though the Chinese authorities are outdoing those private website owners by closing, opening and closing again, as they please, the valve through which the mounting frustrations have to be vented every once in a while. The Chinese people are capitalizing on the Internet to the fullest, not because they are more computer-literate than the Japanese, but because they know very well how they can benefit from it. So if you believe in the generally-accepted notion that there is a certain amount of freedom of speech in this country as is promised in Article 21 of the Constitution, I wonder what good it would do to revolutionize the media through painstaking process that would take. Here's an undesirable, yet fairly likely, scenario: One day it dawns on the Yomiuri Shimbun, or any other Japanese newspaper publishers, that it will be a cinch to go online with their news selection/placement criteria and their tendency toward passing off editorial views as straight news stories all left intact. Still the Yomiuri can earn US$ 10 million in subscription revenues every day, plus ad revenues which won't be affected too seriously, while getting rid of all the personnel working in the printing factories and delivery stations. Most probably that's what Horie's takeover bid against the Fuji-Sankei media group will eventually result in. I am afraid that if and when we see this materialize, we independent bloggers will have been cajoled and neutralized by, and subordinated to, the existing media organizations.

In this context things don't look really promising to us. Even so we bloggers will still be looking for a new format for the Web-based journalism which will, sooner or later, bring about the extinction of the "right-leaning" Sankei Shimbun, the "left-leaning" Asahi Shimbun, and all other lukewarm guys in between. Our mission statement that says "first-hand views on second-hand news" will be upheld in the meantime.

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