/ |

Trying to sell the news to kids who don’t care

by Philip Brasor

We’ve heard a lot lately about the decline of literacy in the developed world, as more people turn to new technology as their principal source of information. Commentators often illustrate this claim with figures demonstrating how no one reads novels anymore or by citing the decline in advertising revenue. But, to me, the most direct indication of this trend is the fact that, in the past several years, all of Japan’s daily newspapers have increased the size of their typefaces.

In other words, young people, whose eyes are still good, aren’t reading newspapers anymore. That isn’t to say they aren’t reading at all: comics, fashion glossies and trend/info magazines still appeal to young consumers. But newspapers don’t, and that worries the newspaper industry.

So if the kids won’t go to the newspaper, then the newspaper will have to go to the kids. That was the editorial concept behind the weekly tabloid Seven, which was launched in September by the Asahi Shimbun. Though ostensibly a newspaper, Seven is full color, with lots of cool graphics and bright, inviting type, and written in a breezy style that boils down the news of the previous week into predigested form for easy consumption.

Even the way Seven has been marketed showed an acute understanding of current youth sensibilities. You can’t buy Seven in a bookstore or at the train-station kiosk; only at Starbucks, Tsutaya and convenience stores. In other words, there isn’t a whiff of newspaperness about it. It is a newspaper for people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a newspaper.

Which is probably why it has folded after a mere eight weeks. The Nov. 6 issue, which came out last Tuesday, was the final one. Even the editor admits that this may be a new record. “I seem to remember a magazine called Weekly Jijitsu [that] suspended publication during its nine-week launch campaign,” he writes in this last issue.

On a different page, the staff members offer brief, tear-stained memorials to what turned out to be a very short gig. “Knowing something you didn’t know before opens new avenues of experience,” one writer says. “The desire to know and the power to act is what solves problems.”

Another writer implores Seven’s readers to “discuss peace and structural reform with your friends, because that is what Seven wanted to accomplish. You must have your own opinions.”

Noble words indeed, but the fact that Seven was predicated on selling the news to people who didn’t seem interested in the news in the first place raises questions that no one on the editorial staff seems to have considered. Seven packaged the news the same way fashion magazines present the latest accessories: as things you wear to show what kind of person you are.

For example, people who understand Afghanistan are kakko-ii (cool). The editors want to believe that the young people who read Seven automatically became better citizens because of it; but if that’s what these particular young people really wanted, then they would be reading newspapers already — or at least trying to. (Many young people do, of course, but they aren’t the ones that Seven was targeting).

The editors were not the ones who pulled the plug. That decision was made by the paper’s owner, Asahi Shimbun, which had contracted out the editorial duties. The editor admits in the last issue that he doesn’t know the circulation or the advertising revenues during the paper’s short run, only that it cost a lot to put it out every week and that publications are dropping by the wayside every day. Still, even in that context, Seven’s demise “was laughably quick,” he says.

If the paper is a victim of anything, it’s the current industry fad for narrowed marketing; in other words, identifying your audience demographic down to the color of their socks and focusing all editorial and marketing considerations accordingly. Disappointment is almost built-in, because narrowing demographics rarely behave the way they’re supposed to, especially in a marketplace that changes with the weather.

Of all the major publishers, Asahi Shimbun should know this, since one of the few big publishing successes in the ’90s was Asahi’s AERA, which started out as an amorphous “weekly newsmagazine” that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be Time or Focus. This indecision, however, allowed the editorial policy to drift, and eventually AERA found a readership among women in their 30s who appreciated the editors’ own interest in matters having to do with family, marriage, sex and employment. AERA wasn’t designed for a specific demographic, but it found one anyway.

Publications like Seven are derided for dumbing down the news by removing the details that supposedly make newspapers superior to television. But such an editorial concept by itself would probably appeal to a more general readership. The Asahi Shimbun is notoriously snobby and “liberal,” and many Japanese people find it incomprehensible. The idea of a well-written weekly roundup of the major news stories, illustrated with exciting graphics and high-quality color photos, is a good one, but by narrowing the focus to part-timers, college students and the marginally employed — in other words, young people who don’t wear suits — Asahi Shimbun missed out on this potentially larger readership.

In fact, had they stuck it out a while longer and allowed more people to find out about Seven, I think they could have eventually increased circulation considerably, but they decided to put the paper out of its misery. Commercial shortsightedness? Perhaps. Impatience with fickle youth? Probably. In any case, it’s a shame. Seven, we hardly knew ya.