Fledgling paper demonstrates how sometimes less is better

HAKODATE, Hokkaido — Lacking a thing or two can sometimes have a positive side. A freshly born newspaper in Hakodate is in the works of proving it.

The Hakodate Shimbun, which started up in January, is an evening paper serving areas in and around Hakodate, Hokkaido’s third largest city with a population of 297,391. Currently staffed with 18 reporters, the 16-page paper has about 38,000 subscribers at a subscription rate of 1,800 yen a month. Its articles are mostly bylined — an unusual practice for a Japanese paper — covering local economic, social and administrative news in detail.

At a glance, the Hakodate Shimbun seems to have what it takes to make a substantial city paper. But it lacks two things many other papers have: membership in the local press club and a wire service subscription.

To join the Hakodate Municipal Government press club, the applicant must be a member of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, which only admits newspapers that have been up and running for a minimum of six months. The 2-month-old Hakodate Shimbun does not yet qualify.

Having survived without press club membership thus far, the paper sees some good in the situation. “We can actually report faster by having no obligations to the press club,” said the chief editor of the paper, Atsushi Asai. “And I think reporters who don’t stay in press clubs tend to grow (more).”

The Japanese press is under “the press club illusion,” a false belief that essential news cannot be obtained without membership, Asai said, adding, however, that his paper will eventually want to join the press club in order not to appear discordant. The paper now operates without a wire service due to contract restrictions. It instead buys major domestic and international news from two national papers. “The time when newspapers were dependent on news agencies is over,” Asai said.