Stop the presses — foreign media pulling out of Japan

With China rising and revenues falling, priorities have changed

by Mariko Kato

Major foreign media outlets are leaving Japan in droves, a sign of financial difficulties at home as the news industry struggles with falling advertising revenue. But observers note that Japan is also losing its appeal as the most newsworthy country in Asia, with China now the hot spot.

In the latest withdrawal from Japan, the news magazine Time closed its editorial branch in Tokyo earlier this month. Last year, Newsweek shut down its editorial section in Tokyo while the editorial staff of BusinessWeek merged with Bloomberg after the financial news service announced it would buy the magazine last October.

Among newspapers, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have been reported to have drastically reduced their forces in Japan.

“When I heard about Time I thought foreign media coverage in Japan has really finished,” Takashi Uesugi, a freelance journalist and expert on journalism who used to work at the Tokyo branch of The New York Times, told The Japan Times.

Observers agree that a big reason for the force reduction here is the decrease in ad revenue at home, due partly to the effects of the global financial crisis and partly to consumers increasingly turning to the Internet for news.

But Uesugi said there are other reasons for the foreign media’s flight that are rooted in Japan.

“The financial situation of the companies in their own countries is a big factor,” he said. “But the second reason is (the decrease in) Japan’s national power. Foreign media are becoming increasingly more interested in China and setting up offices there, while they withdraw from Japan.”

According to Uesugi, The New York Times office in Tokyo had 13 employees including part-time staff and interns covering much of Asia and Russia when he worked there from 1999 to 2002. The branch has reduced its number of part-time staff and interns since the 1980s, but still maintains around the same number of reporters, with currently two at the post, according to The New York Times Tokyo office.

The Washington Post office in Tokyo has only one reporter left and the Los Angeles Times branch has closed, according to Uesugi.

Numbers reflect the trend. According to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, its foreign members numbered around 250 during the late 1980s and early 1990s when the booming economy provided both interesting news and an attractive home for overseas correspondents. The count was more than 300 if Japanese staff employed by foreign media companies were included.

However, the ranks have since been decreasing steadily, with only 144 foreign members registered as of March 2009.

“This means that news about Japan becomes more dependent on news wires. Even if (those media that have left Japan) hire temporary staff here, only correspondents are actually eligible to write stories, which would lead to lack of depth or analysis,” Uesugi said.

For correspondents elsewhere in Asia to visit Japan and report news, the event would need to be as big as Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system or the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which both happened in 1995, or last year’s Lower House election that led to the first major change in government since the 1950s, he added.

But others say it is not all bad news. According to Hiroshi Kakiyama, regional director of the Tokyo sales office for BusinessWeek, the magazine is stronger now that Bloomberg reporters can contribute articles.

“It’s been reported that the U.S. media (are) disappearing, but that image doesn’t apply to us,” he said.

BusinessWeek used to have two correspondents and one reporter in Tokyo, of which only one correspondent remained to join forces with Bloomberg.

“When there were only three members of staff, the articles they could write on Japan were very limited, but from now on we will be able to cover a wider range,” Kakiyama said, adding that four Bloomberg reporters in Tokyo contributed to the New Year’s issue.

BusinessWeek’s main target is businessmen, according to Kakiyama, while Bloomberg staff have the experience of accommodating a slightly different audience that includes investors and government financial officials.

While financial difficulties are a key reason for the foreign media’s retreat, the government is also at fault for not extensively opening up news conferences to foreign reporters, according to Uesugi.

Major news organizations that are members of press clubs attached to government offices and industries have easy and quick access to breaking news and off-the-record information. This has been a long-term problem for foreign journalists as well as local free-lancers and magazine writers who, as nonmembers, are refused entry into news conferences and briefings.

Uesugi said the hostile setup has served to encourage foreign correspondents to move elsewhere in Asia.

“Japanese tend to think it’s only the West that has open news conferences, but it’s the whole world except Japan,” he said, giving as examples South Korea, India, Brazil and China, although Beijing places other restrictions on the press.

There was a glimmer of light for journalists locked out of the press club system when the Democratic Party of Japan won the August election. DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, now prime minister, had said he would open up news conferences if his party took power.

But while some Cabinet members — including Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Shizuka Kamei, the state minister for financial and postal issues — have taken the initiative to even the playing field, the change has not been extensive throughout government.

“The current government has the desire to communicate more with the outside world, but it needs to do more,” Uesugi said.

He acknowledged it is already too late to woo the foreign press back to Japan, except for the unlikely event that Japan’s national power increases or China’s politics becomes too unstable to remain there.

“But opening up press conferences is a start, and the only way forward. If you’re switched off at the source, then there’s no point in wondering why the telephone doesn’t connect,” Uesugi said.