/ |

Newspapers, broadcasters not facing facts: Web is here to stay


Nihon Keizai, Japan’s main financial newspaper, launched its new Web version on March 23. As with the print version, there will be two editions, morning and evening. There will also be Web-exclusive features like videos. Subscribers who opt for the Web version only pay ¥4,000 a month, while those who subscribe to the print version (¥4,380 a month) will only pay ¥1,000 more if they want the Web version as well.

Nikkei hopes to attract 300,000 Web subscribers over the next three to four years. That’s about a 10th of the circulation of the Nikkei’s print product. Though it’s being described by other media as a bold move, Nikkei’s acknowledgment of the future is more like a hop than a leap. Newspapers around the world are moving slowly but inexorably from print to the Web, and a number of major media already charge for online content. News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch recently announced that two of his publications, The Times and The Sunday Times, will charge for access to their new Web editions.

What’s interesting about Nikkei’s denshiban (electronic edition) is that it has been designed to preserve its print version. From now on, more of Nikkei’s resources will be applied to cyberspace, but in terms of pricing, the Web version looks more like “added value”: You buy the paper and get the Web for just a thousand yen more.

In Japan, newspapers make the bulk of their revenues from subscriptions and sales rather than advertising, the main source of money for newspapers in the West — 80 percent, as opposed to 30 percent in Japan. The idea of throwing all that over is just too risky for the newspaper industry here, especially given the widespread belief that people won’t pay for news on the Web. Sankei Shimbun, a minor national daily, tried to charge for Internet content twice in the past decade and has never attracted more than 10,000 subscribers.

There are also jobs at stake. The paper and printing industries have a lot riding on newspapers, so much so that the government subsidizes newsprint. Nikkei’s sales agents have complained about the Web version, since any shift in readership to the Net would affect their business. Sales agents make their money distributing and collecting money for newspapers. However, these businesses would seem to provide more of an incentive to go electronic. Whatever Nikkei charges for its Web version, it gets to keep.

The determination to keep publishing a physical newspaper that people can pick up — and, likewise, throw away — may seem illogical in the face of current realities. Though more than 80 percent of Japanese households still subscribe to at least one daily newspaper, the younger the person, the less likely he or she is to touch one. Most young people get their news and information from the Internet — they don’t even watch TV news.

This generational dynamic was the hidden theme of a discussion aired on NHK-G on March 21 that split cleanly along lines of interest and age. On one side were representatives of the mass media — Yomiuri Shimbun’s Hitoshi Uchiyama for the newspaper industry association, TV Asahi’s Michisada Hirose for the commercial broadcasters association and NHK Vice Chairman Yoshinori Imai — and on the other three new media types — Nobuo Kawakami, chairman of the Internet company Dwango, which runs the video-sharing site Nico Nico Douga, IT journalist Toshinau Sasaki and sociology professor Kaoru Endo, whose interest is Web usage.

There were clear contradictions between the data on display and the mass media men’s belief in the future of the status quo. Uchiyama and Hirose made the questionable claim that the steep drop in advertising revenues in recent years has more to do with the recession than anything else. As soon as the economy gets back on track, those revenues will rise, they said, ignoring the chart the female announcer held up showing how Internet ad sales have risen steadily even during the present sluggish economy.

Their confidence stemmed from a core conviction that newspapers and television still set a standard that the Web, with its millions of disparate voices, could never meet. The new media’s response was: Why should it? Hirose said that only major media outlets, with their professionally trained journalists and teams of editors, can deliver news that was trustworthy and balanced, and he pointed to survey results showing that the Japanese public’s trust in the media was higher than it is in the West. Sasaki countered that the generalized nature of the mass media meant it could not deliver the kind of niche reporting that is increasingly in demand.

Another aspect of Web news increasingly in demand is interactivity, and during the discussion comments from viewers submitted via the microblog service Twitter flashed across the screen. Most had a flip tone that contrasted starkly with the formal pronouncements being made in the studio. And considering that NHK was filtering them, some were surprisingly cranky and off-subject (“NHK shouldn’t copy commercial stations!”).

But the most telling statement made during the discussion was a comment by Endo about a friend who quit his newspaper subscription and then discovered that his life didn’t change at all. Her implication seemed to be that he could get everything on the Web, but it also could have meant that he didn’t read the newspaper in the first place.

That point may be lost on the traditional news people, who still think of their Web editions as being supplemental to their newspapers or television shows. Their main complaint about the Internet as a news source has always been that it’s unmediated babble, but even when print was all there was people tended to seek out only the information that interested them. A family subscribed to a newspaper and everyone took what they wanted, but now that each person in a household has his or her own link to cyberspace they may not see the need any more. Nikkei’s readership requires Nikkei’s specialized news for their work, but young people aren’t going to shell out ¥4,500 a month for a general newspaper. They’d rather spend it on something they do use: Their cell phones.