Concerns over the spread of “news deserts” are growing in the U.S. The term news deserts is how the University of North Carolina in 2016 described the crisis of some communities losing their local newspapers. These papers are subjects of speculative investment in being bought and sold by groups of investors. If the sale of a local newspaper fails and the newspaper is abolished, area residents can lose their only source of information.
One example of this phenomenon can be seen in Bell, California, where the salaries of city government officials were found to be twice as high as the U.S. president’s. As the local newspaper closed in 2000, there was no journalistic coverage of local government and residents were not aware of the issue until the Los Angeles Times reported on it in 2010.
A 2016 report issued by the Pew Research Center said 40 percent of adults in the U.S. obtain their news from digital media, and 20 percent of them get their news from social network services (SNS), nearly the same percentage as newspapers. Digital media has contributed to stagnant advertising sales and declines in newspaper subscriptions, directly affecting U.S. newspaper companies’ operations. Concerns are spreading over potential damage to the distribution of information, which is the foundation of democracy.
Age range of non-subscribers widens
The situation is not as serious in Japan. But the use of smartphones and SNS gained popularity after Apple Inc. launched the sale of tablets in 2010, directly impacting Japanese newspaper companies’ operations. Additionally, the tablets added to the number of newspaper non-subscribers.
According to research by the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association, the number of newspaper publications has been declining since 2005 when it stood at 52.6 million copies (morning and evening editions are counted as one copy). In 2016, the number stood at 43.3 million copies. A decline of more than 1 million copies a year has been recorded four times since 2006. When the consumption tax was increased in 2014, the number of newspaper publications fell 3.5 percent, the largest decline ever. The ratio of newspaper publications per household fell below the 1.00 line in 2008, and hit 0.78 in 2016. Spending on newspaper advertising in 2006, according to Dentsu Inc., fell below ¥1 trillion for the first time in 19 years. Since then, it has been on a declining trend due in part to the 2008 global financial crisis following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and stagnant economic activities caused by a consumption tax increase, as well as a growing number of advertisers preferring non-mass media for advertising. Spending on newspaper ads in 2016 was ¥540 billion, less than half of the record ¥1.36 trillion seen in 1990.
Gross sales of newspaper companies in Japan in fiscal 2015 were estimated to be ¥1.79 trillion, about 70 percent of the highest amount seen in 1997. Of the total, 60 percent was generated by newspaper sales, with income from advertising and other areas accounting for 20 percent each, showing a picture of newspaper sales being the main source of revenue, with income from other areas nearly equal to that generated from advertising.
Newspaper non-subscribers are not only prevalent in the younger generations, but are also widespread among those in their 40s. Surveys conducted by the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association and others showed that the number of newspaper non-subscribers at about 30 percent across all generations, reaching more than 50 percent among those in their 20s and 30s. As the number of those of 65 years and over accounts for 25 percent of Japan’s total population, it is imperative that newspapers do something about the non-subscriber issue.
Under such circumstances, newspaper companies are focusing on the promotion of “Newspaper in Business” activities, running programs for university students engaging in job-hunting activities, or for newly employed company workers fresh out of college, teaching them how to read newspapers, how to write easy-to-read sentences, and how to make the best use of newspapers at work. Through the programs, newspapers are trying to meet corporate demands for improving workers’ capabilities of gathering and utilizing information, along with their communication skills. At the same time, newspaper companies are also expecting the programs to lead those university students and company workers to acquire the habit of reading newspapers.
As for the use of newspapers in school activities in elementary, junior and senior high schools, the guidelines for courses of study set by the Japanese government stipulated that newspaper reading should be part of school activities. Programs in accordance with the guidelines started with elementary schools in 2011, and some newspaper companies created separate editions, or sections, specifically designed for children, while others improved their existing children’s sections.
The new guidelines for courses of study at elementary and junior high schools, to be implemented from 2020, encourage the use of newspapers for improving student capabilities in utilizing information. The law for lowering Japan’s voting age to 18 went into effect in 2016. These changes are expected to lead to a spread of “Newspaper in Education” activities, an existing collaboration between the newspaper and educational industries, to encourage school-age children to be well prepared to participate in democracy.
To compete in today’s digital world, newspaper companies have introduced a series of additional services for subscribers, as well as paid online editions, as part of their continuing efforts to seek new income sources.
The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, or Nikkei, launched a paid online edition in 2010, followed by the Asahi Shimbun in 2011. Meanwhile, the Yomiuri Shimbun and Chunichi Shimbun introduced additional services for subscribers in 2012, and that spread to other newspapers as measures to offset increased subscription fees following the consumption tax hike.
In 2016, a “newsroom transformation” began in the editorial departments of Japanese newspapers. The Nikkei and Asahi Shimbun, just like major newspapers in the U.S. and Europe, started analyzing readership data of their online editions to measure the numbers of readers by articles, time zones, types of devices used to access the websites and the number of readers redirected from SNS in an attempt to deliver their news to where potential readers are. “Our news stories are not accessed unless we get closer to readers to deliver our content.” That is the idea shared by the two newspapers. They also joined the Mainichi Shimbun in strengthening real-time information delivery using Twitter.
In the era of ‘post-truth’
“Newspapers’ role as a public property was realized.” This is the comment the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association issued under the association chairman’s name, released after the grand tax revision plan in 2015, compiled by the ruling party, stipulated that a reduced tax rate will be applied to the rates of home-delivered newspaper subscriptions. Distribution and accumulation of information is the foundation of democracy and of culture. Much like textbooks, newspapers have a duty to foster responsible citizens.
Newspapers offer superiority in information accuracy, the ability of discovering something newsworthy and in offering a place for fair discussion. The application of the reduced tax rates on newspapers shows that the products have won understanding that they are public property. And public property should be something equally available to citizens anywhere in the country, at as low a price as possible. That is what we have been pushing for.
Oxford University Press named “post-truth” as the word of the year in 2016. This means objective facts and truth have less influence in shaping public opinion. Frequency of the use of the word is said to have soared in the U.K.’s referendum on its exit from the European Union, as well as in the U.S. presidential election campaign of Donald Trump. Also here in Japan, websites carrying user-generated content, run by IT companies, disseminated and spread incorrect information over the internet in an attempt to boost advertising income, resulting in a series of closures of such websites and deletion of articles carrying incorrect information. Newspapers now have more public responsibility to stay on the scene to try to find the truth and disclose hidden facts and intentions to deliver to readers.
Tokunaga contributed in Japanese and The Japan Times translated.