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Major news organizations in Japan have been somewhat insulated from the seismic shift taking place in online journalism around the world. Helped by their still strong, if waning, presence in print, Japan’s five national newspaper companies, each boasting millions of copies in daily circulation, have been slow to adapt to the digital age.

But if what’s happening to major news outlets worldwide is any indicator, mainstream Japanese media have no time to lose, and should remodel themselves quickly for the “new world,” according to researchers from U.K.-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Two representatives from the institute, based at the University of Oxford, were in Japan last week to share findings from its Digital News Report 2014 (www.digitalnewsreport.org), its third annual report on online news consumption across 10 countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and Japan. Some 20,000 people were polled on their newsgathering habits and preferences.

“Some of the research we have presented suggested that, while profitable companies delayed (reforming their old business structure), other companies moved into their territory,” David Levy, director of the Reuters Institute and co-editor of the report, told a forum of journalism students and working journalists at Waseda University in Tokyo. He added it’s essential for news media to build a “twin-track” business model, combining strong print with a very strong digital presence and establish news brands online — before it’s too late.

“In other countries, the news industry is in crisis and they have been forced to adapt very fast, often desperately, trying everything, not knowing what will work,” Levy said. “Adapt before you end up in crisis. Don’t wait for the crisis to make the change.”

The institute’s survey confirms the increasing use of smartphones and tablets, as opposed to PCs, for reading news, the rise of social media and news apps, and the growing appetite for entertainment and “weird” news online.

Across the 10 surveyed countries, 39 percent of respondents were found to be using two or more digital devices each week for news, with 20 percent saying the mobile phone is their primary access point.

Among SNS, which is playing an increasingly important role in the discovery and sharing of online news, Facebook was found to be by far the most popular network, with 35 percent saying they use it to find news.

Twitter is widely used in the U.S., Spain and the U.K., but it’s far less influential in many other E.U. countries, while Google+ is emerging as an increasingly important source of news, along with messaging application WhatsApp, the report said.

Meanwhile the number of people paying for digital news has remained stable over the past year, with just 11 percent of those surveyed saying they have paid for digital news, either via a one-off purchase or ongoing subscription, the report said.

All of these trends have necessitated changes in the way newsrooms are operated and managed. Nic Newman, a former BBC journalist and the other editor of the report, told the Waseda forum that firms such as the Financial Times and The Guardian have invested heavily in digital technology and engineering — even at the expense of newsroom staff.

While the number of page views and unique visitors are often used to measure how articles perform online, the quality of news suffers if page views is the only yardstick, Newman said, noting that major news companies are introducing tools such as Chartbeat software that allows publishers to monitor not only the amount of time spent on each story but how much of it actually gets read.

The survey, meanwhile, has highlighted trends that are unique to Japan. In the U.K., BBC News Online accounts for nearly half of all online news usage. In the U.S., the top news brand is Yahoo, followed by a local newspaper, Fox News and The Huffington Post. But in Japan, Yahoo News dominates the market, with 59 percent of those surveyed saying they use the site. Google News trails at a distant second, used by 17 percent of pollees, followed by Nikkei Online’s 14 percent, MSN’s 12 percent and Asahi Online’s 11 percent.

Newman attributed the overwhelming success of Yahoo News in Japan to the fact many news organizations are providing their content to Yahoo, though doing so might actually be hurting their long-term prospects.

“In the U.K., (when) I was working for BBC, Yahoo came to us, and we did an experiment for about six months but we turned it down,” he said. “And most news providers said the same because they wanted people to come to their property. They didn’t want to take the short-time money; they wanted the longtime gain.”

Japanese users were also found to be the least active among the 10 countries surveyed, with only 10 percent sharing a news story via email or social media each week.

The arrival of new devices such as Apple’s smartwatch and Google Glass will inevitably impact the way news is delivered, with more people turning to them to glance at breaking news and snippets of information, Newman said.

Accordingly, news outlets will have to keep trying new formats and platforms, he said, noting that the BBC, for example, has created a service for Instagram where the broadcaster tries to tell a story in 15 seconds, using a combination of video footage, words and pictures.

“The good news is that more people are reading news today than ever before, and more people reading more news than ever before. It’s not going to stop. It’s not going to go away,” Levy said. “There is a mix of positives and negatives, but one has to find ways to adapt into this world, rather than fighting the tide coming in.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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