While some advisory board members praised specific stories or stressed the need for improvement in some articles and headlines that appeared in The Japan Times over the last half year, others offered recommendations for design and the use of graphics.
Kyoto Journal founding editor John Einarsen praised the graphics accompanying several articles in The Japan Times On Sunday, an edition that recently earned Awards of Excellence for the second consecutive year in an international design competition.
Whereas at previous board meetings Einarsen said the paper needed improvements in presentation and design, this time he praised several recent articles for their graphical elements.
In “Battle Scars: Okinawa and the Vietnam War” by Jon Mitchell, published in On Sunday’s Time Out section on March 8, Einarsen said the photographs were very “powerful,” saying this adds value to the content.
He suggested, however, there is still room for improvement regarding the choice of photographs for the front page. He said those images — which he regards as the most important in the entire newspaper — “could be more engaging, more interesting.”
“There is a tendency to go toward what I would call ‘spectacle’. . . I’ve noticed many images are chosen because they are ‘colorful,’ which often include cliched images of matsuri . . . front-page lead images tend to go too far into that direction,” he said.
Citing renowned French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who believed that a “good photograph is the alignment of mind, heart and eye,” Einarsen said a photograph should have engaging composition and convey a sense of tension or emotion. This, he said, was lacking in many of the front-page lead images.
He also rated highly the newspaper’s coverage of problems such as censorship in the media in Japan. One example was a Feb. 12 piece by Mark Schilling titled “Is Japanese cinema sinking into a self-censorship swamp?”
“The Community page has some of the best stories, they’re very relevant, human and close to the ground,” he said, pointing to a March 2 article by Kris Kosaka titled “Four years on, Tohoku towns still waiting for schools, homes, answers.”
He said an important omission is the lack of coverage of health-related subjects, something he raised during a previous meeting of the board.
“It’s a big part of life, so I think you should have a health page,” he said.
When asked for five stories that caught her attention, newly appointed board member Teru Clavel, a consultant, researcher and writer specializing in education and a contributor to the paper, replied that what immediately came to mind was The Japan Times’ coverage in January of the beheadings of kidnapped journalist Kenji Goto and fellow hostage Haruna Yukawa by Islamic State militants.
She said the series of articles covering the hostage standoff was particularly important for foreign residents in Japan who can’t read Japanese and depend on English-language media outlets.
“To me, that really had an impact and that changed the way I thought about news and about The Japan Times,” she said. “It was a socially responsible coverage of the news.
“I thought it was important that The Japan Times reported: Hey, you can’t live in a bubble anymore, the ISIS threat is actually coming to Japan, and it’s here, it’s happening, read about it.”
Meanwhile, Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the U.S. and currently a Sophia University professor, said that compared with over a year ago, the paper’s coverage of current affairs is much more balanced and conveys the relative importance of different issues better.
However, he criticized the choice of some articles for the paper’s front page, saying news of higher importance could be found on other pages.
“Should this be the top article on the first page?” he asked, referring to a story titled “Government studies examine stalking, spousal abuse” published March 28.
He said articles published in other sections, such as one titled “Abe to address U.S. Congress in April” on the following page, could have been more valuable or interesting to readers.
He also said headlines are often too sensational, exaggerated, biased or misleading.
“Just reading the title of the newspaper seems like it’s a big deal. For example, ‘BOJ’s easing said unsustainable,’ (published on April 6) . . . everyone knows that.”
Fujisaki said The Japan Times should make a sincere effort to deliver the news in a more timely fashion and that this might help attract new subscribers.
Other members of the board also discussed the choice of headlines.
Clavel, comparing The Japan Times’ headlines with those of competitors or other media outlets, said the headlines at times sound more like those used in magazines.
“My understanding is the headline is to hook and the subhead is to explain,” said Einarsen. He suggested greater clarity in the respective roles of headlines and subheads.
Online and on the ball
William Saito, CEO of the venture capital firm Intecur and special adviser to the Cabinet Office, said since The Japan Times is distributed with the International New York Times it should focus on prioritizing content for The Japan Times website and put greater thought into its layout.
“Compared to other news outlets, including competitors, the prioritization of how this comes up and how that’s followed through, is probably the next thing to do,” he said. He said the choice of articles and how they appear on the screen could be improved.
He also suggested the online use of gist boxes. In print, these appear on a gray background alongside related articles, and Saito argued that they could play the same role online.
“Those boxes are very handy,” he said, adding that the average reader of today wants information presented in brief form, not lengthy articles, suitable for viewing on a smartphone.
“It’s probably even more needed on the digital side,” Saito said.
Regarding news coverage, Saito said the frequency of coverage of issues such as the “comfort women” issue or the planned relocation of the Futenma military base in Okinawa Prefecture often seem repetitive and tedious.
He referred to the paper’s coverage of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States, saying the leader’s participation in some of the events there warranted more attention given the importance of the event.
“There were key visits to certain areas, especially Silicon Valley, and what this partnership was and why was lacking in that discussion,” he said.
Saito said there could have been more in terms of analysis, such as looking into Abe’s reason for going to the U.S. and whether he has achieved his aims. He touched on coverage of Japan’s attempts to replicate Silicon Valley’s success as a hub of innovation and Abe’s three-day visit to California in early May with plans to check out the region’s tech innovations, tighten commercial ties and promote shinkansen technology.
“Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see much coverage,” Saito said. “This was a lost opportunity.”
How the JT can differentiate itself
The advisory board members started the second part of their discussion with the question “What kind of world news do you think subscribers to a print newspaper are interested in?”
All of the advisers agreed that The Japan Times should carry world news as long as it is has a Japan angle.
A year has passed since The Japan Times began to be delivered with The International New York Times. Now, a large part of world news is covered by the INYT, and The Japan Times hopes to differentiate its world news pages from the international paper. Since April, the paper added “Eye on Asia” on Mondays, a page devoted to Asia-related features.
While pointing out that he was satisfied to see increasing coverage of events in the East Asia region, John Einarsen said The Japan Times should specialize in East Asian topics with more detailed coverage to distinguish it from the INYT.
“You could go with more details. I know The New York Times often has great stories about China and Vietnam, etc. . . . But I think you can go into a lot more detail about our region — East Asia — and get more stories,” he said. “You have been doing that, I noticed.”
Meanwhile, Teru Clavel said The Japan Times should let the INYT cover world news if it is not directly related to Japan.
Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the U.S., added that more original stories or analysis by staff writers are needed.
“If there is an analysis by your staff writer or columnist, I think it could be interesting,” he said.
Emphasizing readers in Japan
While commenting on the paper’s improving “quality control” to eliminate running articles similar to those in the INYT, as well as efforts to choose significant world news from the wire services, William Saito suggested putting more emphasis on what readers in Japan might be interested in.
“(The value of the news is,) the further away you are, the less important it is. . . . The world might be a little too big unless there is a direct Japan connection,” he said.
Fujisaki, meanwhile, said he wants to see more detailed, comprehensive explanations on par with the lengthy analysis done by Japanese domestic media, of complex ongoing topics such as the controversy surrounding Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.
“It’s a very good chance for The Japan Times to carry more deep analysis of Japan,” as currently there are few sources of information for non-Japanese speakers to deepen their understanding about what’s happening domestically in Japan, he said.
Advisers also said that The Japan Times should utilize the Opinion pages more as a discussion forum to prompt people to engage more with the news.
Being a contributor herself and having received various reactions from readers, Clavel said The Japan Times shouldn’t shy away from running controversial opinions that might trigger criticism from readership to attract debate and have readers get more involved.
“I’m intrigued by the op-ed section in The New York Times. They get thousands of comments sometimes and people get angry. And I think that’s great,” she added.
She also mentioned that readers outside Japan might be curious to read op-eds that convey how Japanese people are thinking about things happening in other countries, such as the recent Ferguson or Baltimore riots in the United States, as such insights would normally be inaccessible due to the language barrier.
As for contributors to the op-ed section, Fujisaki said The Japan Times should recruit people in the news or top academics to write on controversial issues, both to catch the attention of readers and increase the paper’s exposure by being cited in other news media.
Nurturing reading habits
Advisers also commented on what subjects The Japan Times should cover.
Clavel said covering world sports is a meaningful way to act as a gateway for children to nurture their habit of reading a newspaper.
“A lot of children are pulled — boys especially — into a newspaper for the first time because of sports. Then they will go into the other section of the newspaper,” the mother of an 11-year-old boy said. Saying that her son reads the paper because of sports, Clavel introduced his idea of putting scoreboards in the paper for quick reference.
Einarsen also suggested making The Japan Times On Sunday, the Sunday edition of The Japan Times, a magazine dedicated to features, like photo essays and lengthy explorations of cultural issues, instead of running in-depth analyses of the news of the week and summaries.
“I don’t know why you have to cover news every day. There is no rule, right?” Einarsen said. “That cultural part can be bigger.” Fujisaki also said that covering contemporary popular culture can convey an up-to-date picture of Japanese society.
“By having articles explaining the girl groups (popular in Japan), who the most popular singers are, or who are the old singers retiring, or these things, which almost all Japanese know about but not too many . . . foreigners have ever heard about . . . you can be a bridge” between Japan and other countries, he said.
Japan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2012, Fujisaki is now a professor at Sophia University and a visiting professor at Keio University. He also serves as president of The America-Japan Society Inc.
Fujisaki joined the Foreign Ministry in 1969 and served in Jakarta, Paris and London. He became deputy foreign minister in 2002, and served as ambassador to the United Nations and World Trade Organization in Geneva between 2005 and 2008.
Clavel is a consultant, researcher and writer who specializes in education. She advises families and schools and has conducted numerous studies on international and multicultural education. Clavel holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Asian studies from Dartmouth College and a Master of Science in global and international education from Drexel University, with a concentration on Japan and China. She is certified in early childhood development and parent effectiveness training.
Einarsen is the founding editor and art director of Kyoto Journal, a nonprofit, all-volunteer magazine. He first came to Japan on a U.S. Navy minesweeper at the end of the Vietnam War. After studying art and photography in Colorado, he eventually returned and settled in Kyoto.
A book of his photographs with poems by Edith Shiffert, ‘Kyoto: The Forest Within the Gate,’ was published in 2013. He received the Cultural Affairs Agency Commissioner’s Award in June 2013.
William H. Saito
Saito is the founder of InTecur, a venture capital consultancy, and a special adviser to the Cabinet Office. He is an authority on encryption, biometric authentication and cybersecurity. In 2004, he sold his first company to Microsoft, moved to Tokyo, and founded InTecur. He is active in the World Economic Forum as a Foundation Board member, a Young Global Leader and a Global Agenda Councils member. He is the author of numerous publications.