National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Stop the presses, Yahoo News is on a roll

by Philip Brasor

The Yomiuri Shimbun boasts that it is the most-read newspaper in the world owing to a “certified” daily circulation that tops 9.2 million. The Wall Street Journal, a truly international newspaper, reports daily circulation of about 1.5 million.

These figures represent physical copies, but by now everyone knows digital media is where it’s at. What they usually don’t know is how digital media works, and I’m not talking about Facebook or Twitter, but rather dedicated news providers. Legitimate, long-standing outlets have expanded their positions online and are struggling with business models. Should they charge for digital content? How do they protect copyrighted material? What’s the best way to extend their reach on social media?

The biggest provider in Japan is Yahoo News, which, according to media monitoring corporation Nielsen, has 22.8 million users who access the site via computers and 23.7 million who do so on their mobile devices, resulting in 10 billion page views a month. In the July issue of Bungei Shunju, freelance journalist Takashi Uesugi writes that Yahoo is the first site these people check when they wake up in the morning.

While retailers, manufacturers and people in the public eye find that Yahoo News is one of the most effective tools in Japan, the mass media itself has been slow to appreciate Yahoo’s ascendancy. As one veteran reporter told Uesugi, until recently, older journalists didn’t like it when their articles were picked up by Yahoo News because they misunderstood the way it worked and saw it as an infringement. If they worked for a major daily or magazine they thought their employer was being robbed, though, in fact, they were being compensated. Now writers compete with one another to get their stories onto Yahoo. In fact, as Uesugi explains, most major media now fashion their pieces in order to appeal to the site.

Success didn’t happen overnight. The first dedicated search engine for the masses, Yahoo created its Japan news site in 1996, linking with the Mainichi Shimbun and then later with the Sankei Shimbun, Jiji Press and the Yomiuri. Basically, Yahoo pays these companies for articles and then arranges them on their web page, choosing stories they think will attract the most viewers. As one veteran news editor told Uesugi, some major news outlets — most significantly the Asahi Shimbun and the Nihon Keizai Shimbun — used to resist Yahoo’s entreaties. In 2008, these two papers convinced Yomiuri to join them on their own online news site called Allatanys specifically as a means of “defeating” the upstart. They told Yomiuri that by selling its stories to Yahoo the paper was undermining its sales.

Allatanys never took off, probably because the three papers didn’t work together as an effective unit, and Asahi and Nikkei were moving separately toward their own fee-based digital editions. But the main reason the dailies couldn’t beat Yahoo was because they realized the site’s offer was too good to refuse, especially after their own digital editions were slow to take off. Not only does Yahoo pay each newspaper upward of ¥100 million a month to use their content, but when Yahoo users click on their stories they are diverted to these papers’ digital editions and their own page views increase, thus boosting ad revenues. Eventually, Yomiuri returned to Yahoo, and Asahi and Nikkei joined as well (though not Nikkei Digital, a separate entity). Allatanys is gone.

With print circulation dwindling and ad revenue with it, Yahoo became more attractive to publishers than Google News and other aggregator sites. Yahoo doesn’t rely on algorithms to choose stories; its secret to success is the human element. It has an editorial staff that sifts through thousands of articles submitted by 150 contributing companies to come up with 4,000 a day, of which about 100 appear on the home page as Yahoo Topics. These are the eight stories that appear at the top of the page and are changed every hour or so. All are described in headlines of no more than 13.5 characters. Being a Yahoo Topic is, according to Uesugi, the most coveted status in Japanese journalism right now, because it guarantees huge page-view numbers.

The choices Yahoo makes can influence public opinion, and the editors understand that the site’s reliability depends on its capacity to represent as many different media outlets as possible. The upshot of all this variety, however, is that sensational stories tend to dominate Yahoo Topics, and as Uesugi found out when he interviewed the editor-in-chief via email, the company is sensitive to charges of sexing up the news, so they try to include as many “hard news” items as they can and avoid stories that are overtly salacious.

What’s missing is not so much balance but immediacy. Yahoo News rarely posts breaking news as it’s breaking, only stories that have developed somewhat (it didn’t mention the Volkswagen scandal for more than a day), and Topics is dominated by analysis pieces. Columnist Maki Fukasawa, speaking on a Sept. 24 Bunka Hoso radio program, pointed out that Yahoo’s talent is not news-gathering, it is “writing headlines” that are “intentionally provocative.” Moreover, the comments, as on most websites, can be quite nasty, but since many of Yahoo News readers seem to visit just for the comments, the editors are reluctant to remove them. Nevertheless, they did stop buying stories from Searchina, which focuses on news about China, because the comments were so virulent.

Yahoo News’ virtue is its mix of stories from the left and the right, the majors and the minors, which isn’t to suggest that readers are taking advantage of this range of viewpoints. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believes the majority of Japanese citizens support him, because — like most people — he tends to read posts he knows he’ll agree with and which will agree with him. If Yahoo News can help break down that sort of parochial mindset, then more power to them.