National / Media

The Japan Times advisory board rates paper's coverage

Staff Report

The Japan Times Media Advisory Board members who have been monitoring the newspapers’ reporting met Nov. 18 to discuss progress from the previous board meetings and offer advice for the future.

The November meeting at The Japan Times’ headquarters in Tokyo was the last of the four meetings held since the four members were appointed in November 2013 to give feedback to the newspaper, which has a wide variety of readers in and outside Japan.

In the first part of the meeting, the advisers offered views on stories that stood out for them in good ways and bad over the past six months.

All praised the paper’s response to their earlier suggestions to improve coverage of domestic issues and to add Japanese angles, where appropriate, to international news.

“What stood out to me was just how well you covered so many issues,” said Kyoto Journal founding editor John Einarsen, praising insightful coverage on both national and global issues of significant importance for Japanese society.

He said this was also echoed in analysis stories and in articles by columnists on the Community and Op-Ed pages.

Among the topics Einarsen referred to as positive examples of reporting were issues surrounding the security legislation, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and several articles on reconciliation with neighboring countries.

He also mentioned articles on the Osaka election after former Mayor Toru Hashimoto had left the political scene, the “comfort women” issue and coverage by contributor Jon Mitchell of landfill work for the controversial expansion of a U.S. base in Okinawa.

Einarsen said, however, the newspaper’s visual representation could be improved, suggesting the use of more “spontaneous” images that would add value to the content.

More interest in Japan

William Saito, CEO of the venture capital firm Intecur and a special advisor to the Cabinet Office, previously pointed out duplication in coverage of international events in The International New York Times, which is distributed with The Japan Times as a package.

“You could see the conscious effort to differentiate and provide a lot of perspectives,” he said, referring to the concerns he expressed previously. In past advisory board meetings, he said that stories published in The Japan Times were either one-sided or lacked content reflecting how the problem is seen in or affects Japan.

“It doesn’t seem as deja vu as much anymore,” he said with a smile, referring to world stories in the two papers.

However, Saito said, it is important to look into new ways to respond to the growing interest in Japan. “Especially the last 15 months (have proven) that it’s only going to increase,” shown by the interest abroad in news on events to be hosted by Japan, such as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Saito also touched on The Japan Times’ website, saying there is room for some improvement in how content is presented digitally.

Voices of the public

Teru Clavel, a consultant, researcher and writer specializing in education and a contributor to the paper, said she was impressed to find coverage of the Nov. 13 Paris terrorist attacks on the front page of The Japan Times On Sunday that weekend.

She praised the story headlined “Terrorist attacks rock Paris,” pointing out reporters’ efforts to incorporate information on the public reaction in Japan as well as on its possible effects on Japanese society.

Clavel said the news of the terrorist attacks could have been used as an opportunity to reach out and convey the voices of the public to make richer and more insightful content. Readers might have been interested in learning what Japanese people on the street think and what expats feel about this, she said.

“You have this opportunity to represent the voice of the people within Japan,” she said. “I think it’s a socially responsible thing to do.”

She said news coverage should also reflect growing women’s participation in the economy, which is one of the goals of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic strategy. “You should get women’s voices,” she said, stressing that the economy largely depends on women. “Let’s hear from the women.”

Watch those words

Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the U.S. and currently a Sophia University professor, praised some articles and columns as enlightening, giving as an example an Op-Ed piece analyzing Abe’s policies which drew the conclusion that they actually were not that different from his predecessors.

However, he pointed out several cases where headlines or phrases used in articles were overly opinionated or sensational, resulting in unbalanced reporting.

As an example, he cited a Nov. 17 article headlined ” ‘Proactive pacifism’ risky for Japan: experts.” The headline suggests that the Abe administration’s proactive diplomacy is bringing risks to the Japanese, making the country a target for Islamic terrorists, he said.

“Is it the right balance to give this much attention to that kind of view?” he asked, referring to expert opinion that Japan should not actively engage in issues that do not directly affect it.

He also criticized the use of the term “outlaw” in the Nov. 16 opinion piece headlined “Construction of an outlaw marine base in Okinawa,” calling it judgmental.

“The two sides are now trying to solve this issue through the courts, so it’s not decided yet which is lawful or which is not,” he said, referring to the legal battle between the central government and Okinawa Prefecture.

He pointed to a similar misuse in an Oct. 29 news story on the anti-war student group behind the massive protests against Abe’s security legislation earlier in the year.

While praising the content of the article, headlined “SEALDs to disband after ’16 election,” he said that calling the student group “pro-democracy” is a little “disturbing.” He said it would have been more suitable to describe the group as “anti-military.”

He questioned the newsworthiness of some articles, such as one on abduction victim Megumi Yokota, who according to a South Korean source was taken to a spy training center soon after being abducted. He suggested that the Oct. 27 story from Kyodo News resembled information that has already been published in various sources.

He also said Tokyo’s weaknesses highlighted in the Sept. 22 story “Tokyo at high risk of devastating floods” have long been the subject of discussion and lacked newsworthiness.

Fujisaki called the repeated use of the term “Japan Inc.,” which often appears in business stories, outdated because it dates from the 1980s and denotes the corporate world of Japan at that time.

“I really want The Japan Times to continue to be a representative newspaper of Japan … and I want you to be careful in the use of words,” he said.

Enhancing the brand

In the second half of their final meeting, advisory board members focused on what kind of content they think would enhance or hurt The Japan Times’ brand.

Rather than listing specific content, they offered some examples of what would improve the paper in terms of presentation and content, stressing the importance of differentiating it from competitors.

They advised staff writers to further use social media such as Twitter when reporting stories, and said the daily newsletter to online subscribers should be improved so readers can easily spot big news.

They suggested that opinion pages have more diverse contributors, with more women and addressing a broader variety of topics, and that columns on themes such as education and health be added.

Differentiating the brand

Saito praised the efforts by staff writers to make a foray into social media, including Twitter.

“I like how the digital one makes it really, really easy to associate the articles with the writers and then the Twitter handle, so that one could then follow them,” Saito said.

“I see that the writers then make a concerted effort on the Twitter side to ganbaru (work hard). So I think that’s a good thing. It’s actually not many people take advantage of it, but it’s a way to get indirect feedback from the crowd,” he said.

In competing with other newspapers, Saito stressed the importance of branding and differentiating The Japan Times. Citing the Nikkei, the Financial Times and the Nikkei Asian Review, he said they look at their online presence very strongly, which he called “definitional branding in how you differentiate yourself.”

With the Nikkei’s acquisition of the FT underway, Saito said The Japan Times should pay attention to any strategy changes so as to “brand yourself different from that.”

“We need to find, as they are saying in Japanese, sukima (a niche),” he said.

Daily news updates

Clavel said she sometimes notices important news is listed way below minor stories in The Japan Times’ newsletter that is emailed every day to those who sign up online.

“The best story, which is your cover story (in print), here is the fifth” story listed, Clavel said, referring to one newsletter. At the top, “you have something that’s not nearly as important as your first news article. . . . A lot of people would scroll down to see the most important one, and when you get there you think, ‘Is this not important?’ ”

Clavel also pointed out there were far fewer hard news articles listed, followed by numerous articles on culture and sports. This could give readers the impression that it is not a serious newspaper and has no other news to report, she said.

Questionable headlines

Clavel presented candid advice on headlining articles, citing some recent headlines that grabbed her attention.

“I don’t want ‘Child porn remains too lax,’ ” she said, referring to one of the two editorials on Nov. 8. ” ‘Pornography,’ maybe, in the story. But ‘porn’ in a headline just feels very base.”

Clavel also gave an example of a misleading headline, citing a TimeOut story titled “How male killers transform into parents” that ran Oct. 18.

“This is very intentional and misleading in the headline. It was basically meaning to sound like human males eat their children,” Clavel said.

The headline of the article, which was about lions, made her wonder, “Where does this happen?” when she spotted it.

“In the whole article, literally, there was one line about relating to human beings,” she said. “I don’t think you need to be that way, you don’t have to sensationalize that way.”

Opinion diversity

An avid reader of newspapers’ Op-Ed sections, Clavel said the Opinion page in The Japan Times has room for improvement, especially in terms of the variety of its writers. They should include leading figures from a range of fields — including more women, she said.

“I think you have a great opportunity to differentiate yourself by having a column or more representative female voice here. Fifty percent of the population is women,” she said.

Einarsen agreed, saying the paper’s Opinion page “needs more diversity of writers.”

“I like the writers there, but there are so many more you can have,” Einarsen said. “There are so many more you can include. It’s almost all male.”

Chief editorial writer Takashi Kitazume, admitted that contributors “tend to focus almost entirely on more international or diplomatic topics, partly maybe because that’s the source where we look.”

“Diversity of topics covered in the Op-Ed is an issue that we must look” into, Kitazume added.

To broaden diversity, Saito suggested inviting Japanese columnists whose pieces could be translated into English for the paper.

Missing coverage

Turning to areas where editorial content is missing, Clavel cited columns on education and parenting, while Einarsen added the subject of health.

Einarsen then questioned the validity of reducing movie reviews from two pages to one starting last April.

“I think when it was two pages, you were sort of giving a message that The Japan Times considers culture as something very important,” Einarsen noted.

He proposed adding a photo essay to the daily, with photographs taking center stage.

“Photographs are such an important medium, and they convey something that words don’t,” he said. “You can stake out your own area, which is Japanese photography or Asian photography.”

Einarsen raised the example of The International New York Times: “They always have a photo feature on the second page. They had a photo feature by a Japanese photographer on Fukushima.”

He lamented such a lack of coverage by The Japan Times.

“When I saw that, I wondered, ‘Why wasn’t this done in The Japan Times?’ I mean, you have all these Japanese photographers,” he said.

On The Japan Times On Sunday, Einarsen made a proposal to make the edition a magazine, as a medium to “do something really different.”

“I just wonder if that just you might rethink that whole Sunday (format) and maybe make it community and culture, focus on those two things. That would appeal more to expats living here,” he said. “That’s just an idea — it’s a little bit radical or a little bit different, but I think worth considering.”

Suggestions to improve the paper

  • Reporters should make more use of social media, such as Twitter. It’s an effective way to get indirect feedback.
  • Differentiate The Japan Times from other newspapers to improve branding.
  • Place important stories at top of daily newsletter.
  • Be careful with word choice to prevent misleading or distasteful headlines.
  • Opinion page should have more writers with a variety of backgrounds and address a more diverse range of topics. Using translated Japanese pieces might add depth.
  • Columns on such topics as education, parenting and health should be added.
  • A photo essay should be introduced.
  • The Japan Times On Sunday could be transformed into a magazine to do something different.

Members bring broad experience

Ichiro Fujisaki
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.

John Einarsen
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.

Teru Clavel
Clavel is a speaker, writer, and consultant specializing in cross cultural education, business, and parenting. Clavel has been featured on CBS, CNBC and Channel NewsAsia and has lead hundreds of seminars on diversity and inclusion for families, at corporations like LVMH and educational institutions like Keio University. A graduate of Dartmouth College with a Bachelor of Arts in Asian Studies and holding a Master of Science in Comparative International Education, Clavel is currently working on a memoir while continuing to publish articles globally.

William H. Saito
Saito is the founder of InTecur, a venture capital consultancy, and a special advisor 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.