National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Magazine snares rival 'scoop thief' red-handed

by Mark Schreiber

In its May 25 issue, Shukan Shincho set pens a-pushing and tongues a-wagging throughout the nation by accusing rival weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun of engaging in sneaky schemes to steal its thunder.

In 10 full pages of text and three pages of photos — roughly one-tenth of an entire issue — Shukan Shincho meticulously paraded out detailed and specific evidence of its rival’s alleged transgressions.

What did Shukan Bunshun do to incur the wrath of its rival?

First some background: Each week, on the morning that weekly magazines go on sale, commuter trains and other transport in Japan’s major metropolitan areas carry ads — referred to as shanai kōkoku (train ads) or tsuri kōkoku (hanging ads) — that spell out the magazine’s latest headlines.

In order to be posted the night before the magazines go on sale at newsstands, the ads need to be designed, printed and delivered to the railways several days in advance. So by determining where they are printed, and arranging to sneak a peek at the contents, a rival can not only know what’s going to appear in upcoming issues, but if time permits, it can even scramble to generate a similar story and blunt its rival’s claim to a scoop.

If tabloid publishing were analogous to the game of baseball, this would be the equivalent of stealing the opposing team’s signals.

Shukan Shincho’s “J’accuse” headline referred to Shukan Bunshun’s acts of corporate espionage as “yogoreta jūdan” (tarnished bullets). That title is a particularly unkind cut, as it recalls what is arguably Shukan Bunshun’s most famous investigative scoop, a series of articles appearing in 1984 titled “Giwaku no Judan” (“Bullets of Suspicion”). The articles accused Tokyo businessman Kazuyoshi Miura of arranging for the shooting murder of his wife Kazumi during a visit to Los Angeles in November 1981 in order to collect a large amount of life insurance.

There may also, however, be a certain degree of professional jealousy involved. As was reported in this column on March 5, 2016 — “Bunshun editor Manabu Shintani returns in a blaze of scoops” (bit.ly/blazescoops) — when Manabu Shintani returned to his position after a three-month suspension, he launched a barrage of exposes against politicians, entertainers, athletes and other celebrities, which elevated Shintani to superstar status.

In February 2016, while Shukan Shincho — which by virtue of having been launched in 1956 is three years its rival’s senior — was celebrating its kanreki (60th anniversary) with a full month of special commemorative editions, Shukan Bunshun continued to engage in subterfuge.

How did they pull it off? In general, the contents of a magazine sold Thursday mornings can be updated or even replaced if the material is laid out and proofread by 10 p.m. on Tuesday. Apparently Shukan Shincho’s schedule permitted Shukan Bunshun’s just enough time to do so.

To identify the smoking gun that shows proof of Shukan Bunshun’s literary larceny, the Shukan Shincho article ran photos of a number of train ads placed by Shukan Bunshun in which the initially advertised story did not appear in the latter’s print edition; instead, it was replaced by an article on the same topic as a story in Shukan Shincho. And this happened far too many times to be coincidental.

Shukan Shincho’s contents did not stop at accusatory innuendos, as is often the practice with the weeklies. It ran actual photos of the man identified as the culprit, shot at the printers. And also claims to have tailed him on the train back to Shukan Bunshun’s office in Kojimachi.

Shukan Shincho’s issue of June 1 followed up on its initial report with an additional eight pages, including mostly negative commentary by nine prominent media figures. TV commentator Akira Ikegami remarked flat-out, “Shukan Bunshun is devious.”

Ikegami also made critical remarks in his weekly column appearing in Shukan Bunshun, but the rest of the magazine was lying low on the controversy.

Just one day after Shukan Shincho’s “Tarnished bullets” story went on sale, Yukan Fuji (May 20) went so far as to raise the possibility of the magazine filing criminal charges against Shukan Bunshun. The charge? “Having committed repeated cases of purloining stories that enabled the publication’s own scoops to be blunted.”

Should charges be filed and police armed with a warrant raid Shukan Bunshun’s office, the possible penalties are nothing to sneeze at: According to the criminal code, an individual who leaks proprietary information may be imprisoned for up to 10 years and fined as much as ¥20 million. Corporations found guilty of similar malfeasance can be fined as much as ¥1 billion.

Meanwhile, Shukan Post (June 2), says that the Shincho-Bunshun battle shouldn’t be seen as a case of taigan no kaji (“a fire on the opposite riverbank,” i.e., someone else’s concern). Apparently the practice of corporate espionage in the mass media may be more common than many realize.

“Back when I was in charge, we used to sneak peeks at the ads for Shukan Post,” Masahiko Motoki, the former editor of the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai, admitted with a chuckle.

As Shukan Post and Shukan Gendai both go on sale each Monday, a similar rivalry exists.

Shukan Post also reported that the same day the accusatory issue of Shukan Shincho went on sale, the entire staff of Shukan Bunshun were reportedly summoned to a meeting at which an unapologetic editor Shintani delivered a pep talk urging his team to band together and stand fast.

Sounding a bit cynical, the aforementioned Motoki observed that, “In this line of business, the publisher that grabs the dirty data winds up the winner. It’s not that we don’t understand why Shukan Shincho is upset, but there are lots of other stories they can pursue.”

In any event, Shukan Post wishes to make one thing absolutely clear: at the very least it would never, ever attempt to steal advertisements from magazines like Gendai, Shukan Bunshun or Shukan Shincho. When it’s all said and done, the ad revenues apparently rate more than either reputation or readership.