Japan Times advisory board weighs in on the paper’s past and future

The Japan Times Media Advisory Board met at the newspaper’s office Oct. 24 to review the redesign implemented on April 1 and news coverage over the past year.

This is a summary of what the board discussed:

Evaluating new design

Advisory board members welcomed the new design, introduced in celebration of the paper’s 120th anniversary, and a recent focus on analytical reporting, saying it fits well with the expected role of the newspaper in the digital era.

Under the new design, the paper shifted from an eight-column grid to a six-column grid to increase readability. Editorial changes include shifting culture and travel features to the back page to take full advantage of that full-color spot. The paper also relabeled page 3 as Insights to run in-depth analyses and features focusing on a variety of topics ranging from social and political to economic issues.

“Initially, it was surprising and a little jarring because we were so used to the previous design. And then, quickly, it grew on me. It’s fresher. It’s cleaner. More legible,” said Azby Brown, an author and expert on Japanese architecture, design and the environment.

Kiyotaka Akasaka, president of the Foreign Press Center Japan, said he appreciates The Japan Times’ approach to increase the number of analytical stories, especially because more people are likely to read breaking news on the internet.

“Newspapers now should focus on this kind of analytical work, rather than just reporting what is happening and what has happened,” he said. “Opinion pages have opinions of a particular person, and it’s a personal view. But the Insights page is more of an analytical element of The Japan Times. I think it is a very good approach.”

Meanwhile, Osaka University professor Haruko Satoh said she was happy to see an increase in the number of stories written by Japan Times staff writers appearing on the front page, rather than wire stories.

Analysis or straight news

The advisory board also discussed The Japan Times’ front pages.

They were specifically asked whether The Japan Times should shift toward long, in-depth features rather than running the most up-to-date daily news.

Many overseas English papers today tend to run long features on their front pages, leaving breaking news and other straight news to appear on their websites. For example, The New York Times International Edition, delivered in Japan together with The Japan Times since 2013, has long features and an opinion piece, instead of straight news, on its front page. On the other hand, Japanese newspapers in general try to keep their front page as fresh as possible with daily straight news, as they fear that missing out on big stories that other dailies are reporting could become a major embarrassment.

Satoh said The Japan Times does not have to follow the same route as the domestic newspaper industry, given its international readership.

“Increasingly, people get the news probably on the internet because you can get the same stuff,” she said. Analytical stories are the ones that can distinguish the paper from other news outlets, she added.

Still, Akasaka said The Japan Times should not drop timely news entirely from the front page because he wants to read about “big events, accidents, terrorism or whatever for fact checking.”

Brown also said he reads The Japan Times when he wants to confirm things he briefly read on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Based on his own experience, Brown pointed out that print readers today value context and insightful perspectives in news stories rather than being as up-to-date as possible.

When reporting on an important subject, such as North Korea or U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies, the stories should include information and analysis on how the issue is viewed in Japan, why this is a big issue and how much the risk is for Japan with voices from various experts, Brown said.

Brown reads the newspaper while he commutes by train, and that is the only time for him “to digest and read something more in-depth,” he said.

“I think (a newspaper) serves a similar function in life for most people who continue to read it. I don’t think they will always expect now that it will be so up-to-the-minute as possible,” he said. “It’s a sort of antidote to this fragmented, atomized consumption of information that we are all addicted to.”

Serving foreign community

The advisory board members also said the paper already distinguishes itself from other media outlets in Japan with its original community-oriented content, which serves as a useful information source for a wide range of non-Japanese readers.

Brown commended the paper’s in-depth coverage and presentation, especially on issues involving life in Japan, the government’s policies and social systems, as they serve the needs of the foreign community.

As an example, he said a story on policies of major political parties published ahead of the Lower House election in October was very helpful to understand positions of the parties. The Oct. 20 story on the Insights page, headlined ” ‘Manifesto’ era over but rosy pledges still rife,” described the parties’ policies on major issues such as the economy, the Constitution and energy.

Brown also praised an article published Aug. 21 headlined “More on inheritance tax, net banking and retiring in Japan” as another example of an informative story.

Brown suggested the paper could use the upcoming Tokyo Olympics as an opportunity to become “the primary source of information” on the games and related events. Such information could be very helpful for visitors and those planning to come to Japan, he said.

Meanwhile, Satoh and Akasaka welcomed Foreign Student Times, a special bilingual supplement issued in July that carried information on scholarships and employment opportunities for non-Japanese students in Japan.

They said the supplement included voices from students at Japanese universities, and it is useful for foreign students who are seeking employment opportunities in Japan.

“The audience is very well targeted,” Akasaka said.

Voice as an Asian newspaper

Pointing to the growing number of foreign students from countries where English is not spoken as a first language, Satoh stressed the need to further diversify content in response to the needs of an increasingly diverse readership in Japan.

She said she uses The Japan Times’ articles in her classes at Osaka University, which are attended by students from countries such as Syria, Egypt, Iran, South Sudan, Mozambique, the Philippines and Cambodia.

“These people represent the future trend of the kind of diversity that the Japanese society will be facing,” she said, adding that The Japan Times’ coverage is missing the voices of people from those regions. She also pointed out that many of the stories in The Japan Times appear to be “written from a point of view of a white male.”

The professor added that the paper could place a stronger focus on the Asian region and broaden the scope of coverage to include more in-depth analysis on affairs in countries like Myanmar and the Philippines.

“The Asian focus could give The Japan Times the voice as an Asian country,” she said, explaining that such an approach could also help the paper differentiate itself from The New York Times, which focuses on U.S. politics and the Middle East.

Satoh suggested that The Japan Times should strive to become the most reliable English-language news source in Asia, “as the last bastion of the free-world press” in the region.


Advisory board member profiles

Kiyotaka Akasaka

Akasaka is the president of the Foreign Press Center Japan, a nonprofit foundation that provides assistance to foreign journalists. Previously, he was a career diplomat and also served as United Nations undersecretary-general from 2007 to 2012.

Haruko Satoh

Satoh is a specially appointed professor at the Center for International Education and Exchange (CIEE) at Osaka University and the Osaka School of International Public Policy (OSIPP).

Azby Brown

Brown is a widely published author and authority on Japanese architecture, design and the environment. He is the founder and former director of the Future Design Institute at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology, and the lead researcher for the environmental NPO Safecast.

Martin Fackler

Fackler is an editor and foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Over the past two decades, he has worked in Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai for the Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, Associated Press and Bloomberg News. (Fackler was absent from the meeting due to a prior commitment.)