National / Media

YouTuber reporter targets Japan's tech-savvy youth as print media withers

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

It’s a quarter past 11 p.m. and Mainichi Shimbun political reporter Kenta Miyahara, having just wrapped up his nightly informal chat with a politician he covers closely, begins to set up his smartphone, tripod and lighting in a cluttered office devoid of any of his colleagues.

After testing the microphone a few times, he shouts into his phone mounted on the tripod.

“Hey guys! It’s Kenta Miyahara, aka ‘Bunya Kenta,'” the 27-year-old says in an upbeat tone, employing the Japanese slang for “newspaper journalist.”

“I have news today. Subscribers to this channel are now over 1,000,” Miyahara says, with his signature red-framed glasses offering up a comical contrast with the gravitas of the black suit he typically wears. “Thank you so much!”

The junior reporter with the Mainichi Shimbun, one of Japan’s leading newspapers, was shooting a video for the fledgling YouTube channel he launched in November in a bid to reach out to a young, tech-savvy audience indifferent to print media.

Miyahara bills himself as a YouTuber in the kind of self-branding effort rarely seen in Japan’s newspaper industry, where journalists with established print organizations often hide behind — and rely heavily on — the prestige of the monoliths to which they belong.

His foray onto YouTube also illustrates how some Japanese reporters are waking up to what has increasingly become a new norm overseas in the era of social media: the need for journalists to be more “visible” to readers and build strong online personas to drive up digital subscriptions.

Miyahara says the idea of turning himself into a YouTuber was inspired by the presence of internet “influencers,” seeing in their successes a potential solution to print media’s ongoing struggles.

“Fewer and fewer people now read newspapers, but if you look at the world of the internet, there are people called influencers who are going viral,” Miyahara said in a recent interview at the Mainichi’s headquarters.

“That’s when I thought putting a strong personality out there through YouTube, which I figured was a medium that would best allow me to express myself, might be an interesting experiment for the newspaper industry,” he said.

According to the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association, circulation of 116 daily newspapers registered with the body has trended downward over the past two decades to stand at 37.8 million as of last October, a marked decline from the 53.7 million in 2000.

Tamotsu Takatsuka, head of the political department in the Mainichi’s newsroom, said he immediately welcomed Miyahara’s pitch about making his YouTube debut.

“At a time when print continues to struggle, it’s been one of our most pressing objectives to increase digital subscriptions,” Takatsuka said.

“In order to do that, I’ve always thought it’s important that each individual reporter carves out a following of their own — by making it more transparent to their readers what prompted them to write about certain topics in the first place or what reporting process they have gone through to publish these stories,” he said.

“So when Miyahara told me he wanted to use YouTube as a means of communication, I was like, ‘Sure, why not? Let’s do it.'”

Miyahara is not alone in trying to tap into the potential of YouTube amid the dwindling influence of newspapers.

Asahi Shimbun, too, launched a new project late last month that it says is aimed at turning its employees into YouTubers.

The paper has already uploaded a smattering of videos on its nascent channel in which reporters interview colleagues about their jobs and break down current news stories in easier-to-understand terms.

While the Asahi initiative is more of a team effort, Miyahara operates all but independently of his organization. Although he does identify himself as a Mainichi Shimbun reporter on his channel, Miyahara fundamentally pushes his personality to the fore, for instance naming his channel “Bunya Kenta’s Kisha Kurabu” (“Newspaperman Kenta’s Press Club”).

Miyahara also says he shoots, edits and uploads his videos without the assistance of anyone else in the company. Since he busies himself during the day keeping close watch on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as one of the junior correspondents on the sōriban (prime ministerial beat) based in the press club at the Prime Minister’s Office, it isn’t until around midnight that he can start shooting alone in a building in Nagatacho, the political epicenter of Japan.

Kenta Miyahara, a political reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun, celebrates the 1,000-subscriber mark for his nascent YouTube channel during a video shoot in Tokyo on Dec. 12. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Kenta Miyahara, a political reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun, celebrates the 1,000-subscriber mark for his nascent YouTube channel during a video shoot in Tokyo on Dec. 12. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

On his channel, the rank-and-file reporter sometimes goes so far as to offer his personal thoughts on controversial topics such as the ongoing cherry blossom-viewing party scandal involving Abe, and the entrenched practice of mainstream media journalists wining and dining with top government officials in off-the-record sessions.

Miyahara says his emphasis on individuality is calculated, a tactic he hopes will resonate better with youths.

“If I put too much emphasis on the name of my company, I thought that would lump me into the ‘mass media’ category, which could be a turn-off for younger audiences,” he said.

The extent to which Miyahara has so far ignited interest among young people is unclear, but he believes he stands a good chance of doing so.

As a former aspiring actor who devoted much of his adolescence and early adulthood to training in theaters and auditioning for roles, he says he hasn’t balked in the slightest at the idea of expressing himself on YouTube. The fact that he is a member of Prime Minister’s Office press club, he says, puts him in a unique position that distinguishes himself from other YouTubers who talk about politics.

“What makes me unique, I think, is the fact that I have first-hand access to the scene where news is unfolding,” he said. “Guiding my viewers through all of its drama is something only reporters can do.”

The originality of what he does as a reporter was perhaps best manifested in one of the first videos Miyahara uploaded in late November.

In it, he reflects on how he and his fellow sōriban reporters were blindsided by Abe’s sudden decision to hold an impromptu interview to explain himself over the cherry blossom scandal. Abe’s rare willingness to candidly answer reporters’ questions “caught us unprepared” and resulted in them failing to grill him “as thoroughly as we should have,” he said.

“It was the day when we, the sōriban, were defeated by the prime minister.”

Media observers say the idea of journalists touting themselves as YouTubers is rather uncommon in Japan’s newspaper industry, where reporters — with the culture of bylines not as established as in the West — are often nameless, faceless and content to work for the same company for a lifetime.

Martin Fackler, a former Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, said he finds Miyahara’s apparent “self-branding” effort atypical of Japan.

“In the U.S., if you think about the journalists, you have a byline, your name is out there, people know who you are,” Fackler said.

“It’s very common that you change jobs — you go to The Washington Post and you go to The Wall Street Journal. And so there’s a real self-brand kind of component that’s very normal in American journalism,” he said. “But it is unusual in Japan.”

This need for self-branding has been further amplified by the advent of social media, where “you all become very visible” and the public is increasingly demanding to know the journalist behind each work, he said.

“Basically, (Miyahara) is building a personal brand — that seems to be what this social media era almost requires of journalists: to start building personal brands, to be a persona, to be visible,” Fackler said, calling Miyahara a possible trendsetter in a nation where big newspaper journalists “can’t rely on the name anymore.”

“If you’re a journalist, you can’t just be Mainichi Shimbun or Asahi Shimbun,” he added. “It’s not going to be enough anymore.”

Former Yomiuri Shimbun journalist Michihiro Okumura, who is now a media studies professor at Tokyo City University, offers a slightly more cynical view.

While hailing Miyahara’s project as promising, Okumura said he takes a dim view of the extent to which the Mainichi reporter will inspire others in the industry to do the same.

“There aren’t many companies that grant reporters as much autonomy as the Mainichi does,” he said, noting, for example, that it’s hard to imagine the conservative Yomiuri — where he used to work — actively encouraging its rank-and-file reporters to go public and communicate their own perspectives on political scandals.

Okumura also said there is a caveat.

The use of YouTube, he said, is a double-edged sword in that it could become a liability for the Mainichi if Miyahara somehow goes viral with a gaffe or other faux pas.

“No matter how much Miyahara insists it’s all his own doing, people are still going to see it as the Mainichi’s fault if he messes up,” he said.