The weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun prides itself on taking on the establishment, which includes the mainstream media. One frequent target is the Asahi Shimbun, which to many is the liberal newspaper of record in Japan.
In its Nov. 11 and 18 issues, Shukan Bunshun ran exclusives about the death of a 33-year-old Asahi reporter, whose body had been found outside an Osaka condominium on the morning of Oct. 6 after having apparently fallen from a considerable height. The police found no evidence of foul play and judged the death a suicide. Two days earlier, the reporter, who covered local economic news, had posted tweets suggesting an article of his was written under pressure. He mentioned “pleasing … someone in a position of power,” and that if he had to produce such articles for these reasons, then the person giving the orders should “persuade or deceive me more skillfully.”
Shukan Bunshun investigated the circumstances surrounding the pseudonymously identified reporter’s death and learned that his editor, Tomoji Watanabe, had stopped coming to work following the incident because he was being transferred — not to a far-flung office, which is often the case with tainted employees, but rather to the company’s editorial board.
What made this development noteworthy is that Watanabe does not have a journalistic background. Originally, he worked in business affairs. In 2020, he was moved to Osaka’s editorial department, where he decided which financial stories would be covered. Asahi sources told Shukan Bunshun that Watanabe and the reporter never saw eye to eye. The journalist reportedly took his responsibility to readers seriously, while Watanabe is believed to have looked for story angles that would satisfy advertisers or his personal contacts. One of the latter, according to Shukan Bunshun, was a government official who had recently arrived in the Osaka region, where he was in line for a top regional post in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Watanabe supposedly wanted the reporter to interview him for a promotional piece, and the reporter objected.
On Oct. 1, the reporter attended a news conference about Panasonic’s latest restructuring plan, and the draft he submitted took a negative view of the electronics company, at least when compared to the coverage by other dailies. An Asahi source told Shukan Bunshun that Watanabe scolded the reporter in front of other employees because the newspaper receives about ¥50 million a year in ad revenue from Panasonic. On Oct. 6, another small article about Panasonic’s reorganization with a more positive spin appeared in the Asahi Shimbun under the reporter’s byline. It was the same day he died.
Shukan Bunshun’s thrust is that a young, idealistic journalist felt oppressed by demands to curry favor with the subjects of his reporting. It’s an old story, but there are indications in the articles that the problems the reporter encountered were not just inherent in the attitude of his boss, but endemic to the company and, by extension, the industry. One Asahi source said that the section Watanabe helmed had been reorganized as part of a general scheme to reverse the company’s deteriorating financial situation. The reporter, it appeared, was expected to do more and more work, some of which had nothing to do with journalism.
Newspapers have been losing revenue ever since the internet emerged, and the Asahi Shimbun is no exception. At one time seen as the most desirable employer by Japanese journalists, Asahi’s salary and benefits were better than the competition’s, but the company has recently been shedding workers at an alarming rate. A Feb. 26 Toyo Keizai article explained how Asahi employees would no longer be able to receive the newspaper for free. They would have to subscribe just like other consumers. Moreover, the cost of a subscription would be automatically withheld from their wages, unless they informed the company that they didn’t want to subscribe.
The article went on to describe how precipitously Asahi’s revenues have dropped in recent years. Late in 2020, then-President Masataka Watanabe stepped down and was replaced by Shiro Nakamura, whose plan to turn the company around centered on jettisoning divisions that didn’t pay for themselves. In his New Year’s message to employees, Nakamura said there would be much “movement” of personnel, with people “experienced in editorial … contributing to business divisions.” Those who found their career goals to be incompatible with the company’s new direction, he said, should reassess those goals.
Watanabe’s transfer from the business side to the editorial side in Osaka roughly coincided with Nakamura’s ascent, but, according to Shukan Bunshun’s investigation, the reporter who later died was already struggling with Asahi’s changes. He himself had been transferred from Tokyo, where he was considered an up-and-coming star, to Osaka, where he wasn’t.
Such changes are happening at every major media company in Japan, not just the dailies, but the shift toward non-traditional businesses — events, real estate and so forth — is especially fraught for the Asahi Shimbun given its self-image as Japan’s most hallowed cathedral of journalism. Even former Asahi reporters get lots of mileage with bios that list them as one-time employees. To the young journalist who died on Oct. 6, the Asahi Shimbun was the pinnacle of his career.
Shukan Bunshun wants readers to think they shouldn’t expect responsible reporting from the Asahi Shimbun, and financial restructuring will probably exacerbate the problems already built into the mainstream media model. As an Aug. 4 online article at Net IB News put it, the rise of the internet exposed the “inconvenient truths” of the effects of the Japanese newspaper business on journalism: the centrality of press clubs, which prioritize access to power; a monopoly environment created by fixed prices and lower tax rates; and a law that says company stock can only be owned by those in the industry.
After he took the Asahi Shimbun’s early retirement package in May, political reporter Hiroshi Samejima indicated at one point he might make his personal news site subscription-based, a gambit that has become financially attractive for high-profile journalists all over the world.
The pitfall for self-published reporters is the lack of editorial oversight. They can say anything they want, so their effectiveness depends on personal integrity, reader trust and what social media will tolerate. It also requires the kind of initiative a journalist doesn’t always worry about when they work for a company. In the end, we may all miss newspapers more than we know.
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