Journalist, Kyodo News and former Reuters Institute Journalist Fellow
The media landscape in Japan has long been characterised by strong newspapers with large circulations, along with five country-wide networks of television including the licence fee-funded public broadcaster NHK. However, with traditional readership falling, publishers are exploring ways of embracing digital.
Led by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, which sells 8.1m, and Asahi Shimbun, 5.6m, daily newspapers are still enormously influential in Japanese society. However, as in the rest of the world, circulations are decreasing fast. Total newspaper circulation in October 2018 was 39.9m or 0.7 copies per household, down 5.29%, or 2.23m copies, from the previous year – a record fall.
The shift to digital is slower than in many other countries because there is so much print revenue to protect. Despite this, Nikkei (Japan Economic Daily) has accelerated its ‘digital first’ strategy following its purchase of the Financial Times, reaching 650,000 paid subscribers. Nikkei has started to publish stories first online, before sending them for print, a practice hitherto unheard-of in Japan. In another sign of digital change, Nikkei has started to signal exclusive stories on Twitter, for example, an hour before publishing an interview online with jailed former Nissan Co. chairman, Carlos Ghosn.
As part of its digital renewal, the Asahi Shimbun has launched seven new online-only media brands, each of which covers subjects ranging from world affairs to millennial women’s lifestyle to college sports. However, perhaps the most remarkable move is that the Yomiuri Shimbun finally announced the relaunch of its digital service Yomiuri Online. It has been extremely wary of cannibalising print revenues, but is now offering subscribers an extensive digital product. However, Yomiuri still doesn’t offer digital-only subscriptions – access remains bundled with print.
One unusual aspect of the Japanese online landscape is the dominant presence of Yahoo! News, which became popular as Japan’s primary portal website in early 2000s and has maintained that presence ever since. It aggregates news stories from a range of news providers in return for a share of advertising revenue and reaches almost half of our sample (48%) more than three times a week and over half (54%) in total. Yahoo still uses humans rather than algorithms to select the eight top stories on the site – seeking to balance different viewpoints and genres such as politics, crime, science, world news, sports, and celebrity. It also provides original in-depth stories, as well as articles commissioned from independent journalists and commentators.
Other popular news aggregators include Line News (19% weekly reach) which is part of Japan’s most popular social platform. The Line platform reaches around 79m Japanese users and combines professional news with social and chat functionality. It has also been used by investigative journalists to source important news stories. The Nishinippon Shimbun newspaper, a daily published in the Kyushu region, runs a successful ‘Investigation Team’, which uses Line as its main tipline from readers. The paper has found the platform a good way to engage young people; among the paper’s 4,700 Line Friends (contacts), there are 100 teenagers. This approach resulted, for example, in a compelling story about students’ complaints about the difficulties of the school curriculum.
Fact-checking has increased with more players joining. In a hard-fought Okinawa prefectural governor’s election in September 2018, many rumours and statements online were fact-checked and found to be false or misleading. Among the fact-checkers were two local newspapers and Factcheck Initiative Japan, which is a coalition of journalists and academics. Meanwhile BuzzFeed Japan and NHK recently investigated anonymous viral websites and uncovered details of how they operated.
Anonymous viral sites’ stories were on occasion more widely shared and spread than stories from traditional media, BuzzFeed Japan found. The inclination towards anonymity in Japan affects people’s choice of social network. Japan is a rare country where Facebook is not the number one social network; YouTube and Twitter are both far larger. They are widely used by people to express themselves anonymously, while Facebook enforces rules around using real names.
Public broadcaster NHK recruited a rookie female news presenter Yomiko – a computer-generated character driven by artificial intelligence. Looking to appeal to a younger generation, Yomiko uses machine-learning to correct her pronunciation of thousands of Kanji (Chinese characters used in the Japanese language). She has also been composing Senryu, or Japanese short poems similar to Haiku, about the latest news stories to make journalism more fun.
Television news remains the most important source of news in Japan, while print has declined significantly over the last six years. Japanese engage with online news primarily through aggregators like Yahoo! News, tend to use social networks less, and have taken longer to fully embrace smartphones.
There has been widespread discussion of the issue of low trust in the media including an NHK drama Fake News and more fact-checking services. Public broadcaster NHK remains the most trusted news brand while popular magazines (Weekly Shincho, Weekly Bunshun) have a reputation more for gossip and sensationalism than serious reporting, although they often succeed in exposing misdeeds of the rich and powerful.