UPDATE: I am forced to take back my praise of Asahi.com since it has come to light that a) The photo section isn’t new or any better than other similar services; and b) They are ending the great “Today’s Morning Edition” feature.
Last June, the Sankei Shimbun corporation launched a new site called Iza! (meaning “when it counts”), a “participatory news site” that has proven groundbreaking for the online Japanese-language media. The site unites some content that was previously on disparate websites for Sankei group publications (including the flagship Sankei Shimbun, trashy daily Yukan Fuji/ZAKZAK, and sports daily Sankei Sports), features blogs run by their own reporters (such as Washington-based Yoshihisa Komori and the reporters assigned to intellectual property issues), allows the creation of user-generated blogs, displays trackbacks for all its stories, RSS feeds for everything, and — perhaps most importantly — includes a whole bunch of content that once could only be found online.
I am pleasantly surprised at the site’s quality, but at first I was skeptical that Japan’s most conservative national daily could “get it” when it comes to online news. But they do get it, and they are leaving other sites in the dust. Sankei has a motivation to revamp its business: the main Sankei Shimbun is only the 6th-place newspaper in Japan, the last among the nationally-circulated papers and behind even the regional Nagoya-based Chunichi Shimbun. One sign of success: Sankei is using the site to launch blog-inspired books, such as this one by a political reporter.
Though most of the major newspaper sites give out their editorials and some columns for free, many (Nikkei is probably the worst offender) still feature pitiful two-line summaries of their feature news articles (or brief reprints from wire services) and offer nothing that could be termed full news coverage. An August 2006 Bivings Report study of Japan’s online media market concluded that in general “Japanese papers are not taking aggressive Web strategies (except when it comes to cell phones).” Focusing on cell phone content may be in line with many readers’ demands, but there is a growing market for online journalism that I believe will match the US’ development of online media as a main source of news, even if many of the users will in fact be reading from cell phones.
There are many factors that contribute to a general reluctance among the national newspapers to modernize (government-sanctioned protection against price competition chief among them), but they are under increasing pressure to get their act together. The share of ad spending that goes to newspapers has declined from 21% to 17% over the last 10 years. Online ad revenues have doubled in the past 2 years and are making up a growing share of the total ad market. Perhaps more importantly, Dentsu, which is the primary ad agency for an astonishing 92% of Japan’s dailies, is starting to focus more of its attention on this exploding area of the market. And unlike print newspapers, there are no government-provided barriers to entry in place, which lets companies that aren’t even in the newspaper business try and challenge newspapers’ dominance of print media and compete for ad money. Livedoor already has excellent news and citizen journalism sites, for example. Also, Yahoo and JANJAN have politics websites that blow away anything the newspapers have had to offer in the past.
One newspaper site that seems to be getting the hint is Asahi Shimbun. Ever since a string of reporting scandals left the newspaper weakened in terms of credibility and access to politicians, the Asahi launched a campaign to reform itself called “Journalist Declaration.” The paper pledged to return to the principles of its mission statement to “Persevere in freedom of expression from a position of neutrality” and “fight corruption without any illegality or violence.” Specifically, the Asahi decided to take on major organizational reforms to “create a flexible reporting organization that allows for fully developed investigative reporting and meets the needs of the times.”
Asahi decided to stop running TV ads for the campaign after it was found that an evening edition article on winter rice cakes had been plagiarized from an online Yomiuri article. One of the ads is thankfully still on YouTube, however.
Nevertheless, the cleaning house has done the Asahi some good. There really have been some great stories broken by the Asahi in the past year and a half or so, some of which I’ve mentioned here. But the biggest personal benefit for me is that the Asahi’s Japanese-language website has improved quite a bit:
An idea of what’s in the day’s morning edition – Click on the Editorial link on the front page and above the editorials there is a list of the various sections of the paper (Front page/International/Society etc). One article per section is available in (I assume) full length, along with just the headlines for other articles. Even apart from this section, however, it seems like most of the big news items get a much more detailed treatment than other major news sites, even though they might not be full-length.
Better RSS – You can now preview the first line of the article along with the headline where previously all you got was the headline (they put in ads, but it’s not a bad trade-off). You can get the Asahi’s Japanese-language RSS feed here. It’s still hidden from the front page for some reason. I’d of course like to see them offer some more variety in the RSS rather than a single feed of latest headlines.
Bigger pictures – One of my biggest pet peeves about Japanese news sites is the use of tiny, often indecipherable photos to go along with their stories. I don’t know why they did that, but I am guessing it was some compromise reached over copyright concerns. Whatever the case, Asahi’s new photo gallery section now lets you get a big eyeful of newsmakers like Bank of Japan governor Toshihiko Fukui:
None of the Asahi’s new features allow for any “Web 2.0” style interconnectivity a la Iza, but in terms of pure news transmission this is a big step in the right direction. Other sites are of course not standing still (Yomiuri has a forum!), but so far I am most impressed by these two efforts.