Some interesting developments in the J-Web

Compared to a few years ago, the Internet in Japan has evolved substantially. While anonymous message boards like 2-channel (and anonymity in general) remain the public face of the Japanese Internet, the dominance of 2-channel itself has long since faded in the wake of the rise of rival message boards, blogs and social networking sites like Mixi. Sites like Yahoo are far easier to use than in the past, shopping on Rakuten and Amazon is very common, and more generally the Internet is now an everyday fact of life for a very large percentage of Japanese people, to the extent that as early as 2006, 20% of people surveyed claimed they use the Internet at work for personal reasons almost every day. 
The mainstream media, in particular the national newspapers, have been somewhat slow to adapt to the changing times. For years after launching their websites, most did not offer full-text articles or much else in the way of content. But as Internet ad revenue surges at the expense of newspaper ads, weaker players such as Sankei have led the way, making incremental steps to provide fuller content and better user interactivity. Sankei’s IZA!, launched in 2005, is an ambitious effort linking news content, reporter blogs, and user-generated blog posts under one site.
More recently (last year and this year), just about all the national newspapers have revamped their web offerings in step with changes to their print editions. The dead-tree newspapers seem to have undergone two major changes to accommodate their base of older readers: (1) larger fonts; and (2) more background pieces.
Their websites, meanwhile, have focused on user-friendliness, locking content behind free or fee-based user registration, more interactivity, and richer online-only content. Most if not all are stopping short of the New York Times’ practice of posting all content online.  Here are two of my current favorites:
  • Despite its baffling name, “Allatanys,” a multi-company effort that allows users to compare national daily newspapers Asahi, Nikkei, and Yomiuri all in one site, has proven very useful. Sure, I could “compare” them myself if only the sites would offer categorized RSS feeds (Asahi does, the others appear not to). But absent that, this is an easy alternative. It is especially useful to take a look at the editorials. 
  • Nikkei offers a revamped “NetPlus,” a platform for what they call Net-synchronized features. Among other things, the site creates a space for both experts (like the omnipresent Heizo Takenaka) and registered users to comment on some of the Nikkei’s long-form analysis pieces and op-eds. Strangely, they decline to post any text from the original articles, so you are expected to go out and buy the actual newspaper before logging on to post your thoughts. 

BTW, for English-language bloggers who are interested in the Japanese web, I recommend the “Asiajin” blog. I have been following their RSS feed for a few weeks now. The site offers an informed look at developments in Japanese web as they happen. Their recent review of the top-used Japanese web services was particularly helpful (I hadn’t really heard of some of them myself).

17 thoughts on “Some interesting developments in the J-Web”

  1. Do you really find “Allatanys” useful? This is the first time I’ve heard from anybody who actually uses it… maybe I’ll have to give it a second try. I was just baffled that there’s no RSS — it seems to me to be totally missing the potential of the web. I can just imagine some service coming along and scraping the data off the newspaper pages with categories added, and then outdoing Allatanys altogether.

    Or not? Am I missing the point somehow?

  2. Let’s get one thing clear — my support for Allatannyxyz is very conditional, and more generally I think that this incremental progress is still a massive disservice to the Japanese consumer.

    Of course it would be MUCH more convenient for the papers to simply offer RSS feeds separately (Asahi and Yomiuri are clearly using similar software, meaning that Yomiuri could turn on the RSS feeds with the flick of a switch, they just choose not to). But since I actually do care about reading the major dailies’ editorials side by side, I am happy enough that the site loads quickly and serves its purpose. It also helps that some of their guest columnists are interesting as is the (highly restrictive) reader comments section.

    So while in the purely utilitarian sense it works, in terms of general convenience and the basic and obvious idea of how news sites should work (maximize the efficiency of information and more basically use it as a tool to fulfill the mission of a journalistic institution) it is certainly a gigantic failure. That’s why no one is using it in great numbers (ok maybe more than read this blog, but still).

    I see the idea as basically a gigantic branding exercise to repackage the content already offered on the disparate websites in a way that orients the readers toward a positive view of the newspaper concept. Once again, you have to give Dentsu or whoever is responsible dubious credit for having a massive capacity to plan creative and sometimes successful marketing strategies whose very purpose is to suppress actual consumer needs. You have to wonder if there is any actual strategy involved, or if this is just another example of the new Dentsu business model we learned about during the Town Meeting scandal — i.e., the newspapers were bamboozled into handing over a bunch of cash to Dentsu for an expensive distraction.

    Because really, even if the marketing machine can slow the pace of progress (and thereby position itself to profit from the new development), progress is on the march, the population that relies only on TV and newspapers for info is aging, and consequently the newspapers face a diminished role in society. They will have to realize soon that they cannot rely on their protection from competition forever lest they cede the mantle of mainstream status to J-CAST or some other up and comer.

    Eventually, the media will have to find a new model for themselves, or else someone else will find it before them. If they instead rely on collusion and government protection to save them, in my view that would constitute a de facto violation of press freedom. I’ll close this comment with a quote from American Prospect blogger Ezra Klein. It is about the presidential campaign, but it is an accurate description of the role of the media in the Internet age:

    I think one aspect of the modern press that doesn’t get enough attention — either among folks in the media or folks critiquing it — is the transition from the fundamental scarcity being information to information being in abundance and the fundamental scarcity being mediation. For instance, the attitude on display in this Marc Ambinder post is fully understandable if you take a newspaperman’s attitude towards the whole thing. If everyone got a newspaper once a day, and there were eight political stories, and all of them were different each day, and one of them had pointed out that Palin actually did support the Bridge to Nowhere, then the press would indeed have done its job. The job was to report the story, and they reported it.

    But cable news and blogs and radio sort of changed all that and now there’s too much information, and so consumers largely rely on the press to arrange that information into some sort of coherent story that will allow them to understand the election. And the press assumed that role — they didn’t create some new institution, or demand that the cable channels be credentialed differently and understood as “political entertainment.”

    They fill this new role through the methods storytellers have always used to tell stories: the repetition of certain key themes and characters, which creates continuity between one day’s events and the next and helps the audience understand which parts to pay attention to. It’s sort of like a TV show: If Friends had had an episode where Ross and Rachel hooked up, but never mentioned it again, that would’ve been weird, but their tryst wouldn’t have been a big part of the story. Since they mentioned it all the time, and came back to it, and fit future events into that context, it was a big story. Similarly, if the press reports something and never mentions it again, the public knows to forget it. It’s not important. If they mention it constantly — “I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it” — they know it is important. The job of the media, in other words, is now to also emphasize the right parts of the story.


    Ted Rall has written quite convincingly of how the only way that the press can save itself is to do pretty much what the Japanese press is already doing. Emancipation of information may ensure that “reportage” goes down in flames. I think that the Japanese papers should open up a bit but news organizations need to find a way to generate the revenue that pays for their news gathering. Rall`s comments on how much revenue the NYT gets from online and from print readers are scary.

  4. Ah yes, a massive industry-wide shutout. An instant fix… that the writer admits could only work through illegal collusion! And he calls free content people morons?

    You can argue that foreign correspondents especially have a value to society and perhaps that shouldn’t go away. But to say the newspapers deserve the privilege of enormous profit margins to be able to maintain such bureaus is quite ludicrous. The US could easily start up an NHK-style arrangement whereby the public pays for what is easily Japan’s best TV journalism. BBC is funded in a similar manner, and while it’s got its problems it remains an indispensable source for world news coverage (Noam Chomsky, you may remember, went to enormous lengths to read BBC transcripts from MIT in the pre-Internet days so he could get a different perspective from the New York Times).

    And that public interest funding could be extended to freelance journalists through grants. And it does not necessarily have to come from the government either.

    But one place it definitely does not have to come from is the mainstream media as it exists now. They do not have magical powers to fund investigative journalism or overseas coverage.

    I think the notion that the traditional media occupy some sort of sacred position of truth-digging is fundamentally false and self-serving. Sure journalists have a code of ethics but so do the rest of us. As Klein explains, in a flood of information people will flock to trusted sources, regardless of how much money they are making. They do not have to be the best funded, but they will necessarily become the focus of intense scrutiny, by people like bloggers.

    It has been laid bare very recently that these institutions are teeming with unethical reporters willing to trade favors to help government officials lie, the kind that get us tangled in wars in the Mideast. There are good reporters too, but the companies systematically maintain close ties to power and the corporate culture largely reflects this (just look at the obscene National Correspondents’ Dinner).

    I will see your syndicated columnist and raise you an Australian socialist. I don’t necessarily share all his views or priorities, but the vision he describes is no nightmare, except maybe for the Salzbergers (NYT owners) and their supporters:

    “Consider how the power of this invisible government has grown. In 1983 the principle global media was owned by 50 corporations, most of them American. In 2002 this had fallen to just 9 corporations. Today it is probably about 5. Rupert Murdoch has predicted that there will be just three global media giants, and his company will be one of them.

    “I believe a fifth estate is possible, the product of a people’s movement, that monitors, deconstructs, and counters the corporate media. In every university, in every media college, in every news room, teachers of journalism, journalists themselves need to ask themselves about the part they now play in the bloodshed in the name of a bogus objectivity. Such a movement within the media could herald a perestroika of a kind that we have never known. This is all possible. Silences can be broken. In Britain the National Union of Journalists has undergone a radical change, and has called for a boycott of Israel. The web site has single-handedly called the BBC to account. In the United States wonderfully free rebellious spirits populate the web—I can’t mention them all here—from Tom Feeley’s International Clearing House, to Mike Albert’s ZNet, to Counterpunch online, and the splendid work of FAIR. The best reporting of Iraq appears on the web—Dahr Jamail’s courageous journalism; and citizen reporters like Joe Wilding, who reported the siege of Fallujah from inside the city.”

  5. I see your Australian Socialist and raise you “The Wire” – David Simon has been one of American`s strongest voices on crime (from his Homicide book through “The Corner” and “The Wire”) and urban hopelessness and yet the Sun apparently judged him too expensive and $hitcanned him. The mainstream press may not be golden, but good reporting needs some $$$ behind it. That could be done through government grants – that would be fine with me, that is basically how academia works.

    A memorable line from the Wire – “before cases go black (solved) they have to go green (overtime cash)” months of intensive reporting on a single problem, etc. need backing and that`s not going to come from online ads.

    You make some good points about bloggers – who excel at critical analysis of the mainstream – but Rall is also correct in saying that most bloggers do not really “report” themselves but rely on the information gathering of the mainstream for the grist for the mill so to speak. Without that, where would we be? And…. would Americans actually go for a government funded press? I have my doubts.

  6. Ted Rall’s column is just stupid. The man clearly doesn’t even understand the most basic concepts of copyright, such as the fact that you cannot copyright factual information. What that means is that his entire scheme of forcing TV stations to pay for retelling information is completely unfeasible, as long as they put it in their own words.

    There have been some early attempts to sponsor investigative reporting outside of the standard newspaper profit model. I can’t remember the actual name of it, but On The Media (an essential listen for people interested in these issues) did a story earlier this year on a non profit foundation which pays reporters to do the kind of serious investigative journalism, managed by a non-partisan board of directors that sounded like it allocated resources using a system more typical of academia. If this foundation seems to work, the idea could definitely be extended, and even include public financing as Adam suggested.

  7. BTW, it’s worth mentioning that the single biggest attack on newspaper bottom lines (at least in America) was not the migration of readers to the web site so much as Craigslist. It was those pages and pages of classified ads that provided the profit margins for years, and almost overnight a free service made the entire concept obsolete. And of course although an individual online reader generates less revenue than a print reader, a paper like the NYT gets MANY times more online readers worldwide than their print distribution, limited for the most part to the United States, and even there heavily focused on the East Cost, could ever have supported.

  8. Technically Simon took a buyout retirement package instead of being fired/laid off. But close enough. You see from Season 5 of The Wire (sadly the weakest season by far) how disgusted he was with The Sun, and presumably newspaper journalism in general.

  9. Season 5 was good but it was one of the least relevant to the core question of the series — why is inner city Baltimore so fucked up? Simon may have his opinions about the role of newspapers in funding investigative journalism. But as far as I remember from The Corner, he cited no piece of journalism that could have done anything against the structural and political factors that contributed to the flourishing drug trade. And most basically, his two major pieces on Baltimore — Homicide and The Corner — were not mainstream media pieces but nonfiction books. In fact he says that he drifted away from the news business after a strike in 1987.

    The fifth season shows how a newsroom can be completely clueless about what is going on in the street (and extremely vulnerable to lying sources), but if the Internet’s effects on journalism truly made Baltimore a worse place he did a really poor job of making the case. My feeling is that traditional journalism failed then and it continues to fail now.

    To give you an idea of what I mean, if you watch the film Cocaine Cowboys (an amazing documentary of the early history of the Miami cocaine trade), you can see that local news outlets did an decent job of reporting the facts on the ground but were powerless to do much about the booming drug business all around them. We can blame the media for enabling the powerful but often they can scream foul until they are blue in the face and it makes not a lick of difference.

  10. Roy — OTM was talking about an investigative journalism grant that has been around since at least the Vietnam War. Seymour Hersh used it to fund his uncovering of the My Lai Massacre. There are other grants available but they are kind of scarce. But speaking of NPR, there you have yet another model for excellent journalism, completely funded by grants and donations from ordinary people. You don’t see them peeing their pants at the specter of the Internet (at least not so much publicly).

    And let me emphasize — the idea that mainstream media are too precious to face competition from the Internet is pervasive but poisonous. The mainstream media are massively consolidated and highly efficient operations (not to mention politically connected). If they cannot position themselves to monetize the Internet while fulfilling their public mission to inform, they have only themselves to blame.

    The big newspapers face the end of above-market profit margins, NOT extinction. And as the consistently loss-making Washington Times’ very existence makes clear, there is a powerful need to broadcast a worldview that can mitigate profit motives, as can public interest. Newspapers have managed 20% margins (as opposed to 16% margins in the overall stock market) but with the end of classified revenue and erosion of some subscriber bases might see those margins fall to half that. And guess what, those kinds of profits are completely acceptable to other businesses if NYT or whoever doesn’t want them.

    In Japan, this is doubly true. They can heap all the epithets they want on bloggers or baselessly bemoan a “decline in prose reading” by young people, but the fact remains they enjoy considerable protections from competition that may in fact be contributing to a rise in alternative sources.

    At most (though this would be unlikely to sit well with most Americans or economists), these institutions’ long histories of public service might justify some kind of time window to allow them to adapt to changing times. Unfortunately the newspapers’ privileged status is not strictly conditioned on their usefulness as institutions. Quite the contrary, their privileged position has bred complacency and knee-jerk moves to protect their status. In the meantime, average Japanese people suffer. The dearth of real content from the top providers helps make the Japanese Internet seem less attractive, while the real punishment of members who don’t fit in with the elite (I’ll mention Horie without getting into the details of his specific crimes, but let’s just agree that he did himself no favors making powerful enemies) sends the message that you’ll never get rich challenging the establishment (though you might score a brief Keidanren membership before the ax falls).

  11. There are parts of Rall`s argument that don`t hold up, but the basic gist – that good reportage needs financial backing, that media sources need to generate revenue in order to pay their people, and that bloggers complement but do not replace the mainstream – is accurate in my opinion. The real hard truth there is that the NYT needs 150 plus online readers to make up for one lost print reader.

    “managed by a non-partisan board of directors that sounded like it allocated resources using a system more typical of academia.”

    You know, I really do agree with you guys about everything that you are saying – it would be wonderful if all of this were possible. I like utopian suggestions. I`m being a devil`s advocate against what I would like to see come to pass because I also feel that no matter how bad the current order of things is, radical alternatives are probably not going to be accepted and thus positive change needs to be worked within the current system. An academia-like journalism funding push would be wonderful, but how does this ever come about when Academic itself is under siege? Tenure is under threat in the United States. Liberal arts support lags far behind business schools. 50% of classes in the country are taught by poorly paid adjunct faculty who will never have real research support – with shifts in academia meaning that many young scholars will never see a living wage, a pension, or healthcare I have to doubt the feasibility of this system to help solve journalism`s problems.

    There is also the non-partisan thing – is this even a realistic consideration in the United States? When this cannot even be close to guaranteed in the judiciary, I would be hesitant to place journalism in the same hands. How long before they start demanding a conservative for every liberal, a creationist for every one of those people who believe in, you know, that “science” stuff?

    The Wire – The important thing about Simon was that he “felt fired”. This has come out in interviews and in the 5th season (I consider it to be stronger than the 2nd). I think that the 5th season does contribute to our understanding of how fuc#ed Baltimore is in two important ways – cycles of violence and a really firm illustration of how political ambitions mean that those in need are always going to be sold out in the end. The promises in season 4 needed to be betrayed in season 5. In addition, season 5 also offers “The Corner”`s redemption story in a nutshell, and some very moving moments.

    You are correct that Simon`s best work has come in books, but let`s think a bit about the context of the production of those works of reportage (these are “journalism” as well, of course, just as a lot of the best Japanese journalism is published by the major newspapers in their paperback series) for a minute. “Homicide” was only possible because of the access that his Sun position allowed him and the city contacts that he made. “Homicide” was also written while on leave from the Sun. In short, Simon had a chance to do something daring (Homicide is, in my opinion, one of the best books of the 1980s) that could very well have failed from a financial standpoint, because of support from the Sun and knowledge that he had a job to go back to (a form of tenure, very simliar to what allows an academic like Chomsky to do what he does). My major concern is not for the profit margins of the mainstream press. I simply hope that people doing good reportage will continue to be able to earn a living wage. The best way to ensure that reporters are vulnerable is to make it difficult for them to eat.

    Allow me to give a concrete example of the potential dangers of free information circulation online. There is one sphere of the American media that has gone almost 100% online – the boxing press. Boxing is in an odd position in American society – it enjoys significant niche popularity but is largely looked past by the mainstream. In response to a decline in quality boxing reporting, a number of individuals started websites that now produce what I would estimate to be 95% plus of all boxing features written in the United States. One of these sites,, charges a relatively large membership fee and has made about 60% of their content members only. This is necessary to ensure the the feature writers are paid a living wage. I fear that if the mainstream press vanishes and blogs, etc. take over, those sources are just going to consolidate commercially and form a new commercial media. Why is this scary? In my opinion, it could wipe out committed (partially anyway) liberal bastions like the New York Times and replace them with a popularizing online media mill that may be even WORSE.

    What could this look like? Maxboxing had a big, big problem a few years ago. Some athletes had decided that they didn`t like the criticisms that they were reading on Maxboxing so they decided to grant exclusive access to another site – Boxingtalk. As a result, Boxingtalk started asking interview questions like “What makes you so great?” Complete softball stuff. I`m not confident that online reportage really has the potential to put pressure on promoters, companies, etc. to guarentee their ability to ask hard questions. The mainstream press does not do this all of the time, of course, but they do manage to do it some of the time. In this way, the one part of the American media that had gone almost completely online pretty much engaged in a race to the bottom content wise, just to guarentee themselves access.

    Another danger – in the race to generate revenue, the third big boxing site in the United States – Fightnews – has actually ceased to differentiate between its articles and PAID ADVERTISMENTS. Reading the site, you cannot tell which is which. The vulnerability of alternative media to this type of thing is scary. This type of thing is also notable in the J-Blog sphere. I don`t want to name names, but it seems like the most popular J-Blog out there gears its “news” toward the type of image of Japan that supports its major advertisers – porn through the mail and various dating schemes.

    I think that when we look at a case study of the mainstream press dying off and reportage going online, we see the emergence of a system that is rife with even more serious problems.

    I hope, however, that this is not a harbinger and that some version of the vision being put foward by Roy and Adam here actually comes about.

  12. You have called Roy’s argument as idealistic when it is essentially already in practice even in the US (NPR!), and you have taken a completely different animal (niche interests) and applied it to the issue at hand (national/regional mainstream media).

    If you ever work in Washington, you will soon meet a class of people who peddle for-pay newsletters offering their inside scoop on whatever issue they are covering. Things like this and in fact lots of information in Japan are rightly locked in subscription schemes. That isnt quite what we are talking about here.

    By saying that we have little choice but to work with the current system, you make a sensible argument. I only offered up NHK style reforms to point out that the doomsaying doesnt make much sense a lot of the time.

    However it ignores the fact that newspapers are still basically profitable. The cuts they have made have largely been to please investors who will not accept any decrease in profitability.

    From the American Journalism Review:

    “The newspaper industry remains highly profitable by comparison with most other businesses. Bad as 2007 has been, the publicly reporting companies still produced an average operating-profit margin of nearly 16 percent in the first half of the year–a level many businesses can never hope to achieve. Still, the average profit margin has been in steady decline since 2002, when it was 22.3 percent.

    “That newspapers have been able to maintain such high margins has not been due to improving business but to cost-cutting and, recently, a decline in newsprint costs. But no industry can cut its way to future success. At some point, the business must improve.

    “Whether newspapers will be able to meld a combination of print and online into a sustainable and thriving business model is a large question. In newspapers’ favor is the fact that they are the only form of media organized to gather mass amounts of news and to provide a forum for serious analysis of important issues. Anyone who loves democracy should hope this will continue.

    “But clearly newspapers now find themselves ensnared in a competition for readers and advertising that is as unfamiliar as it is intense. A sure consequence of this will be lower profitability.”

  13. “You have called Roy’s argument as idealistic when it is essentially already in practice even in the US (NPR!)”

    Maybe. However, NPR is strapped for resources and also relies on academics (who are being directed away from public service by increasing “publish or perish” demands, the fantastic PBS New Hour also relies on academics) for a great deal of its coverage. Also, with something reliant on donations, there is always the danger that the donations will increasingly come from the right, along with demands that their ideological stance be reflected. Is it viable in the long run? I really do hope so.

    “and you have taken a completely different animal (niche interests) and applied it to the issue at hand (national/regional mainstream media)”

    The example that I used can be described as niche but, as it stands, this along with several other fields such as film criticism, are the only ones that we can point to as media environments that function almost completely online at the present time. As I indicated above, I actually hope that these may not be harbingers. However, to use another example, many of the best US film critics have been cut in the last 5 years (even by critical leaders like “Village Voice”) and there is plenty of analysis out there to suggest that they are being replaced by the type of everyman criticism that has “Return of the King” as the greatest movie of all time one year and “The Dark Knight” another. These “greatest of all time” proclamations may not hurt like flawed Iraq war coverage, but they do speak to the same problem – a lack of context and broader perspective.

    “The cuts they have made have largely been to please investors who will not accept any decrease in profitability.”

    Correct, but my fear is that, already cut to the bone in a time of marginal profitability, if/when the real collapse comes (and it IS coming, just maybe not in Japan), there will be nothing left.

  14. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Season 5 of The Wire was still excellent TV on an absolute scale, it was just the weakest of the five seasons of the show. I just didn’t find the newspaper plot as authentic or compelling, and the newspaper characters felt less complex than the cops, drug dealers, politicians, students etc. By comparison, Season 4’s look at the schools and the kids was far more insightful, and the fall of Stringer Bell in season 3 was almost Shakespearean.

  15. Cool. I agree on season 3 (is there a statute of limitations on spoiler warnings?). I think that it is a lot easier to like season 5 without the newspaper stuff. (SPOILERS AHEAD) – What really impressed me about 5 was how much they managed to do with some short scenes – The Bunk going to visit Randy in the boy’s home was hard to watch. Omar’s death, I thought, was probably the most shocking (and subtly foreshadowed) moment in the series. Up to that point, Simon could have been accused of mythmaking with the Omar character, but damn did that ever come down to earth hard. Avon’s cameo (In here, I’m something of an authority figure) was both funny and pathetic at the same time. Season 5 very well may have been better off without the paper and the serial killer thing.

    I was less satisfied with Season 2 myself. The Wire presents some of the most layered cops and drug deals (all characters, really) of all races, genders, and sexual orientations that I have seen in TV, movies, etc. … except Eastern Europeans who simply appear as shifty masterminds. Of course, as you mentioned, when criticising The Wire, it is best to think about what other TV shows look like.

  16. Coming back a bit late to this discussion, but…

    I think one aspect of the modern press that doesn’t get enough attention—either among folks in the media or folks critiquing it—is the transition from the fundamental scarcity being information to information being in abundance and the fundamental scarcity being mediation.

    That is a very telling quote indeed. I’d just add that perhaps the most obvious example of mediation at a global scale (and very relevant in Japan) is mediation between languages, and in particular translation. More to say on that but will have to wait till another time.

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