Behind the Japanese paradox: why news media of a tech-driven country are stuck in an offline world

Japanese journalist Daisuke Furuta outlines what's preventing journalism in his home country from embracing digital transformation
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga holds press conference, January 4, 2021. Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool via REUTERS

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga holds press conference, January 4, 2021. Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool via REUTERS

12th March 2021

The speaker

Daisuke Furuta is a teaching fellow with Google News Lab. He was previously the editor of BuzzFeed Japan, which he founded in 2015, before leaving in 2019. He began his journalistic career in 2002 at leading Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

The topic

Although Japan is the third largest economy in the world, with growth spurred by technological innovation and high-tech manufacturing, most news media in the country remain stuck in the offline era. Trust in news is low and declining, and the proportion of people who pay for online news is amongst the lowest globally. In this talk for our Global Journalism Seminar series, Daisuke explains some of the reasons behind Japan’s position as an outlier, and how a small digital news sector offers hope for a more sustainable future.

Watch the seminar


Six takeaways from the seminar

Print dominates the Japanese media landscape. At almost 400 copies per 1,000 people, more one than per household, newspaper print circulation in Japan is the highest in the world. However, it has declined, particularly in recent years. “Dependence on print subscription and advertising revenue from huge print circulation has been an impediment to digital transformation,” Daisuke said. 

With the exception of Nikkei, whose parent company purchased the Financial Times, news organisations are not pursuing digital strategies. Digital subscriptions are often priced equally to print, making them among the most expensive in the world. This may help to explain why uptake is low, generating less than 2% of total revenues in 2019. Digital news organisations are seen as outsiders in the industry, with not a single one being a member of Japan’s largest news media trade association. “Japanese newspapers have thrived with print and are hesitant to move to digital. This is a, so called, ‘innovator's dilemma’,” said Daisuke, paraphrasing Clayton Christensen's seminal book.

Credibility is low amongst Japanese media. In a 2020 survey conducted by Ipsos that Daisuke highlighted, just 25% of Japanese news users said they have easy access to news sources that they trust. This was the lowest of all 27 countries in the survey. There is also a large gulf between the percentage of journalists and the percentage of news users who believe the media hold the powerful to account. According to Daisuke, there is a lack of interest in fact-checking among news organisations: no Japanese outlet is a member of the International Fact-Checking Network.

Digital newsrooms are more diverse than legacy outlets. Japan is one of the countries with a worst records in terms of gender diversity amongst top editors. Daisuke highlighted our recent research, which found there are no female editors among the t10 top offline and online outlets. Some news outlets such as the Asahi Shimbun are promoting more women into management roles and digital-born media outlets such as HuffPost, BuzzFeed and Business Insider are more equitable, he said, with around half of management roles going to women. However, on the whole change is very slow.

Japanese media operates often like a closed shop. The ‘kisha club’ system allows established news organisations to gain access to government press conferences and officials. However, membership of these networks is exclusive and peer pressure from other members prevents reporters from stepping outside what is considered acceptable journalistic conduct. Although government criticism exists, violation of “unwritten rules,” such as persistent questioning at a press conference, could mean “other reporters in the club will hate you, and you will be kicked out from the inner circle,” Daisuke said.

Aspects of Japanese newsroom culture deter innovation. It’s very normal for journalists to enter a newsroom as a trainee and to continue working at that same outlet for more than 40 years. This system of lifetime employment, Daisuke said, “is great for stability but not good for innovation.” He also highlights a newsroom culture that is very deferential to older management figures who are reluctant to embrace a digital mindset or any ideas from younger colleagues.

Many journalists in Japan lack the necessary digital skills. “Digital transformation is not only about the organisation but about journalists themselves,” Daisuke believes. Many of the participants on Google News Lab courses that he teaches come from Japanese traditional media and have little experience using digital tools. Training reporters from across Japanese news media is key to achieving digital transformation and is what motivates Daisuke at his current role as a teaching fellow.

The bottom line

Print readership, though dominant across Japan, is declining exponentially, with the next generation of news consumers not replacing the churn of older readers. A culture of conservatism within traditional Japanese media offers little opportunity to challenge the status quo and this is hampering the pursuit of a digital future. Daisuke believes that a forward-thinking, innovative digital-born news sector could be well placed to spark new energy into the Japanese news media scene.

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