By Shingo Ito (AFP)
ISHINOMAKI, Japan — Printed newspapers may be in crisis in the West but circulations remain enormous in high-tech Japan — and its media will even resort to medieval methods to get copies to readers.
When the March 2011 tsunami struck a great swathe of the northeast coast, leaving 19,000 people dead or missing and triggering the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it also submerged the Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun’s presses.
The 14,000-circulation paper had the biggest story of its 100-year existence right on its flooded doorstep, but no way of printing it.
So its reporters did what monks in European monasteries did with the Bible in the Middle Ages and copied out their message to the people by hand.
It is an example of an intimate relationship between newspapers and readers that has long eroded in the West and means that Japan’s print media have been less damaged by the havoc wreaked by new media, analysts say.
“We had a meeting with our staff that night to discuss what to do,” recalled Hiroyuki Takeuchi, the Ishinomaki paper’s chief editor.
“We agreed that any local newspaper would lose its raison d’etre if it gave up delivering a service when its community is in crisis.”
The back-to-basics approach was the idea of Koichi Ohmi, the daily’s manager and a columnist. “Come on!” he told the staff. “We can still issue newspapers with just pens and paper.”
Ripping reams of paper from useless printers, they seized pens and wrote out what survivors needed to know most of all — the status of each district, ration schedules and medical services information.
With their distribution network non-existent and no vehicles available, the reporters walked to evacuation centres where homeless victims had found refuge, and pinned up their publication.
Yukie Yamada, a 44-year-old female survivor, said: “All the people at the shelter flocked to the wall paper every day and stared intently at every single article. The newspaper gave us what we really needed.”
The wall papers were delivered for six days, until electricity was restored and the journalists were able to produce copies on a standard computer printer.
Takeuchi said: “Our newspaper was being published by the victims for the victims. No matter what, we should spearhead our community. This is the social mission of a daily hit by natural disasters.”
The loyalty works both ways.
According to the World Association of Newspapers, Japan has the second-highest newspaper penetration of any country, with readership of paid dailies at 92 percent of the population, behind only Iceland.
Japan has the planet’s three biggest-selling daily newspapers, it added, led by the Yomiuri Shimbun.
The Yomiuri claims a monumental circulation of 13.5 million copies a day including its evening edition, and at 9.98 million, its morning edition alone sells more copies than all of Britain’s national dailies put together.
By contrast, in the US, the Rocky Mountain News has shut down, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has gone online-only and even major names such as the San Francisco Chronicle and Boston Globe are threatened with closure.
Newspapers are standard reading fare for Japanese people on their typically lengthy train commutes to and from work, in a society that ascribes huge value to literacy and learning.
But Mitsushi Akao, a lecturer on journalism at Meiji University, said the major newspapers also face less of a threat from Japan’s relatively under-developed Internet news sites.
“Newspapers maintain higher public confidence… A majority of young people collect information from the Internet but its sources are often newspapers. If the situation continues like this, newspapers won’t disappear.
“Newspapers traditionally boast networks far bigger (than other media) and have more reporters,” he said, adding regional papers have a special place in their readers’ hearts.
The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association told AFP that total daily sales averaged 48.35 million in 2011, down only 1.97 percent on the previous year.
“Circulation numbers declined last year in line with recent falls, but the decline was still limited,” said Tsutomu Kanayama, professor of media studies at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
The business models of Japan’s newspaper publishers are different to those elsewhere in the developed world, he said.
“The Japanese newspaper industry relies heavily on its solid home-delivery system, which has long covered the entire nation minutely, which is quite different from sales at kiosks in other countries,” he told AFP.
“Another factor behind the strength of the industry is their focus on securing people’s trust in their newspapers. Local newspapers in particular also try to maintain a bond with their communities.
“Because of these efforts, survivors in the devastated zones flocked to newspapers and trusted their information in the aftermath of the disaster.”
A 20-kilometre (12-mile) exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi power station, scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, has left tens of thousands of people displaced and posed particular challenges to the Fukushima Minpo, the prefecture’s biggest-selling paper.
“What has encouraged our reporters is a sense of mission as journalists who should tell local people what is really happening at the site of the nuclear accident,” said Masaya Hayakawa, its chief editor.
But the paper has itself become a victim of the disaster, with its circulation dropping from 300,458 a day in February to 251,198 in November after many of its subscribers fled the region.
Analysts warn there will be more challenges in the future.
“What is happening to the United States and other developed countries will come in Japan sooner or later as ways of getting information diversify,” said Ritsumeikan University’s Kanayama.
“There is a tough time ahead for the industry.”