Archives for posts with tag: journalism

A lot is written today about Japan’s media, particularly because of accusations that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to silence critics. It’s fair enough, but media in Japan is much more complex than many give it credit for. And press freedom is still by and large in tact.

As well as traditional media, there’s an entire weeklies system that deserves attention. There’s also a vibrant social media scene and plenty of online only news sites. All sort of depend on each other. I recently interviewed Kosuke Takahashi of the Huffington Post Japan for the ACCJ Journal on the role that online media plays in Japan. Below is the full interview.

Are you able to cover stories like the Kawasaki murder and compete with more mainstream outlets?

We haven’t been to the site of the incident (murder in Kawasaki), but we carried a lot of stories and blogs. We don’t have enough people to send a reporter there. But we interviewed professionals and wrote blogs.

How many of you are there?

Including sales and editorial, we have 15 people. Including assistants, there are 11 people in editorial.

You’re just operating during the Japanese work day?

We run the site from about 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. If big events happen though, people will work. During, for example, the terrorist attack in Tunisia. So one editor worked overnight.

We run about 50 stories a day. About half of them are original news written by our editorial staffers. The rest of them are blogs and a handful of reprint of wire-service articles written by Reuters and Asahi. Thinking about the number of staff we have, 50 is a lot. We are terribly busy. If you don’t put up that many stories every day, you will not get enough traffic.

What’s your vision for the Huffington Post Japan?

When I became the editor-in-chief, I put the priority on civic journalism. In Japan traditionally, the government and authorities have been very strong. People tend to trust the government, the emperor, authority figures such as teachers, but civic society is not so strong. Japanese media tends to follow the government’s resources, which are sent to the press clubs.

Huffington Post Japan is trying to follow ordinary people to foster democracy, by giving people a chance to hear ordinary people’s voices and opinions. We provide a forum for readers, where they can discuss what the government has to do.

You seem more fearless than traditional media. For example, you guys were pretty critical of Ayako Sono and the story ended up getting picked up internationally.

We carried a lot on Ayako Sono. Traditional Japanese media tends to hesitate to criticize rivals. We do not. We do not have strong ties with other media, there’s no reason for us to restrain ourselves from criticizing the Sankei.

But that sort of stuff is not enough for you?

The U.S. Huffington Post was established in 2005, 10 years ago. It first reported on the so-called low-brow stories. High-brow stories are on politics, economy and that sort of thing. Low-brow stories are on entertainment, cats and dogs etc. Huffington Post in the U.S. first carried only low-brow stories, but now, they have a Pulitzer Prize. They already shifted to a balance between low-brow and high-brow stories. At HuffPost Japan, we were just established two years ago, so we still need to focus on low-brow stories. We have a limited number of staff, and monetization is important.

Are you profitable?

We are monetizing. We have four salespeople. We are still not in the black yet but we will make it.

How are you making money?

We offer the usual banner advertising and also native advertising. More than half of our readers come from smartphones, the rest come from PCs. The revenue from smartphones is still much lower than for PCs. As you can see, advertising banners are small on smartphones, compared to PCs. Although we get much more people from smartphones, it is difficult to make money, so we do native ads. If Toyota pay us money, we will write them a sponsored article. This doesn’t totally rely on traffic, they just trust our brand.

Japan’s media is always rumored to be giving in to advertising demands. The massive companies such as Dentsu are said to lean on newspapers to make sure, say, Tepco is treated gently. Do you get pressure from advertisers?

So far we have had no pressure from advertisers. Why? I don’t know. Maybe we are still too small for Dentsu or something? Maybe it’s because we focus on ordinary people’s lives?

Another point for us is that we focus on minorities. We write about LGBT issues, foreigners, women, the handicapped, those that tend to be less represented in Japanese society.

How many hits are you getting?

We focus on unique users. We have 15 million a month. That’s a lot right? If you want to just get page hits, you just put up more slide shows. We focus on unique users instead.

That’s interesting. It seems a bit different in the U.S. these days. All about hits maybe. You must have seen that Dress article, about the different colors. It got about 80 million hits from Buzzfeed and they seem to be monetizing. But your model is different… 

We got lots of hits. But those kind of stories [The Dress] do not help us to get native ads. We need to enhance our brand image to get native ads from big clients. So we have a dilemma. We need traffic, but those stories don’t help our brand. People want international news, local issues, environmental issues, stories about how local people are suffering … that’s civic journalism. The Dress is less important, but our traffic is very good, that is true.

But you need the cash for the civic journalism…

We are half way there. We had a scoop, but we need more. About a year ago we got one, about the Diary of Anne Frank. One of our reporters, Chika Igaya, had been covering Japanese libraries, and she heard about the damage to the diaries, so she investigated. The report became international news, it was a big scoop.

A libraries correspondent?

Among the 11 editorial staff we have, two came from the Asahi. Maybe they will return there in a few years. They are juniors to me, I am 46, they are fourthsomethings. We have a few people in their 20s, most are in their thirties. They come from Rakuten, the Sankei, some IT media, they have different DNA, come from many quarters of the Japanese media. We are always fighting… well, discussing what to do a lot.

I guess the former Sankei people didn’t follow the Sankei line? I had a friend work there and he was… sane.

Haha. I used to work for the Wall Street Journal Japan, and the staff said they didn’t like the editorials.

So where does the HuffPo fit into the Japan media landscape?

Our rivals are Toyo Keizai online, Blogos and Yahoo online. But Toyo Keizai online is our main rival, they have almost the same editorial line. It’s a friendly rivalry. I am good friends with their editor.

Are you able to grow any further? There has to be a limit to the size a Japanese blog can reach.

We expand by about 3 million unique users a quarter. We still have a long way to go, and can get a lot of new users. Many Japanese do not know the Huffington Post. My staff will call local governments and say who they are. The people at the other end will say ‘Huh?! Washington Post?’” Only people active on the net know our name, not ordinary people.

If we expand our social influence by getting scoops and delivering important news then we will attract more ordinary people.

Do you follow the same method as the HuffPost in the U.S.? Grabbing onto stories and firing out as many posts as possible on them to get traffic. Things like the death of Kenji Goto must be good for traffic. I saw that from the traditional media and online media sides, and there’s no way the papers can keep up.

We got lots of traffic in January when Goto-san was killed. It happened at 5 a.m. One of my staff was connected to a chatroom on his phone. He woke up because his phone started buzzing a lot. He saw Goto-san was killed and got straight to work. If you wait for traditional media’s reporting on this, it can be too late. On the other hand, the traditional way of reporting, hearing rumors, confirming them and publishing stories [can be safer].

So are you trying to outpace traditional media?

We don’t focus much on breaking news. If we focus too much on that we would lose because we don’t have enough staff. For example, the other day we wrote about “hakko icchu,” the wartime government slogan Junko Mihara said in the Diet. Many young people don’t know the phrase, so we summarized its meaning and the story proved a megahit. Then three days later, Asahi politics did the same thing. We also did a slideshow of Mihara, because she is very popular… she’s beautiful. People from my generation like her, and they just want to see her photos.

Young people don’t read newspapers as much as they used to. So if they want explanations, they come to our site. Newspaper circulations are declining a lot. So people lack basic knowledge of the news. So if we can summarize, and explain the background of what is going on, we get people coming to our site.

But you need traditional media then? If they weren’t covering Mihara, you couldn’t follow that story. But at the same time, traditional media revenue is declining. How can journalism sustain itself?

The media that conquers smartphones in Japan will win. It’s happening in other fields too. Look at the Nintendo-DeNA deal. As I said, more than half of our readers come from smartphones. So if you cannot make a smartphone-friendly news site, you cannot win. The U.S. is now redesigning to make a smartphone focused site.

Are you following the U.S. in doing this?

Japan and South Korea have good WiFi systems. In the U.K., people still read free newspapers on the train because they can’t get a signal, for example. Arriana Huffington says Japan and South Korea are experimenting in the media world. They are following us, in a way. So we need to focus on mobile video. People are good at PC video, but we are now changing to mobile video. We will launch a service this year, but the details have not been decided yet. But we will launch video in the in May or June.

So you have total independence from the U.S. site?

Since I joined the Huffington Post in September, I have been to company conferences in London and Munich. We have 13 editions, so twice a year, people get together and discuss what we will do globally. This year, we will launch in Australia, Mexico and an Arabic edition. This helps the group. We can use each other’s articles.

Do you do the U.S. thing of getting celebs to blog to pick up hits?

We use around 300 bloggers. Maybe Shigeru Ishiba gets the most hits. Or Taro Kono or Takafumi Horie. These people allow us to reprint what they wrote on their blogs. HuffPost Japan is a liberal media platform, but we still need to carry conservative views for readers to create a good opinion forum.

How are your readers? I have a rule to never read comments under stories…

We get a lot of Facebook comments. Some are crazy and some are not. People comment from all corners of Japan.

Most of our readers are in their 30s and 40s. Gunosy targets people in their late teens and early 20s. SmartNews targets early 20s to early 30s. HuffPost and Toyo Keizai online readers are in their late 30s and 40s. HuffPost’s selling point is international news, so we get people in their 30s and 40s, company workers.

What about the Japanese news? Does that get translated for the U.S. site?

On the March 11 anniversary, the U.S. site translated two of our stories into English. The Korean site also translated a piece into hangul.

So what’s next?

What I want to do here is… Many places have a digital-first policy. We are digital only. We have to be strong on social media, and on smartphones. And we need to target young people. Elementary school students today are shooting their own videos on smartphones. They are our future readers. And we also need to be strong with visual elements … video and slideshows.

There’s a lot you can do beyond video. I remember one story on the New York Times that felt like a completely new way of publishing…

We are looking at doing global stories. For example, on environmental issues, we can make a world map, an infographic, and if you click, say, Brazil, you can get information from that country. Each edition can contribute the facts. We have COP21 in November, so we decided to do it. We also decided to do a global story on the rise of the right wing. In developed countries, there are fewer children and more immigrants. And the right wing don’t like it. So we will cover this story in each country. At the same time, we will look at good examples of positive immigrant integration.

Sounds like you are going to become a media empire. Totally worldwide.

The Huffington Post Group is trying to establish in China. But the country is sensitive to media, so Arriana Huffington said we will start with a focus on lifestyle and then expand.

How do you perform compared to other Huffington Post sites?

Globally speaking, the U.S. site is the most read, then the U.K.; we are No. 3. We just overtook Canada. We have some bloggers overseas, there’s one in Munich. That must mean there are some overseas Japanese reading us.

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After almost three years, this week will be my last as a freelancer. From next Monday, I will be heading into an office to work full-time for the foreseeable future.

With this in mind, I thought I’d set up a blog and make the first piece thoughts on freelancing, and why I am leaving this style of work.

The first thing to say is that freelancing isn’t really a valid definition of what I have done over the years. Freelancing, as a job, doesn’t really exist. The freelancer is essentially a contracted worker.

The word has romantic connotations. Freelancers supposedly get to write what they want, pursue investigative stories for a long time, and have the independence to work as and when they please. While all three of the above advantages do, to some degree, exist for freelancers, the reality is a little different.

Freelancers are only paid for what they produce, and receive no rights in terms of health, pension, holidays and the like. Regaining these rights in exchange for losing the odd sleep-in is really the main reason I’ll be heading back into an office.

In terms of day to day life, freelancing is really about balancing the projects you want to do against the work you have to do. Over the years, I’ve written a few stories I’m quite proud of, but on a daily basis, I earned my keep by editing and writing copy on restaurants, metals, economy and other subjects not particularly close to my heart. Rather than reading like a work such as Tokyo Vice, a memoir of my time freelancing would be closer to the diary of a bean counter.

The subject I found myself writing on most of the time essentially paid my (relatively low) wage, and extra work added additional cash to pay for holidays, nights out and the like. However, the problem was that the “extra” work was more interesting, and often ended up taking more time than my more regular gigs.

This inability of mine to manage time properly often led to pile-ups of work, and thus, an end to free time.

And then came the March 11 earthquake. The combination of the lack of interest in stories on anything else from many media organizations, and the difficulty of getting information needed for economy-related pieces on the earthquake and the increasing strength of the yen combined to make freelancing a struggle.

While things had picked up in recent months, the lack of financial security between the earthquake and autumn proved stressful. Supplementary work also proved problematic because of the strength of the yen. While the dollar weakening by ¥1 or ¥2 is insignificant for a single contract, over the course of a six-month period it can cost tens of thousands of yen.

Between August 2009 and February 2012, the dollar’s value went from around ¥95 to ¥80. With it, every $1,000 earned lost ¥15,000. Stories generally pay between $200 and $800.

But beyond money and the lack of rights, there’s a lot to be said for freelancing. The learning curve one takes when going freelance is more dramatic and enjoyable than anything I’ve ever experienced.

Here’s, basically, what I learned:

1) The editor is generally right: Writers generally hope to specialize in creating between 600 and 1,200 words of content for a page that fits into an overall narrative they are trying to present. But the truth is, editors generally don’t care about this narrative. Take a writer who, for example, is trying argue that actors are exploited by studios through a series of interviews that are published by multiple outlets. Here’s the dilemma: One publication believes corporations give actors a great deal, but wants to use the writer. What is the writer to do? The answer is pretty simple. Compromise or walk away, because the editor is constructing a narrative made of many more stories than any given writer can tell. Why would an editor care that corporations’ treatment of actors angers a single freelancer. If you want to tell your story, and not contribute to an organization’s larger narrative, start a blog.

2) Social media helps: Without Twitter and Facebook, my time as a freelancer would have been very different. It may have been better in many ways – it would certainly be easier to present a “trend” from Japan that had been extensively written about elsewhere as an original story, for example. But beyond the short cuts lost, it’s a constant source of news and a way to construct your own story about subjects you are interested in. If you can find a way to do this, your efforts will be recognized, work will come your way, and perhaps more importantly, you’ll make friends that share similar interests and help you develop.

3) Neither online nor print: Print is not going to die anytime soon, and online is not going to take off in a way that brings in big money. Essentially, it’s an economics thing. For one, ad departments have a more difficult time justifying paying big money for online promotion than they do spreads in magazines or newspapers. With print, there’s the balance sheet: Newspapers are often expected to make losses, so they are a great place to hide bad results from other divisions of a parent company. Print publications are also often a source of vanity for their wealthy owners, meaning they aren’t likely to disappear in the near future. And online, the reality is that companies want to push the idea of unprofitability. Why would a site tell it’s freelancers finances were going great? It would only mean they needed to pay them more. In other words, in both worlds, there are grim prospects of super paychecks, so there’s little reason to turn down any work on grounds of prestige or preferring to be a specific type of journalist. 

4) Dull work isn’t dull: Anything a freelancer does deals in information. If information looks dull, you are looking at it through the wrong eyes, and probably missing a story. The first “tedious” story I could find on my feed while writing this involved Chinese rapeseed production. It sounds dull, but check why you should care and you probably will. It turns out rapeseed is essential for oils and grains we consume every day, that China is increasing output for its population, and that this will likely impact prices elsewhere. So here we have a story: “China stats show food prices to avoid sharp rise globally.” Nice news in a depressing world.

5) Fun work isn’t fun: Anything a freelancer wants to do probably involves their own attempt at creating a narrative (see point 1) that is unique and connected to their passions. That narrative will likely clash with the ideas the editor has, for one, but worse, will likely turn out difficult to argue. Writers gravitate to stories that have been told many times before, and often hope to tell the story in a new way. If that’s what you are looking to do, get ready for a lot of research. It isn’t easy to prove that what everybody thinks is white is black.

6) Money can’t be everything: I’ve learned over the last year that photographers want cash for their pictures every time they are published. They should. And writers should always be paid for their words too. But the reality is, both photographers and writers do a huge amount of legwork that is unrecognized. Pitching, finding stories, maintaining contacts, developing an online presence, researching, and handling invoices are just a few of the unpaid actives a freelance journalist has to do to stay afloat. Add all these into your end paycheck and think about money and you will quit on the spot. In terms of hours put in, freelancing is as difficult as it gets.

The reason for this blog is that if money isn’t an issue, then perhaps, paradoxically, I will be able to write the stories I always wanted to. Hopefully, this is the place I will write without the worry of constraints.