Japan's Papers, Doomed but Going Strong

Japan's major daily newspapers have kept nearly all their readers in the past decade, while U.S. circulation has dropped more than 15 percent.
Japan's major daily newspapers have kept nearly all their readers in the past decade, while U.S. circulation has dropped more than 15 percent. (By Katsumi Kasahara -- Associated Press)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 25, 2008

TOKYO, Oct. 24 -- Due to a shrinking population and an expanding Internet, the decline and fall of newspapers in Japan is all but guaranteed.

"I am in a dying industry," laments Kenichi Miyata, a senior editor and writer at the Asahi newspaper, a national daily with a circulation of 8 million. "Young people do not read newspapers, and our population is getting very old very rapidly."

But something unexpected is happening en route to the ink-stained graveyard.

Japanese newspapers are acting surprisingly spry, especially compared with their woebegone peers in the United States, where relentless declines in readership, circulation, advertising and profits have triggered buyouts, layoffs, hiring freezes and cutbacks in reportorial ambition.

Nearly all of this unpleasantness is on hold in Japan, at least for the time being.

While the circulation of U.S. newspapers has dropped more than 15 percent in the past decade, it has slipped just 3.2 percent here. Japan's five big national dailies have kept nearly all their readers.

The Japanese remain the world's greatest newspaper buyers, with 624 daily sales per thousand adults. That's 2 1/2 times greater than in the United States, according to a 2008 estimate by the World Association of Newspapers.

Slightly more than one daily newspaper, on average, is delivered to every household in this country. The Yomiuri newspaper, with a circulation of more than 10 million, is the world's largest daily.

About one in 10 newsroom jobs in the United States has disappeared in the past decade, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The Washington Post has reduced its news staff in recent years by almost a quarter. But in Japan, large-scale layoffs and buyouts of reporters and editors are unheard of.

"That is sacred ground," said Megumi Tomita, director of management and circulation at the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association. "We haven't seen any decrease in the number of journalists."

Japan has drifted into a strangely sweet spot -- demographically speaking -- for newspaper readership.

Young people here, like young people in much of the developed world, don't read newspapers much. It certainly would be better for the industry if they did. But the bottom line is this: There aren't all that many young readers to lose.


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