Imagine life without newspapers. We may soon be living it.
Newspapers in one form or another have been around in Japan since the 17th century, innocent and unpolitical at first, less so as time passed. By the late 19th century their very existence, associated as they were with an embryonic political opposition, was seen – rightly – as a challenge to absolute rule, which responded at times with blunt suppression.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The press grew. In 1919 an estimated 80 percent of Tokyo workers were newspaper subscribers. The 1917 Russian Revolution showed clearly enough what an awakened proletariat could lead to. As the relatively liberal “Taisho democracy” of the 1920s faded into the militarism of the ’30s, journalists faced a stark choice: Toe the official line or be branded subversive. Most toed the line.
Postwar, the press came back into its own, a “fourth estate” under constitutional protection, its eye on power lest power get out of hand, as it so recently had with such catastrophic consequences. Democracy is unthinkable without a watchdog probing, questioning, investigating and reporting fairly and objectively what it sees going on. The public must know and has a right to know. The press suppressed, blinded or muted is democracy undone.
So this is what’s at stake as Shukan Gendai (Dec 23) reports “the great newspaper collapse.”
For a quarter of a century it’s been gathering momentum. Newspaper readership in Japan peaked in 1997 at 53.76 million copies. It’s now 30.84 million. Extinction, though not certain, is in view. Should we worry?
The five major national dailies – in order of circulation Yomiuri, Asahi, Mainichi, Nihon Keizai and Sankei – are all losing readers at what seems an alarming pace: Yomiuri down 32 percent between 2003 and 2022, Asahi 48 percent, Mainichi 52 percent, Nihon Keizai 43 percent, Sankei 52 percent. They’re losing staff too. Who wants to write for newspapers these days? Blogging and posting are so much freer – no bosses telling you what to cover, no desk editors shredding your copy of everything that gave it value in your, the writer’s, eyes. You may not earn as much on your own (then again you may, or more) but what are money and career advancement beside the heady freedom now within the grasp of everyone who reaches for it?
Editor-reporter tensions are as old as journalism and have their good side no doubt, encouraging both sides to expand their thinking. But it’s a fine line between stimulation and repression, and journalists who feels repressed can now say to themselves – and are increasingly quick to do so – “This medium is an anachronism anyway – the future is elsewhere.”
“There were 35 freshmen journalists who came in with me,” Gendai hears from former Mainichi Shimbun political reporter Kenta Miyahara. The key word is “former,” though he’s only 27. “Half of them have already left” – as he has himself. He now operates a YouTube channel whose political analysis and live conversations draw 5,000 subscribers.
The brain drain began before he joined and picked up speed. The staff pool shrinks but news doesn’t, forcing more and more coverage on fewer and fewer hands too overburdened (and sleepless besides) to work in depth, while editors add insult to injury with stinging reprimands when rivals scoop them.
Can a medium bleeding readers and writers survive long? Assuming not, can new digital media fill the vacuum? Traditional journalism’s pride has always been its commitment to truth and objectivity. Online journalism is free to veer into “post-truth” and subjectivity – in extreme cases, into naked prejudice. Newspaper editors keep reporters in check – making nuisances of themselves sometimes but also maintaining standards, which online reporting is free to skirt. Proponents of unfettered online journalism say the mainstream press is merely part of the power establishment and tells the public only what serves its interests. The mainstream counters that the post-mainstream has interests too, often uninhibitedly crude ones.
It’s an increasingly troubled world. More than ever we need to know what’s going on. Old media fade, new media proliferate – meaning we understand more and more, or that we understand less and less?© Japan Today