Newspaper sales remain robust in Japan

01 December 2009

TOKYO: Newspaper sales currently remain robust in Japan, despite the impact of the financial crisis on both consumer behaviour and advertising revenue levels in the country.

Over 51 million newspapers are purchased every day in Japan, around one per household nationwide, with overall circulation having declined by just 4% between 1998 and 2008.

Yomiuri Shimbun, the biggest daily title, boasts morning sales of around 10 million copies, with Asahi Shimbun, its nearest rival, also on 8 million overall.

Just one of these two offerings enjoys a circulation that easily eclipses the combined totals of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

During the first half of this year, Asahi Shimbun's morning circulation fell by just 0.1%, broadly in line with the market as a whole, compared with a weekday decrease of 10.6% in the US over the six months to September.

Kotaro Akiyama, president of Asahi Shimbun, argued the organisation's distribution network was one key contributor to its continuing strength.

"We have more than 2,600 distribution points employing about 70,000 people," he said. "To the extent that we have that base, I don't think there will be any sudden fall in circulation."

Similarly, 90% of newspapers are sent directly to consumers' homes in the Asian nation, typically on a monthly subscription, meaning they are less likely to suffer than purchases from newsstands.

Another factor at work in Japanese society which may benefit print titles, in the short-to-medium term at least, is the ageing of the population.

This means any loss in readers to the web "will be gentler than in the US or Europe", Akiyama said, although he also warned that while figures will "decline little by little, not quickly … there is no way of stopping it".

In light of this development, and as Japanese adspend levels are set to fall by 10% or so this year, many newspapers are looking at the possibility of introducing online charges, a process which poses considerable challenges of its own.

"The problem in Japan is exactly the same as in the US: if it was possible for every newspaper to start charging in lockstep, that would be good, but there's certain to be a paper that drops out and stays free to gather the advertising revenue," said Akiyama.

Next year, the Nikkei will become the first major news provider to ask netizens to pay to access its website, marking a key test for the industry, as well as a shift from its present model.

Shigeru Komago, editor-in-chief of the business publication, suggested "when it comes to reporting, newspapers are senior, and television takes a junior role."

"At present we have a 30% rule: only 30% of the paper's content is put on the website," he added, a limit which was put in place with the intention of stopping the web cannibalising its paper product.

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by Warc staff