With the announcement late last month that this newspaper and community institution had nine months to live unless a major turnaround took place, I wanted to use this space today to throw out a few ideas and thoughts to consider.
It should go without saying but I’ll mention it anyway — these are just suggestions from a longtime contributor; if they are accepted and attempted, or rejected outright, that’s OK. The clock’s ticking and everything needs to be given some thought before a direction is taken.
And, of course, I’m writing this from the perspective that the patient is worth saving. I think that’s the consensus feeling, although I’m sure there’s a perfectly valid Darwinian “creative destruction” argument to be made that any business that fails to keep up with a changing environment needs to go the way of the giant ground sloth. That’s not, however, my view for The Rafu.
Since my last column, there’s been a meeting with Rafu Shimpo staffers and some columnists (read about it at http://tinyurl.com/jt2xnqq), some email exchanges and a meeting between publisher Mickey Komai and the Nanka Kenjinkai Kyogikai. And while two weeks worth of time have ticked off, no major course changes that I know of have been set. The current direction is to increase subscriptions to the e-newspaper version of Rafu Shimpo.
One question many have: Is the print version of Rafu Shimpo now dead? No. The Rafu Shimpo will continue to produce a newsprint newspaper as long as there is still an audience, for the next nine months at least. Anyone can still pay the full price of $149 for a year (with cheaper rates for senior citizens and students) and get the paper eventually delivered via the USPS. (What happens if you pay $149 for a year and get nine months? That’s one for the publisher!)
A problem is, however, that the number of paid subscribers has shrunk to about 8,000 and the reasons are manifold. And, as noted in the past by Komai, one Rafu Shimpo can get passed along and read by as many as five people. When the subscriber base is high enough, that’s not a problem. Now, however, the low subscriber base means the status quo is unsustainable.
While we simply can’t just multiply 8,000 paid subscribers times five additional readers and magically have 40,000 paid subscribers, the takeaway for me is that there is still an audience for what this paper has to offer.
Of that 8,000 paid subscribers, what I don’t know is how many are English-section only readers, how many are only Nihongo-only readers and how many read both sections. I don’t even know if The Rafu Shimpo has any figures on that.
I do know, however, that among all Asian American groups, the Japanese American demographic is unique in that it has the most American-born, non-immigrant numbers, meaning that for most Japanese Americans, English is the primary language. If we round off to about a million the number of Americans of Japanese heritage from Hawaii to Maine, there should be a potential audience greater than 8,000.
But the focus of The Rafu is still local, so we have to presume that growth potential lies beyond Southern California and other Asian American groups that might not be inclined to subscribe to a publication that’s perceived as “Japanese.”
So, just looking at potential subscribers who are English-primary nationwide and just for the sake of discussion, immediately eliminating half of that one million in the potential Japanese American demographic (those too young, too old and too apathetic), that’s 500,000 potential subscribers. I don’t know what the magic number needed is, but out of a half-million Japanese Americans, couldn’t The Rafu reach, conservatively, 50,000 new English language readers from coast to coast (not to mention Canada) with some sort of daily digital product?
The sites are also the same in that they have editors who search for stuff that’s already out there and provide links to it. As far as I know, this is completely legal, even though some media companies either don’t like it or have pay walls to keep “free” reads down.
I know for a fact that there is a lot of content already out there of interest to English-speaking Japanese Americans. The tough part is having the time to find it. But if you had Rafu Shimpo online news editors doing that, coupled with staff-written content, you might have a winning combination.
I think such an approach could be done, in concert with an attractive, daily email newsletter one could to subscribe to with easy links to the day’s stories. Maybe charge $5 bucks a month that renews on via one’s credit card. That’s $60 a year. Multiply that by 50,000 subscribers and that’s $3 million annually just from subscriptions and before additional advertising revenue. (And the folks who want the newsprint newspaper get to keep their newsprint newspaper.)
Could this be a cost-saving solution that provides more content for less for more readers? Maybe. It’s worth thinking about, at least. Another thing I know: A human takes about nine months to gestate before birth. This paper has about nine months to take action before it dies — or is reborn. This really is the time to figure out whether to buy a coffin or a crib.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2016 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)