Online papers challenge Japan's mainstream media

Citizen journalists, who write articles voluntarily, say they are challenging major news outlets' 'information cartel.'

Takehiko Kambayashi
New media: Ken Takeuchi runs an online 'alternative' newspaper.

It used to be that in Japan, to get the story, journalists had to belong to a press club, where they enjoyed a cozy relationship with their sources. And to join a press club, they had to write for one of Japan's major media outlets.

But in recent years, thousands of "citizen journalists" – from students to housewives to lawyers – began adding their stories to the news cycle. Though dismissed by some as amateurs, they say they are providing an alternative to the "information cartel" of the mainstream media, government, and big business.

"Major news organizations have completely bowed to pressure from politicians and large corporations," says Yasushi Kawasaki, who used to cover the prime minister's office for NHK, Japan's public broadcaster and is now an executive board member of Sugiyama Women's University in Nagoya. "Those who work for the major media are no longer considered to be journalists."

Five newspapers dominate the market in Japan, a country that boasts one of the highest rates of newspaper consumers, at 630.9 daily sales per thousand adults. Still, some citizen journalism groups have gained an audience in recent years.

"We want to be Japan's leading media in another five years," says Ken Takeuchi, president of Japan Internet News, of his online newspaper JanJan (Japan Alternative News for Justice And New Culture). As the Web-based daily, which is owned by the system integration company Fujisoft, celebrates its fifth year, its pool of citizen journalists has grown to 5,000.

Unlike the male-dominated and hierarchical mainstream media, citizen reporters are a diverse group: retirees, homemakers, non-Japanese residents, and college students. Most write for free.

Japan's major media outlets have long been criticized for their close relationship with authority figures via the press-club system. Press clubs – which exclude reporters not belonging to those news outlets – exist in government agencies, companies, and other institutions across the country, and members depend heavily on the clubs for information.

Critics say the mainstream media fail to live up to their watchdog responsibilities when covering the government and private sector. "Those who talk about press freedom block the flow of information. It's wrong," says Mr. Takeuchi, who is also a former reporter for Asahi Shumbun, Japan's second-largest daily. He abolished the press-club system in his city as mayor of Kamakura, about 50 miles from Tokyo.

Some reporters have a background in the nonprofit sector, working on issues such as labor rights, domestic violence, and homelessness.

Mayumi Matsuda, a housewife who has produced about 70 articles for JanJan since 2005, recently covered a lawsuit filed by a female member of Japan's military who says she is a victim of attempted rape by a colleague on the base. Very few media outlets covered the case.

Critics of citizen journalism say its reporters are not professionals and are driven by their activist causes. They are "amateurs," wrote Nobuaki Hanaoka, an editorial board member for one of Japan's top dailies, Sankei, in a recent column for Nikkei BP.

"One of the difficulties with citizen media is it's not always clear what we can rely on," says Dan Gillmor, director of the Arizona-based Center for Citizen Media. "But that's not always clear with traditional media, either."

As online media exert a growing influence, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is considering laws to control them. The proposed legislation won't be considered in parliament until 2010.

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