In a little more than a decade, the news and information site has come a long way and it has ambitious plans for more growth
From an adjunct to Metropolis magazine that only went live in September 2000, the Japan Today website has grown into an established news and information portal that gets as many as 4 million page views a month and is giving Tokyo's traditional English language media a run for their money.
With print media struggling to find a way of generating income in an increasingly online news world and more instituting pay walls The Japan Times having recently announced it will start charging for access to its online offerings Japan Today remains committed to the free content model. “While we have considered the pay to view option, we want to continue to offer our core news content for free and bring in new products that give our readers quality content and our advertisers more variety through leading edge platforms,” said Kieron Cashell, business development leader for Japan Today, which is part of GPlus Media Co.
And while “the usual suspects” in the Tokyo English language media might be considered rivals, Cashell says the fundamental advantage Japan Today has is that the free content is constantly updated, ensuring the viewers keep coming back for more. “Our competitors do not update their sites as often as we do,” said Chris Betros, editor of the site. “We can also get something up on the site much faster.
“A good example of this was on Sept. 8, when Japan was awarded the 2020 Olympic Games,” he said. “One of our editorial staff was up at 5a.m. watching the TV and after Tokyo was announced as the winner, we were able to post a short story within minutes. We beat our rivals by at least an hour.
“We are also well known around the world,” he added. “Countless times, news organizations overseas such as the BBC and several radio stations in the U.S. have called us, asking for an editor to comment on news topics on one of their programs.”
When Japan Today was launched in 2000, the online news revolution was already under way, but founders Mark and Mary Devlin are credited by the respected Editor & Publisher magazine with making the portal the first in the world to have a comments section beneath each story.
The site was acquired in 2007 by GPlus Media, which includes GaijinPot, CareerEngine, Realestate.co.jp, Savvy Tokyo and ChinaSplash in its stable of titles. “Japan Today was already an established brand and it had become a high traffic site with a large user base,” said Cashell. “Simply, the traffic and the readers were attractive to us and we knew we could expand the audince and brand even further.”
The aim is to remain “ahead of the curve in giving our readers what they demand and expect,” said Cashell. “We had a mobile version of the site even before reading news on smartphones was popular. We now present readers with options to enjoy the news in a variety of ways, such as mobile apps, social media platforms in both Japanese and English, a digital monthly magazine, embedding audio interviews with articles, podcasts, as well as video although this is mostly in the community pages and all of which is free for the user.”
New innovations include the Insight community pages, which enable users to have their own space on the site where they can upload announcements, news, promote special offers and so on, and which readers can view alongside the news. A monthly lifestyle “magazine” has also been released, available through subscription on iTunes, iPad and iPhone, with Android devices to be added to that list very soon.
At present, more than 30 percent of visitors to the site are accessing it via a mobile device. That is expected to grow to more than 50 percent within the next five years.
The Lehman Shock and, more specifically to Japan, the March 2011 disasters have taken their toll on the industry, primarily through savage reductions in advertising revenues a cause for concern in a title that admits it relies “100 percent on our advertisers.”
“Of course our advertising revenues suffered temporarily, but were bolstered by strong sales in jobs,” says Cashell. “We also began innovating new forms of advertising and leveraging our large readership, both in Japan and abroad, through new products such as Insight.”
Covering events such as the 3/11 Earthquake and its aftermath “tested our ability to deliver the news and stay online,” Betros said. “Huge spikes in traffic during such crises are a burden on our servers and sometimes access to the site is not as fast as we would wish, but we managed and grew our readership,” he added.
Having ridden the rough times, Cashell is confident that Japan Today can continue to build on its reputation and reach. “Japan, like the rest of the world, is consuming more and more information – including news via the web, so in that respect electronic media is strong and growing,” he said. “However, we see social media quickly taking over as the platform for marketing budgets and so on.”
At present, the site is recording more than 600,000 unique visitors a month with up to 4 million page views. “I think many overseas readers use us as a window into Japanese society or have direct business dealings with Japan,” said Betros, pointing out that readers of the site include the prime minister’s office, U.S. congressmen, overseas news organizations, ambassadors and corporate leaders. “Crime and national news are popular categories of news, as is anything offbeat,” he added. “The comments are another big draw as this brings additional views on the news, although unfortunately too many readers use that to bash Japan.”
That downside apart, Cashell and Betros have faith in the product and its future.
“In the short term, we would like to see Japan Today have another year like we did this year, which featured a rise in all areas: amount of content, traffic, revenues and services,” said Cashell. “And the possibilities extend well beyond news; it could become the biggest English language media brand in Japan.”
Betros is looking even further into the future: “In the long term, it has the potential to be the foremost site for Japan news in English.”
Julian Ryall is the Japan correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.