Later this year, Japan’s oldest and best English language daily will drop through letterboxes with the added heft of the most prestigious name in American journalism.

The Japan Times/International New York Times will have two combined sections, one edited here in Tokyo, the other in the global offices of the International New York Times (the new name for the International Herald Tribune). Despite the apparently mismatched pairing, the JT will remain “proudly independent” said its president, Takeharu Tsutsumi, in a press release, calling it an “important step” in the news- paper’s 116-year-old history. (Full disclosure: I am a contributor to The Japan Times.)

But wait, haven’t we been here before? Twelve years ago, Asahi Shimbun shut down the Asahi Evening News and launched a loudly ballyhooed joint venture with the IHT, also “uniting some of the finest names and the highest standards of journalism,” said the glossy press kit.

The result was a sort of frankenpaper, inelegantly bolting two separate publications together, complete with overlapping stories and editorials. It juddered to a halt, unloved in 2011, and the Asahi went online.

The new publication will be different, insists President Tsutsumi. For one thing, the name is the New York Times, not the IHT, he says. And instead of the single-section Asahi/IHT paper, with the Asahi in the back, “we will be publishing a two section newspaper, with our section being in the front and the INYT section in the back.” Readers will still be picking up The Japan Times from kiosks. “We are very confident,” he says, that the venture will be “beneficial” to readers of both papers.

The stakes are high. Like all English language publications in Japan, and indeed most print ventures, readers have been deserting The Japan Times print version for years. Circulation peaked in 1991 at 71,000 and had fallen to 40,000 when No.1 Shimbun interviewed then President Yukiko Ogasawara in 2007.

“We are pretty much plateauing on the bottom,” she said at the time. “Hopefully we won’t go down any more than this. Six years later, her successor says circulation is holding at “around 28,000” copies a day. Ogasawara was replaced last year.

“The market for print newspapers is very clearly contracting,” accepts Tsutsumi. “We had to respond to these circumstances and decided that the International New York Times would complement the kind of content we provide in The Japan Times. Our readers will continue to enjoy our coverage of Japan and they will also get the rebranded international edition of one of the most respected newspapers in the world.”


Observers have long wondered when his newspaper’s parent company Nifco Inc., a manufacturer of plastic parts and components, might cut its losses and run, an option Ogasawara (daughter of Nifco Chairman Toshiaki) insisted was not on the table. “We are very passionate about this project,” she said. “What The Japan Times allows for Nifco is a certain exposure and connection to the society of Japan.”

Morale among staff at the newspaper today is reportedly low, though the INYT partnership has given journalists a lift, said one source, who spoke anonymously. “There is a sense that there might be some impact from a professional organization and that some of it might rub off on us. The big worry is repeating news if we’re covering the same stuff people are not sure how that’s going to work.”

Not that the situation over at the newspaper’s main competitor in Ginza is much better. The Yomiuri Shimbun’s English language daily is bleeding about $3 million a year, according to insiders, though that’s half its losses in 2010, before it launched a cull of editors and writers. Official circulation fell below 30,000 about three years ago, after being swelled by thousands of free giveaways to airlines and despite being cheaper than The Japan Times.

In an effort to get some traction in a market that has slipped relentlessly south for over a decade, The Daily Yomiuri was reborn on April 1 as The Japan News.

The makeover was accompanied by a typically portentous announcement that Japan faced a “challenge” over its ability to “communicate about itself to the world.” The newspaper promised to be “more active than before” in “our pursuit of enhancing knowledge and under standing of Japan. We consider this to be a social mission of The Japan News.” A new website dropped the Yomiuri title altogether.

If bets were placed on which newspaper would survive, the odds would surely favor the Yomiuri’s Japan News, partly because of its quasiofficial role as the voice of Japan in a region where China is producing increasingly slick English language publications but mostly because of its deep pockets. One indication of the company’s financial health is the construction of a new headquarters in Otemachi, at a reported cost of around $600 million.

For all its resources, however, The Yomiuri is saddled with a major handicap, points out Mark Austin, an editor and journalist who left the paper in 2010. “The main problem, as was the case for the last several years of The Daily Yomiuri’s life, is that virtually all domestic news is translated from the parent paper,” he says. “No matter how talented the translators and copy editors are, this means that The Japan News, like its predecessor, has no soul.”

As for the Asahi Shimbun, its evolution may prove to be the most intriguing of all. This month the company formed a digital joint venture with The Huffington Post, bringing together one of the most staid if venerated names in print news with perhaps the most successful modern online upstart. Huffington claims 46 million visitors a month with a controversial formula that relies heavily on cannibalized content and views rather than the costly, gumshoe reporting of old. The venture will launch its first edition, in Japanese, on May 7.

With the under 30s now seldom inclined to buy a newspaper, the march to cyberspace seems unstoppable. Mainichi newspaper went online in 2001, gutting its editorial division and leaving behind the skeleton staffed The Nikkei still publishes an English language tabloid weekly, but long ago abandoned plans for a daily and is represented globally by the subscriber only

The Japan Times, although still stubbornly broadsheet, also maintains a free website that averages 900,000 unique users per month. The site was completely rebuilt this year, partly to make it more responsive to the growing number of smart devices now used to access it. But online advertising revenue is still a fraction of its hardcopy equivalent.

Still, Tsutsumi says the company will stick with paper, for now. “We…think there is still scope to try new things in the print realm and, hopefully, to increase print circulation. That is the reason we have tied up with INYT.” The newspaper’s team says it has not yet settled on a cover price, but is keen to not stray too far from the current ¥180.

The The newspaper is partly resting its hopes on a rise in subscription sales, tied to the NYT. “We intend to start accepting the kind of long term subscriptions that IHT currently accepts,” says Tsut-sumi six and twelve months, in addition to one month. Subscribers will have free access to the and the Times’ applications. “We think those will greatly enhance the value of our product, too.”

Avoiding the same fate as The Asahi, however, will not be easy. Sources at the The Japan Times say they are expecting a raft of changes in the coming months as they prepare for the tie up. The changes are mainly thought to involve more focus on domestic material and more freelance commissions, and a shift away from foreign coverage where the paper cannot hope to compete with its U.S. partner.

One source said the paper’s staff is moving ahead with their heads held high but under no illusions about what might lie ahead. “It’s a delicate time. There are mixed feelings about what is going on.”

David McNeill writes for The Independent, The Economist, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications. He has been based in Tokyo since 2000.