Japan’s largest business newspaper, the Nikkei, joined the trend of other news sites last week by requiring readers to pay to view its Web site. But, in a twist, it also imposed a policy severely restricting links to its articles — or even its home page.
Links to Nikkei’s home page require a detailed written application. Among other things, applicants must spell out their reasons for linking to the site.
In addition, regular readers of the site will also notice that the paper has disabled the ability to right-click — which usually brings up a menu including “copy link address.” The paper’s “link policy” ends on an ominous note: “We may seek damages for any violations of these rules.”
The Nikkei says the rules are intended to make sure its pay wall is not breached and to prevent the linking of its content from “inappropriate” sites.
“In some cases, links to individual stories could lead to stories being manipulated for a purpose other than journalism, for example to promote a certain stock,” the Nikkei said. “There is a danger this could inaccurately affect financial markets.”
But the policy has brought a storm of fury and derision in the blogosphere in Japan.
“Nikkei thinks it can go online, but cut themselves off from the wider Internet. “They just don’t get it,” said Toshinao Sasaki, a technology writer and author. “The way forward is to link free content with paid content, and links play a big role there.” Critics say Nikkei’s rules show that despite Japan’s reputation for being at the forefront of technology, traditional media still lag behind in online strategy.
Instead of going all out on the Web like many American papers, Japan’s top papers have limited online fare, so that readers must buy print editions for full articles. On Daily Yomiuri Online, the Web site of another Japanese daily, many articles are short versions, or “stubs,” with no photographs. The same is true for Asahi.com, run by the Asahi Shimbun.
The Yomiuri and Asahi are the world’s two largest newspapers — the Yomiuri has a circulation of slightly more than 10 million, while the Asahi has slightly more than 8 million readers. The New York Times, by comparison, has average daily sales of 928,000 papers. The Times recently announced that it was planning to adopt a payment system for some access to its Web site.
The Nikkei’s daily subscription base is just above three million, 50 percent more than the biggest American business daily, The Wall Street Journal. The Journal also charges for full access to its Web site, but it does not ban linking.
“Japan’s papers have seen their American counterparts suffer by offering everything for free,” said Yoshihiro Oto, a journalism professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “They’re convinced openness doesn’t work.”
For now, the print-focused strategy seems to have helped the industry. Newspapers here have lost relatively few of their print subscribers in the last decade, despite a surge in Japanese Internet users. Statistics show that at least one daily newspaper is still delivered for every household in Japan.
Still, papers like the Nikkei are speeding up efforts to increase their online offerings to attract younger readers — and to find a way to profit from the Internet.
Younger Japanese have turned from physical papers toward the Web. A 2009 survey by the Shimbun Tsushin Chosakai, a newspaper research institution, found that 59 percent of Japanese in their 20s and 47 percent in their 30s say they get news online.
Japanese papers rely much more on home subscriptions than ads for revenue. But ad revenue has plunged in the wake of the global economic crisis.
According to the advertising giant Dentsu, ad revenue at the nation’s newspapers fell 18 percent in 2009 from a year earlier, to 673.9 billion yen ($7.24 billion), and was eclipsed for the first time that year by online advertising, which edged up 1.2 percent, to 706.9 billion yen.
That has prompted some papers to start charging for online content. A month’s subscription to Nikkei’s online version costs 4,000 yen, compared with 4,383 yen for a one-month print subscription.
But much of the paper’s thinking about the Web is outdated, media specialists say, pointing especially to Nikkei’s restrictions on linking to specific articles.
Japan’s smaller papers, though, are taking a different tack online. The Sankei Shimbun, the smallest of Japan’s national dailies with a circulation of 1.7 million, raised eyebrows last year when it introduced an iPhone application that offered free access to its articles. That app remains one of Japan’s most popular.
“There’s just no way we’d limit something like that,” said Ryuichi Sekiguchi, a spokesman for Sankei. “Linking should be free.”