The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Ayako Sono caused a storm in February with a column in the Sankei Shimbun calling for apartheid in Japan. As international consternation grew, many overseas Japan watchers asked on social media whether the criticism was confined to the English-language press.

It was not. The Huffington Post Japan had spotted Sono’s baffling editorial soon after it was published and had quickly written a rebuke.

HuffPost Japan, 51 percent owned by its US namesake and 49 percent by the Asahi Shimbun, was launched in 2013. The Japanese outlet lacks the prestige of its parent, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, but is nevertheless having a notable impact on Japan’s media landscape.

Kosuke Takahashi had an agenda when he took over as head of HuffPost here in September 2014.

“When I became the editor-in-chief,” Takahashi told The Journal, “I put the priority on civic journalism. In Japan, traditionally, the government and authorities have been very strong [in influencing the media].”

HuffPost’s role, as Takahashi sees it, is to represent minorities and create an online infrastructure that enables people to respond to those in power.

“We carried a lot on Ayako Sono,” Takahashi says. “Traditional Japanese media tend to hesitate criticizing rivals. We do not. We do not have strong ties with other media, so there’s no reason for us to restrain ourselves from criticizing the Sankei.”

Its criticisms, interestingly, have led to more users and advertising. “So far we have had no pressure from advertisers,” Takahashi said. “Why? I don’t know. Maybe we are still too small for [advertising agency] Dentsu, or maybe it’s because we focus on ordinary people’s lives.”

The site, however, is still in the red. “We are monetizing. We have four salespeople. We are not in the black yet, but we will make it.”

New methods
This year, the BuzzFeed news site posted a story about a picture of a dress that appeared as different colors to different people. It received tens of millions of hits and became a topic of discussion across the globe.

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“The Dress” went viral in early 2015, with pictures and a story about how this garment appeared as different colors to different people.

“What has happened . . . is that the world has moved toward us,” Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, wrote in an email to his staff. “What might, a few years ago, have been a web culture phenomenon, is today a cultural phenomenon.”

In other words, websites in the United States now exert as much influence on culture as culture does on them.

That did not happen overnight. Years of experimentation on how stories travel through the Internet and the effects they have on people preceded “The Dress.”

Jonah Peretti set up BuzzFeed while he was working for HuffPost in the United States as one of its founders.

“I was trying to understand,” Peretti told journalist Felix Salmon last year, “and am still trying to understand, why certain ideas spread and others don’t, why certain things become popular, how people learn, how people make decisions, and how to use that knowledge to inform and entertain people.”

Back in Tokyo, HuffPost’s Takahashi grapples with similar problems.

He also faces issues yet to be experienced in countries with slower mobile infrastructure: “More than 50 percent of our readers [view our site on] smartphones. Revenue from smartphones is still much lower than [that from] PCs. Although we get much more traffic from smartphones, it’s difficult to make money, so we do native ads. If Toyota pays us, we will write them a sponsored article. This doesn’t totally rely on traffic, they just trust our brand.”

Visiting the HuffPost homepage, alongside the hodgepodge of blogs, articles, and slideshows, the native adverts are easy to spot on smartphones. These advertorials, Takahashi hopes, will help the website turn a profit. But they also mean that HuffPost cannot focus merely on getting web hits from stories such as “The Dress.”

“We need to enhance our brand image to get native ads from big clients,” he says. “So we have a dilemma. We need traffic, but . . . people want international news, local issues, environmental issues, stories about how local people are suffering . . . that’s civic journalism. ‘The Dress’ is less important, but our traffic [for HuffPost’s version of that story was] very good.”

Finding its niche
Unique users, rather than hits, are how the site measures its worth. It has 15 million unique users today, growing at a pace of about three million a quarter. Only the United States and UK HuffPost sites perform better.

“We still have a long way to go, and can get a lot of new users,” Takahashi says. “Many Japanese do not know The Huffington Post. My staff will call local governments and say who they are. The people at the other end will say ‘Huh?! Washington Post?’ Only people active on the Net know our name.”

Scoops remain a problem. With a staff of 15 and a responsibility to get around 50 stories online a day, including wire reports, in-house writing, and blogs from celebrities, there is little time for the heavy lifting traditional journalism requires.

So far, HuffPost Japan has one scoop to its name: the vandalizing of 300 Anne Frank diaries.

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HuffPost Japan has one scoop to its name: the vandalizing of 300 Anne Frank diaries earlier this year.

“One of our reporters, Chika Igaya, had been covering Japanese libraries, and she heard about the damage to the diaries, so she investigated,” Takahashi said. “The report became international news, it was a big scoop.”

All the website can do is continue to expand its user base and wait for budgets that can fund the sort of “high-brow” civic journalism to which Takahashi aspires.

In the coming months, the site will launch a video service. Collaborations are also planned between the various HuffPost offices around the world.

“We are looking at doing global stories. For example, on environmental issues, we can make a world map, an infographic, and if you click, say, Brazil, you can get information from that country. We also decided to do a global story on the rise of the right wing.

In developed countries, there are fewer children and more immigrants. And the right wing doesn’t like it. So we will cover this story in each country. At the same time, we will look at good examples of positive immigrant integration.”

The HuffPost outlet here has rivals, including SmartNews, an app that compiles popular stories from social media, and Toyo Keizai Online Journal, a website covering similar issues and targeting the same demographic—readers in their thirties.

Their collective success or failure will impact the direction Japanese media take online. Many consumers today worry mainstream media are in deep crisis, attacked by the government and seemingly possessing little will to fight back.

“Why should the government need to cultivate ‘ignorant masses’ when the media is incapable of making the news relevant anyway?” columnist Philip Brasor recently asked in The Japan Times.

Takahashi recognizes the issue, and is attempting to address it. “[We are] trying to follow [the stories of] ordinary people to foster democracy.” He just needs the resources to do so.

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Richard Smart is a copy editor at the Nikkei who has been living and writing in Japan since 2002.

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HuffPost’s role . . . is to . . . create an online infrastructure that enables people to respond to those in power.