By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
RAFU STAFF WRITER
Upwards of 100 people filled Veterans Hall at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute on Sunday, to take part in a town hall forum that focused on the future of a century-old institution. Attendees were there to float and weigh ideas to help keep the Rafu Shimpo from following other newspapers into extinction, a fate that has befallen publications large and small across the nation in recent years.
The idea for the forum was born out of a breakfast conversation shortly following the demise of the Hokubei Mainichi last fall, which followed the closure of the Nichi Bei Times a few months earlier and left Northern California without a locally-produced Japanese daily. Event organizer Iku Kiriyama, along with veteran columnist George Yoshinaga and Rafu English editor Gwen Muranaka, proposed inviting readers–as well as non-readers–to air their concerns and desires for the Rafu, and to offer suggestions for ways to keep the 106-year-old newspaper in business.
Printed periodicals have seen revenues plummet in recent years, as gaining information for free via the internet becomes more pervasive. Classified ads have migrated from the pages of newspapers to sites like Craigslist and shrinking advertising budgets in a weak economy have meant a once-reliable income stream has slowed to a meager trickle for many publications. All the while, the costs of paper, printing and delivery continue to spiral upward.
It is within the context of these challenging times that Kiriyama hatched the idea for the forum, which sought to garner community sentiment in a setting that would allow for a free and honest exchange of ideas and opinions.
“The Rafu is at a point at which our community can get together,” Kiriyama said in her remarks to open the meeting. “I’ve often expressed my own opinions about print journalism and vernaculars, but I think it is time that we all become proactive about the economic issues facing the newspaper.”
Kiriyama explained that her approach in arranging the forum was to allow an independent, free exchange of ideas and suggestions, and stressed the town hall was neither a fundraiser nor a subscription drive. She said she was very pleased with the large turnout and hoped that Sunday’s town hall was the first of many grass-roots discussions aimed at keeping the Rafu Shimpo in existence.
Muranaka disclosed figures that clearly illustrate the financial crisis the paper is grappling with. The publisher’s office has said the Rafu has amassed more than $350,000 in debt, which it must eliminate. She also added that revenue increases of $12,000 per month will be required for 2010 operating expenses.
Rafu publisher Michael Komai, the fourth generation leader from the family that has held ownership of the paper since 1907, listed some of the changes that the company has undertaken out of economic necessity, such as improvements in online content and fewer publishing days. But he also stressed the importance of consistently available, tangible venue for information and ideas that have a basis within Japanese American history and life.
“The Rafu is not the voice of the community. We represent the voices of the community, its values, likes and dislikes,” Komai said. “A newspaper should be an avenue of ideas. That’s what a newspaper is all about.”
Following the opening statements, the participants branched off into concentrated focus groups, to give input concerning two major topics, how the Rafu can stabilize its financial footing and what improvements they would like to see in the paper’s content. Also meeting were small groups to discuss coverage of local sports and concerns of readers of the Rafu’s Japanese language content.
Among the more prevalent strategies that emerged from the focus groups was the notion that the Rafu could explore shifting to a not-for-profit business structure–similar to the path being sought by the Nichi Bei–to take advantage of government subsidies and tax-deductible donations.
“The Japanese American community has shown a history of being generous in supporting anchor institutions,” said participant Amy Philips. “As closely tied to the community as the Rafu is, I think it’s more than conceivable that people and businesses could help in that way.”
Another common theme from the discussions was a desire to expand the paper’s reporting of local sports. Rafu sports editor Jordan Ikeda echoed the sentiment, admitting that the staff simply hasn’t the manpower to provide the kind of coverage he would like.
“One [basketball]league may have 50 teams, playing every week,” Ikeda said. “What is really important for us are the contributions and submissions we get from parents, grandparents and coaches.”
Other suggestions centered around deploying independent, online bloggers to write about community issues, and that readers buying their own subscriptions and not relying on getting the paper second-hand from family, which is widely believed to be a long-standing practice.
A point of criticism was leveled by Charles Igawa, who said given the greater number of Rafu pages printed in Japanese as compared to English, there needs to be a more directed effort to address Japanese readers who rely on the paper as a primary news source.
“There are free papers that are being read more than the Rafu, and the businesses that advertise know it,” Igawa said. “The Rafu needs to be more about the needs of the Japanese readers, because that will reflect the attitude of businesses about the Rafu Shimpo.”
Igawa added that the fact that no members of the Rafu’s Japanese section staff were in attendance “speaks to the position of the Rafu Shimpo.”
As the meeting drew to a close, Muranaka said she was grateful for the community’s concern for the paper, and that the meeting would serve as a catalyst for involvement by other local groups. Kiriyama expressed hopes that the forum would spawn similar events conducted predominantly in Japanese.
Alan Nishio, who helped moderate the focus groups and is chair of the California Japantowns Preservation Committee, said the preservation of the Rafu is far more than simply stabilizing a local business, and that losing it would amount to the loss of a place where Japanese American concerns can be distinguished amongst an increasingly overwhelming amount of in-print and online information.
“All of you have some ownership in the Rafu,” Nishio advised, “so your ideas are valuable and I think today we’ve come up with some ideas we can be proud of.”