Focused on Rafu’s Future

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Steve Nagano explains suggestions listed by one of the focus groups, during Sunday’s forum on the Rafu Shimpo at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute. (Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
RAFU STAFF WRITER

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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.

Kiriyama

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.

Publisher Michael Komai addresses the large turnout.

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.

Amy Philips said the Rafu could benefit from community support.

“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.

Charles Igawa shares his concerns with the audience.

“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.

Alan Nishio moderates the event held Sunday in Gardena.

“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.”

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5 Comments

  1. I’m not too familiar with the current situation at Rafu, but i would like to suggest the following.
    Like most ethnic newspapers in the U.S., the Rafu is facing similar survival issues. I’m sure some readers have suggested subscription fee increases and staff reductions, but these moves might be too little and too late. I would like to suggest that the Rafu expand to a multi-ethnic format. By that I mean: 1. Revise the front page to an LA Asian format while keeping the Rafu name. 2. Add Korean, Filipino, Chinese, and South East Asian sections. 3. Hire one ethnic reporter and one ad salesperson for each new section. 4. Then run a bi-weekly periodical with a national format. 5. Staff it with a reporter/editor and an ad sales person.

  2. It was just a chabangeki. If anybody there who seriously thought of changing the Rafu, will be fooled. Nothing will change since it has not been changed since 1917.

  3. I have very fond memories of the Rafu Shimpo. My parents didn’t subscribe, but I would ask my grandmother who did subscribe to save certain papers so I could see my name in print on how many points I scored in CYC basketball. Later on while was in college, I looked to the Rafu to find where all the dances and parties were.

    Now as a middle age professional, I subscribed for 7 years and this year I decided not to renew. I was finding that I was reading less and less of the english section of the paper. What happened? Well I was finding that few articles held my interest and some were simply frustrating to read.

    I do enjoy reading the Horse’s Mouth and Yoshinaga’s nostalgic stories down memory lane. It is sad to see that many of his close friends and icons of Japanese American history are passing away and at some point in my life, I’ll experience the same.

    I also enjoy reading personal article. I can’t recall the writer, but the lady wrote about how she took a long walk to her parents house. Noticing the neighborhood in closer detail than driving.

    The financial articles written by Hayato Tamura have been helpful, but too few.

    Guy Aoki gives me mixed reactions. I do appreciate him being the watchdog for Asian Americans, but I find the bitterness in some of his articles to be too personal. American media will never provide equity for Asian Americans. We are the minority and if dollars drive what we see, the minority will loose. Personally, I’ve been mostly watching Japanese Dramas (Dorama), mostly on youtube or downloaded. I find these to be far more interesting and the cast is 99% Japanese! Sometime there is the token foreigner.

    What is my two cents about how to revamp the Rafu? I can only speak for the english section, but keep those personal inspiriting artciles coming. Rags to riches, overcoming racial inequality and heroism. Many J.A.s are professionals and financial advice would be helpful. Many J.A.s are also in a unique situation where their parents had valuable land and became instant millionaires (I’m not one of them). Lastly, as each generation passes, the foods that our grandmothers prepared are being forgotten. Let’s have a section devoted to traditional recipes.

    Sadly, I feel it is inevitable that the Rafu will no longer exist in print at least in subscription form. It could exist as a free paper like Lighthouse but the future is online. My suggestion is to create a J.A. Facebook to keep all generation interested.

  4. I live in NorCal, and the only reason we subscribe to the Rafu is for the Japanese language news section. We used to subscribe to one of the SF-based papers, but with their demise, Rafu is the only game in California (and we don’t live close to any of the places that distribute the free newspapers ). I think the Rafu should not underestimate its Japanese news readership and the bargain price it offers seniors (which is like $40 less than the Hokubei & Nichibei were!).

    As for the English sections, I think basketball is surely something that needs expanded coverage as it truly is a monster- unifying force for the Gosei/Rokusei generations. However, I would also think expanded Japanese culture and community news are just as important – I like the suggestion for BLOG writers who want to contribute for free.

    My two cents from up North….

  5. The Japanese and Japan must have a voice in the United States. The Rafu Shimpo is truly the only affirmation of the Japanese identity and voice. It must never be discontinued. It is, in a sense, the very life of the community. If this vehicle is lost, the identity of the Japanese and Japanese American community will be lost. It must not close at any cost. Our whole Japanese American commiunity must support and affirm the Rafu Shimpo, especially now with the growing international and glorbal peace and ultimate mutual understanding so needed. Our whole Japanese and Japanese American community must be concerned.
    Rev. Dr. Paul M. Nagano, Director of the Council for Pacific Asian Theology

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