INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Save The Rafu 2 — The Final Frontier or a New Hope?



(Note: This column can be shared with others using the following link:

According to the Internet — and if it’s on the Internet, it must be true — the world’s oldest living person is Susannah Mushatt Jones. She’s 116, which makes her older than The Rafu Shimpo by about three years.

With publisher Mickey Komai’s announcement last week, it seems possible that Jones may be the one that lives longer.

Six years after members of this community formed the “Save the Rafu” committee to try and keep The Rafu Shimpo from meeting the same fate that befell San Francisco’s Hokubei Mainichi and Nichi Bei Times, not to mention several mainstream daily newspapers, the days of L.A.’s own Rafu Shimpo as we know it may finally be numbered.

The Save the Rafu drive was a noble, well-intentioned gesture, but it didn’t end well. Fortunately, The Rafu Shimpo was able to keep limping along, but barely. Like many readers, I often wondered how long this centenarian could keep going.

Now, we know. The deadline — a word quite apropos in this case — is a day about nine months from now. Unless some real, effective intervention and action occurs, it’s going to be sayonara. The aforementioned publisher, in an emailed cri de coeur, wrote to me: “My sincere hope is that you will use your words to contribute to our turnaround.”

I’m gonna try, Mickey. Right now.


So, who am I to write what I’m about to write? I have the perhaps dubious distinction of being one of the few — maybe only — living professional journalists who is Japanese American with this long a track record in community journalism (Pacific Citizen and more than two decades as a freelancer here with The Rafu Shimpo) and mainstream journalism jobs at The Daily Journal, Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Orange County Register, Hollywood Reporter and Investor’s Business Daily, in print and online.

I also attempted (and failed, to be honest) to launch a digital Japanese American news business called Nikkei Nation that tried to do some of what The Rafu is now trying to do.

When Pacific Citizen (which is facing its own, similar issues) was on the ropes in 2012 after a pair of staffers moved on with no one left to put the paper out, I was called upon to help keep it going for a while, until I found two great people to step in and take over running that show.

Those are my bona fides. Can anyone else say the same thing? (Like I said, it may be a dubious distinction, but I’m not ashamed of it.)

So, with that out of the way, here’s what I have to say.

A sign on the door at the 2010 "Save the Rafu" meeting at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute.

A sign on the door at the 2010 “Save the Rafu” meeting at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute.

First, let’s look at what’s still good and strong about The Rafu Shimpo. At the top of the list is brand name recognition. The words “Rafu Shimpo” still possess weight (as well as some baggage) in this community. There is history, perseverance and triumph in those words, as well as grief, loss and sadness. Nevertheless, I feel privileged to have been a part of the Rafu Shimpo legacy these past 24 years.

Another strength: The Rafu Shimpo’s subscribers. Though dwindling, I know this newspaper’s subscribers are faithful and loyal. They care about the Japanese American community and don’t want the decades of effort building and maintaining community institutions to prove to have been all for naught. It may ultimately be this faithful subset of Nikkei-jin who make the difference between life and death for The Rafu Shimpo.

Outside of that, however, the liabilities begin to outweigh the strengths. First and most importantly, The Rafu Shimpo is inarguably in dire straits financially. This newspaper is bleeding out, losing more money by far than it takes in. (It must be why accountants used red ink to signify losses.)

I had a professor back in journalism school who asked his class: What is the purpose of a newspaper? The answer: To make money.

You can have all the worthy and lofty goals about serving the public interest, influencing policy, educating and entertaining, reporting on and disseminating vital information, writing the first draft of history, serving as a check against government overreach, exposing corrupt public servants, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, so on and so forth — but without the money to accomplish those things, none of the lofty stuff can happen.

Why is The Rafu Shimpo in such a wretched state? The reasons are no doubt many and the same ones facing general interest, mainstream newspapers: newer technologies, declining subscription and advertising sales and increased competition for limited resources, i.e., time and money.

Longtime Japanese American journalists Harry Honda and George Yoshinaga attend the Save the Rafu meeting in 2010. Both have since died.

Longtime Japanese American journalists Harry Honda and George Yoshinaga attend the Save the Rafu meeting in 2010. Both have since died.

But the Japanese American community and this newspaper additionally face changing demographics, assimilation and cultural drift. And, this newspaper also suffers from the “pass along” phenomenon where a single newspaper gets passed along to several readers. One subscriber whose newspaper gets read by five others outside his or her household who don’t pay for it does not a good business model make. (Not that I blame anyone — I pass along my copies, too.)

But it’s also the product, which brings us to the second problem. Despite the valiant efforts of its staff, be it the English section or the Japanese section, the product — aka, The Rafu Shimpo — has not only declined in frequency (it stopped being a true daily years ago), it appears to be less relevant to “younger” readers. (This is one of those odd cases where “younger” doesn’t mean teens and young adults still in college or just out of college and new to the working world — I’m talking people ages 30 to 50.) Sports coverage for the young and obituaries for the older crowd are probably the two main things The Rafu Shimpo has to offer.

Furthermore, under the status quo, if you’re an English-only subscriber, you’re paying full price for a product that’s three-fourths unreadable. Would you pay full price to buy a car with just one wheel? (FYI, the standard price for a year-long print subscription is $149, $119 for senior citizens and $79 for nine months for college students. A year-long subscription to the e-newspaper is $50. See to subscribe to the e-newspaper. )

There are, without a doubt, news, features and opinion contained in the pages of The Rafu Shimpo that simply cannot be found elsewhere.

But I have to ask: Is that enough? Is getting that unique news worth the cost? Is The Rafu Shimpo a product that is so compelling, so vital and so necessary that it deserves to continue?

While I may say “yes,” it’s the marketplace that ultimately answers that question. The answer right now appears to be no. Otherwise, I’d be writing about something else in this space.

Back to looking at the status quo from a more positive perspective, the direct action this paper is taking right now to survive is to, in the coming months, sell enough subscriptions for an electronic replica of the daily broadsheet newspaper to stabilize the situation. In other words, keep breathing, stop bleeding. I have no doubt this can succeed, if success can be simply measured as staying alive, in the short term.

It won’t, however, be enough. This can’t be and won’t be the solution. Once the number of people who are willing to buy (or buy as presents for friends and family members) subscriptions to an e-newspaper have done so, then there’s everyone else. If I can present myself as an example, I’m about as “wired” as anyone can be — I have a laptop computer, an iPad and large iPhone — and I’m not interested in reading a digital replica of a broadsheet newspaper on any of those devices.

I’ll go even further and say that making an electronic replica of the printed version of The Rafu Shimpo misses the point of digital. Every medium has its inherent advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of making a digital replica of a newspaper only appears to take advantage of some of the strengths of digital — saving on ink, paper, postage, not to mention instantaneous delivery via the Internet. It still doesn’t take full advantage of the inherent strengths of being digital!

And, it still doesn’t address the problems of reduced frequency and paying full price for a partial-use product that’s not vital and necessary.

As for print vs. digital, there is no argument that digital wins in speed. It puts the “new” in newspaper. But not everyone likes using a computer screen, not everyone has a computer, tablet or smartphone, especially amongst some older readers — and older readers, as mentioned, are the stalwarts of the print newspaper subscriber base.

I would argue that there still needs to be a print complement to the digital transition. My gut tells me people want to feel like they’re getting something tangible for their money. Digital and digit (as in finger) share the same root word, but there is nothing tactile in digital; you can’t feel or touch it.

The compromise solution: a slick magazine (not newsprint) that comes out 10 times a year, something beautiful with content that is feature-y with a longer shelf life — and something that could be used to sell print ads, which make money! That needs to be an option as part of a tiered subscription model.

This next one might sound totally “cray cray” (I hear that youngsters like to say that) — but there could even be a fax edition. Lots of businesses have fax machines, the print quality is better than it used to be and the technology exists for bulk faxing on a daily basis. It’s not as crazy as it may sound — and every avenue needs to be attempted. (And it could contain ads!)

The point is, there is no single magic bullet that will fix everything. Throw everything at the wall and go with what works.

That brings us to a third problem: Lack of vision. The Rafu Shimpo, by definition, loosely translated, means Los Angeles news report — but nobody cares. It’s like ESPN or KFC — they once had literal meanings going back to their respective origins, but now are now just brand names. The first one means televised sports and the second means fried chicken. The Rafu Shimpo, which most community people I encounter call The Rafu, means Japanese American newspaper. It doesn’t have to be L.A.-centric.

So, it’s shortsighted for The Rafu Shimpo to focus strictly on Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California. If some form of digital is the future, then the focus should be all Japanese Americans across North America. Being digital means a subscriber can be in Gardena, Torrance, Venice, the San Gabriel Valley, the San Fernando Valley, the Westside or Irvine — and Vancouver, Toronto, Denver, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Omaha, and get it in the same split-second. As big as L.A. is, the vision needs to be bigger. There is, after all, strength in numbers.

And speaking of numbers, digital allows for citizen journalism. Anyone with a smartphone is a potential journalist, no matter where they are. If you’re a subscriber at a Japanese American event in Salt Lake City or Seattle or Little Tokyo, there should be an avenue by which someone can shoot a pic, describe what’s happening for a caption and upload it for inclusion in The Rafu Shimpo’s digital platform. Citizen journalism is participatory journalism. Subscriber engagement soars. Everyone wins!

And while we’re on that topic, it’s probably overdue that the English section and Japanese section truly bifurcate and become separate publications under the same ownership. They can still co-exist and support one another and share office space, history and a name — but beyond “it’s always been this way,” there is no compelling reason to keep it this way anymore, is there?

Whether purely digital or a hybrid digital and print model, there also needs to be community engagement. It’s debatable whether The Rafu Shimpo is still the glue that holds the community together; some might say it’s basketball. But there are extant community organizations with members that need to become partners.

I’m talking the Japanese American National Museum, Go For Broke, the JACCC and all the smaller community centers, the JACL, as well as churches and temples, followed by other primarily ethnic civic and professional organizations. They all have members who are required to pay dues. Outreach needs to be made, such that if you’re already, for example, a member of the Venice Japanese Community Center (which I am), you can pay slightly more to get a discounted subscription to The Rafu Shimpo. That’s called a win-win.

Meantime, with Obon season and Nisei Week coming up, The Rafu Shimpo needs to go all out and be at every single one of these events, selling subscriptions and putting the word out. (Maybe I’ll be “volunteered” to be at one of these events at a Rafu Shimpo booth.)

And, while reaching out beyond the Japanese American community is a good thing, maybe the counter-intuitive move would be to double-down on the whole Yamato-Uchinanchu connective tissue and collective experience. Don’t turn away those who are interested in what we have going on — but don’t leave behind that which makes us and has made us unique!

Now, this last idea may not go over well with some — but it needs to be said. Serious consideration needs to be given to ending The Rafu Shimpo as a “family business” so that it could simply be a business.

Let’s say a deep-pocketed (and slightly nuts) individual or consortium of a half-dozen or so community-based investors wanted to buy The Rafu Shimpo. It would probably cost about $3 million to $4 million to pay off debts and invest in capital expenditures. But it would streamline things immensely and sound business decisions, some of which I mentioned, could be made with comparative ease. The publisher would and should stay on as an employee, the goodwill ambassador and face of The Rafu Shimpo, a tie to the original family. But everyone else with a family finger on the veto button slowing things down would receive a payout and be free to do other things.

(By the way, if you happen to be someone with the means to write a big check to The Rafu out of the goodness of your heart, pause a second. Attach some strings, please; find out how the money is going to be spent and get some specifics on what steps are going to be taken to really turn things around.)

I think the preceding is a start to the discussion as The Rafu Shimpo faces its existential “to be or not to be” moment. A couple of other sayings come to mind: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is one. Well, it’s broke, in more ways than one. It needs fixin’. The other saying: “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” This is a crisis, without a doubt. It’s also a rare opportunity to set things right, and get rid of what no longer works. There’s no guarantee of anything working, to be honest, but some desperation moves seem to be in order, don’t you think?

As for me, I want The Rafu Shimpo to continue. That’s because as a father, I have a vested interest in the future. I have kids who I hope will someday will be Rafu Shimpo subscribers. That won’t happen unless some big changes happen first.

Short-term survival is only a beginning. Steps taken now will ensure that today’s young Japanese Americans will have The Rafu Shimpo to call their own when they’re grown up, too.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2016 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.



Leave A Reply