The Birth of Blog Discourse, Pt. 1

Birth of Blog Discourse

A one-time journalist for the Mainichi Shimbun, Sasaki Toshinao (佐々木俊尚) is one of the most articulate and widely-read commentators in Japan. He is an expert on the country’s “net culture” and its relation to the so-called “Lost Generation” — the group of people in their twenties and thirties who joined the work force just after the bubble economy burst in the early Nineties. In his books and articles, most recently Birth of Blog Discourse 『ブログ論壇の誕生』 (2008), Sasaki portrays the emergence of Japan’s netizen population through the lens of the conflict between this younger generation, who have found an outlet for expression in the Internet, and the Baby Boomer generation before them, whose members occupy the upper management positions at Japan’s “old media” institutions.

In this article, we offer a translation of one of Sasaki’s most recent insights into this conflict: a two-part blog post that takes a closer look at the now-infamous Mainichi “WaiWai” controversy, focusing on how it has impacted the Mainichi Shimbun, Japan’s third largest newspaper by circulation. The posts registered a huge reaction on CNET Japan where they were originally posted, drawing tens of thousands of votes on the site and hundreds of bookmarks.

No doubt WaiWai is something of a household name among many Néojaponisme readers. For those who missed the recent absence of sensational, sex-fueled articles on the Mainichi English website, however, WaiWai was the name of a now-defunct feature that published sleazy, often plainly false articles loosely translated from Japanese tabloids. For years a guilty pleasure to millions in the English-speaking world, the fun came to an end this spring when a firestorm of outrage over the content broke on Internet forums such as the popular 2-Channel, leading the Mainichi to take the articles down and apologize.

While anyone can find the superficial details of what happened to WaiWai on Wikipedia or the apology on Mainichi’s website, a discussion of the larger significance of this incident has been harder to find. And significant it was — this appears to be the first time backlash from Internet-based readers posed a real threat to the business of a major media institution: a development that, as Sasaki describes, could prove “the milestone that turns the relationship between the Internet and the mass media on its head.”

The articles are translated with permission from the author.

Due to their length, we are posting the translations separately. The first part, translated by Adam Richards, is included below.

Original articles available here: Part 1, Part 2

What’s going on inside the Mainichi Shimbun? (Part 1 of 2)

Posted: August 5, 2008 2:14 PM, Author: Toshinao Sasaki

The amazingly destructive power of Internet-organized telephone pressure campaigns

To find out about the recent scandal involving sleazy articles disdainful of women posted for years on the Mainichi Shimbun’s English-language website (Mainichi Daily News), over the past month I have met with many people, both inside and outside Mainichi [Japan's third-largest newspaper in terms of circulation.]

As a result of my discussions, I have learned that this incident’s impact both on Mainichi and the newspaper industry as a whole was much greater than people imagine. Its destructive force has created an astonishing situation. This incident may well be the milestone that turns the relationship between the Internet and the mass media on its head.

First of all, let me give a brief explanation of what is happening. Everything started with ads placed on the [Mainichi] website. As is well-known, ads on Mainichi.jp — the Mainichi news site — were suspended temporarily starting in mid-July (They are back up now). This happened because Yahoo Japan, which operates the ad network that distributes ads to Mainichi, suspended the placement of ads on the site. A Yahoo employee whose name I cannot disclose (Due to the sensitive nature of the discussions, those quoted in this story shall all remain anonymous. My apologies) had this to say:

Many sponsors requested that we stop running ads on Mainichi. Yahoo’s ad network supplies ads to multiple media simultaneously, so we refused at first, explaining that “it would be technically difficult to stop ads to a specific site.” But we ended up having no choice due to the large number of requests.

As this employee attests, a large-scale dentotsu (「電突」, Internet-organized telephone campaign) was targeted at sponsors, business partners, and affiliated groups that place ads on the Mainichi site. Internal Mainichi estimates place the total number of companies and organizations targeted at more than 200. As a result, the ad cancellations spread from the web to the print edition. A substantial number of sponsors, including big companies that everyone knows, moved to suspend their ads.

An employee in Mainichi’s advertising division explains, “Sponsor companies suspended their ads left and right. Senior managers at sponsors would yell at us, claiming, ‘our customer service division’s phones are ringing off the hook because of your scandal!’ At present, our upper management is in the process of visiting the sponsors and begging them to resume their ads.”

In the background, a decline in newspaper advertising

Why were the sponsors so angry? To be certain, it was unforgivable for Mainichi to post the sleazy articles. But there’s a chance that might not be the only reason for their anger. A senior manager at a major ad agency explained it to me this way:

Mainichi’s effectiveness as a medium is almost as low as [sixth-ranked] Sankei’s. Sponsors tend to want to avoid advertising with Mainichi. Once, a major securities firm advertised one of its new financial products in the Asahi and in the Mainichi. When we studied where inquiries were coming from, we discovered something shocking: while several dozen inquiries came from Asahi, not a single person responded to the Mainichi ad. Asahi has attracted a relatively more urban readership, while Mainichi readers tend to be elderly people living in the countryside. It has become common knowledge in the world of newspaper ads that Mainichi is much less effective as a medium than its circulation numbers would suggest.

The adman continued:

The economy is in a slowdown, which means ad budgets are being tightened. On top of that, the growth of Internet advertising is moving budgets away from newspaper ads, meaning that the budget for ads in the Mainichi were destined for the chopping block. With this recent incident, it looks as though the sponsors have taken the tack of using the incident as an excuse to pull out of Mainichi ads all at once. Up to now, Mainichi has been able to prop up its decline as a medium with desperate sales efforts, but this incident may have overwhelmed their defenses.

The other papers are growing aware of Mainichi’s current state. Some commenters on the Internet have suggested that “Asahi and Yomiuri might use this incident as an excuse to crush Mainichi and benefit from their rival’s misfortune.” However, there is no sign of such sentiment among the industry as a whole. Far from “crushing” Mainichi, the newspaper industry is fast becoming overwhelmed with the fear and unease that they could be next.

Rampant fear in the newspaper industry

Another reporter, this one from the Society section of a national newspaper, told me,

A lot of people in my department wanted to properly report the Mainichi’s sleazy article scandal. I, too, recognized that this issue was important as a member of the media. But there is a fear that taking this scandal head-on and revealing how powerful Internet attacks on newspapers can be could end up making us the next target. We want to report it, but we are chickening out.

There are few news articles on this scandal, and the ones that do exist are treated as minor stories. But that is not because of a self-defensive attempt to protect their buddies in the media. As this reporter makes clear, they are simply afraid.

So what has the reaction to this situation been inside Mainichi?

As some of you may know, I used to be a reporter for the Mainichi’s Society section, so I have a lot of acquaintances inside the company. Almost 20 years ago, current president Yutaka Asahina was the desk editor of the reporting team for the series “Following Organized Crime” — my first assignment after coming from the countryside and landing my dream-job at the Society section in Tokyo. I had a lot of great assignments under Asahina after he became the manager of the Society section. I only quit the company after collapsing from a brain tumor that required the surgeons to open up my skull. But even then Asahina was immensely helpful. He was a mentor to me.

The current head of the Legal Department was my direct supervisor during my time as a reserve reporter, and the PR contact in the president’s office was a fellow reporter a few years my senior — we used to report in the field together. And the head of the General Affairs department who responded to the recent demonstrations outside the Mainichi headquarters? Also someone I worked with as a reporter (senior to me) and whom I respect. I did not know the head of the Digital Media division when I worked at Mainichi, but we have grown close over the past few years. So people who are like family to me — senior reporters, my bosses and former mentors — are playing central roles in this scandal. It feels like a nightmare.

Why was the post-scandal management so inconceivably horrible?

I am sorry if this sounds like I am turning my back on my mentor, senior reporters, and bosses, but the Mainichi’s handling of the post-scandal management was just terrible. This has been pointed out several times elsewhere, but first off is the fact that the following passage was included in the June 22 “apology” article: “In a related development, a flood of messages and images have appeared online that gravely defame and slander a number of our company’s female staff writers and other employees, who are in no way accountable for this matter nor subject to punitive measures. The Mainichi Newspapers Co., Ltd. is determined to take legal action against such clearly illegal acts that constitute defamation.”

Second, their responses to media coverage of the scandal were awful. For example, they acted snobbishly toward J-Cast News, the first media organization to report the scandal, and this attitude became even clearer with their unbelievable response to a citizen journalist for PJ News.

Thirdly, it has never been made public how Mainichi views this issue internally, what sort of debate is taking place, or how employees see the reactions from the Internet. A two-page examination of the scandal was printed in the July 20 edition of the newspaper, but this article only describes the series of events leading up to the scandal, and contains nothing whatsoever about the company’s views after the scandal broke. Far from it — the article contains a shocking comment from freelance journalist Kunio Yanagita: “The fact that these attacks on a failure are taking the appearance of violence caused by Internet agitation make me fear that the dark underbelly of the anonymous Internet is no longer a distant phenomenon.”

Looking only at these responses, the people inside Mainichi seem firmly “anti-Internet.” Only Net-hating sentiments seem to be welling up to the surface. However, in reality Mainichi is not so monolithic. One feature of this company is a lack of a proper “company line” or even a proper organization. The anarchy is such that the word “governance” hardly exists there. This lack of governance produces strange reporters who fiercely attack Japan’s emperor system [Mutant Frog readers may remember my earlier coverage of this incident], and in the most recent scandal an Australian reporter [Ryann Connell] was posting sleazy articles under his boss’s nose. In essence, the majority of employees ignore their boss’s orders and do whatever they want.

But the lack of governance is both a bad thing and a good thing. Owing in part to those impetuous reporters who keep doing what they want, Mainichi has excellent investigative journalism and consistently wins NSK Awards [the Japanese equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, last year's winners in English.] Actually, I found the Mainichi Shimbun to be a very comfortable company for which to work.

Non-existent governance

So there’s just no way a company like that could be monolithic. Still — and this is again one of the more half-baked aspects of this company — when scandals such as this one hit, the company suddenly focuses on “properly establishing governance” and tries to limit outgoing information and unify everything. Despite really being in an anarchical state, they try their best to put on a monolithic front. The result can only be called foolish — Mainichi gains a reputation as a “rigid organization that hates the Internet.”

But the fact is, a great deal of internal debate, or rather conflict, is indeed taking place. Taken broadly, there are people who want to reconcile with the Internet [let's call them Net Reconciliationists] and those who criticize the Internet. The series “Ascendancy of the Internet,” which was serialized in the pages of Mainichi in January 2007 and caused much controversy in the Internet discussion space, was mainly written by the latter group of net critics.

My own stance on “Ascendancy of the Internet” has been strongly critical of Mainichi’s reporting, as recorded in two entries on this CNET blog: “Problems with journalistic transparency as seen in the Mainichi Shimbun series ‘Ascendancy of the Internet,’” and “I interviewed the reporting team for the Mainichi Shimbun’s ‘Ascendancy of the Internet.’” Also, you can find the detailed sequence of events behind these articles in my book The Flat Revolution 『フラット革命』 published by Kodansha last year.

Needless to say, President Asahina is one of the “Ascendancy of the Internet” faction. When Ascendancy was being serialized, Asahina was the managing editor and thus the one ultimately responsible for the book’s editing. Around that time, he served as moderator for an expert panel discussion convened to discuss Ascendancy, which included Kunio Yanagita, Yutaka Takehana of the National Police Agency, Yahoo Japan’s [Chief Compliance Officer] Naoya Bessho, and myself. At the panel discussion, I argued, “Anonymous debate on the Internet has an important significance as a forum for people to tell the truth when they cannot speak using their real names due to pressure from their companies or somewhere else.” At that, Asahina forgot his role as moderator and began rebutting my argument: “There is no need to respond to the arguments of such cowards,” he said. I retorted: “Isn’t it effective for people who can only speak anonymously?” Asahina was dismissive: “There is no need to listen to someone like that. If they have something to say, they can say it using their real names!”

President Asahina is rumored to have been a member of Tokyo University Agriculture Department’s Zenkyoto [leftist student movement] in the late 1960s. Many former student activists like him have found their way into the mass media, and they now dot the ranks of editorial boards and senior management in the industry. They typically believe they are on the cutting edge of the era and do not accept anything they do not understand. That is why they do not even try to understand the true nature of new media such as the Internet, nor do they try and accommodate it.

“Those people” — an insulting label

But this view is hardly unique to Asahina and other members of the Zenkyoto generation. It is also a trait that can be attributed to the “Ascendancy” faction at Mainichi. Their ranks include young reporters in their 30s, but inside Mainichi they make strong arguments such as “It’s a bunch of Internet crickets attacking Mainichi” or “The only way to shut those people up is to ignore them.” They have impacted Mainichi’s response following this scandal.

But by labeling [Internet users] as “those people,” the Ascendancy faction is leading internal debate in a peculiar direction. Insulting them as “those people” is an attempt to give the impression that “Those protests were done by only a small minority of people” or “They’re a distasteful minority.” In fact, one source told me that when the Net Reconciliationists argued, “There has been far too little information disclosure in this scandal regarding the series of events and the post-scandal response. We should be putting more information out there,” the Ascendancy faction scoffed, saying, “Absolutely not. It would be adding fuel to the 2-Channel fire.” The upper management ended up listening to this “guidance” due to the extremely high chances that any new information would be posted in 2-Channel threads. As a result, a tight lid was kept on information. For a time, the term “adding fuel to the fire” became a popular catch-phrase inside Mainichi.

This is what led to the awful response to people at PJ News and elsewhere. But as I am sure many of you would agree, the views of the Ascendancy faction are obviously wrong.

Sorry for the long post. But there is still much left to write — including the advice and requests made to me by a Mainichi senior manager. That will have to wait until the next entry.

A one-time journalist for the Mainichi Shimbun, Sasaki Toshinao (b. 1961) is one of Japan's most articulate and widely-read commentators on the country's net culture and its relation to the emergence of the so-called "Lost Generation" of people in their twenties and thirties who joined the work force just after the bubble economy burst in the early nineties. His work includes his CNET blog Journalist's Perspective, a regular column for Cyzo magazine, and books such as The Flat Revolution 『フラット革命』 (2007) and The Birth of Blog Discourse 『ブログ論壇の誕生』 (2008).

Adam Richards lives in Tokyo and is a founding member of the blog Mutantfrog Travelogue.

23 Responses

  1. Paul Says:

    Thank you very much for doing this. Looking forward to part two.

  2. Paul Says:

    Would you add links the original Japanese posts?

  3. Chris Says:

    Hi Paul,

    They’ll be up there soon, but for now here they are:

    http://japan.cnet.com/blog/sasaki/2008/08/05/entry_27012752/
    http://japan.cnet.com/blog/sasaki/2008/08/11/entry_27012908/

    Chris

  4. Adamu Says:

    ack, parallel lives

  5. Mutantfrog Travelogue » Blog Archive » Behind the WaiWai scandal at Neojaponisme Says:

    [...] Online’s Chris Salzberg, my translation of an article by tech journalist Toshinao Sasaki is up at Neojaponisme. As a preview, here are the key introductory paragraphs: No doubt WaiWai is something of a [...]

  6. 塩山・shioyama » Blog Archive » Waiwai from the inside out Says:

    [...] are a couple paragraphs from the first part of the translation by Adam (original in Japanese here and here), posted today: No doubt WaiWai is something of a [...]

  7. How internet anger brought Mainichi to its knees | Japan Probe Says:

    [...] Read more: What’s going on inside the Mainichi Shimbun? (Part 1 of 2) by Toshinao Sasaki [...]

  8. tokyoterri Says:

    Sasaki-san and Adam, many thanks to you both: looking forward to the next installment…

  9. Adamu Says:

    Cant you all comment without seeing the end of this thing? I am offended!

  10. M-Bone Says:

    I’ll bite. First – great job on the translation. Second – I think that Sasaki has hit Mainichi’s problem right on the head – it is the identity-less “other” progressive paper. When something big breaks, I think – what are the Asahi and Yomiuri saying? Next – what are the crackpots at Sankei on about? If it is an economic issue I’ll read the Nikkei. For the rare sports thing, Sponichi. After all of this, I’ll usually think – now what’s the name of that other paper again?

    It is a shame, really becasue the Mainichi has had some good ideas in its pages lately. Its August 15th issue put forward a fine vision for the future – Japan as a “middle power” like Canada (?) or Germany.

  11. Mulboyne Says:

    At a tangent, here is Nick Carr declaring the blogosphere dead in the US:

    “While there continue to be many blogs, including a lot of very good ones, it seems to me that one would be hard pressed to make the case that there’s still a “blogosphere.” That vast, free-wheeling, and surprisingly intimate forum where individual writers shared their observations, thoughts, and arguments outside the bounds of the traditional media is gone. Almost all of the popular blogs today are commercial ventures with teams of writers, aggressive ad-sales operations, bloated sites, and strategies of self-linking. Some are good, some are boring, but to argue that they’re part of a “blogosphere” that is distinguishable from the “mainstream media” seems more and more like an act of nostalgia, if not self-delusion.”

    http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2008/11/who_killed_the.php

  12. M-Bone Says:

    “Some are good, some are boring, but to argue that they’re part of a “blogosphere” that is distinguishable from the “mainstream media” seems more and more like an act of nostalgia, if not self-delusion.””

    Something similar was discussed on Mutantfrog a few weeks back with me basically arguing the above and Adamu and Roy putting up a robust defense of the future potential of blogs and free media.

    I think that there is a clearly an “English-Speaking World Japan Blogsphere” that represents both an intimate community and an alternative to mainstream press representations of Japan. Not always so easy to draw distinctions, however – Patrick Macias, for example, does mostly vignettes on his blog and most of his deeper stuff for pay (which I am 100% in favor of).

  13. Joe Jones Says:

    Yeah, I think a more accurate way to see the situation is that certain blogs have “graduated” from the blogosphere to become another type of mainstream commercial media. But there are certainly many blogs still in the blogosphere paradigm, Mutantfrog being a good example.

    I wonder if there are any consultants who are getting paid to monitor 2ch for corporate or even government clients? It would at least be a good early warning system in many instances.

  14. M-Bone Says:

    “But there are certainly many blogs still in the blogosphere paradigm, Mutantfrog being a good example.”

    But that brings us back to another frequent topic of discussion on Mutantfrog – the fact that the mainstream media (in English) has pretty much “given up on” Japan. A rich “blogsphere” may be surviving in areas like this one, but what about mainstream / semi-mainstream US topics? The idea was that the blogsphere would free people to express new, original, or highly personal ideas but now, we see more and more angling for ad dollars and bloggers seeking to “fit” into a certain position (left, right, contrarian) in the hopes that they will get published, bought out, or hired. I don’t see this as being a factor on Mutantfrog or Neojaponisme but I get that vibe from many US blogs. There have been some bad stories as well – after the big US game site Gamespot went corporate, one of its editors was canned for refusing to give a glowing review to a terrible game whose publishers had bought front-page ad space.

    In essence, the US blogsphere may be going down the same road as academia – what looked like strong protection of academic freedom and the fostering of an enviornment where people could publish what they thought was best (freed of the need to profit) gave way to “branding” (you need to fit in in order to get published because you never know who is going to review your work) which has dulled originality. The for profit publishing empires of certain “rockstar” academics also see some great minds shelving the “next big idea” in favor of the rehash that will buy them a country house.

    The cruel truth is that the market has long tendrils.

  15. Adamu Says:

    OK, I can see people aren’t that interested in talking about WaiWai anymore.

    So about that blogosphere — It only stands to reason that bloggers who provide the best content and are adept at marketing themselves will attract readers and find success in monetizing their content. That isn’t the end of the blogosphere at all — the prospect of making money or gaining prestige blogging has been part of the equation since the first success story. It’s not as if blogger.com suddenly started charging enormous fees to start a blog.

    In the end, what’s the difference between MutantFrog and a private mailing list? It’s open to the public for anyone to see, and therefore can spread if enough people like what they are reading. The bloggers that don’t have what it takes to make it big will be left behind with smaller audiences and influence, and I don’t see anything wrong with that necessarily. Of course, it is kind of annoying that the biggest blogs seem to publish a whole lot of “the top ten reasons why sex is awesome” lists, but still…

    What I wonder is when J-CAST will score a scoop big enough that the major news outlets will have to take notice.

  16. Ralph Bender Says:

    “It only stands to reason that bloggers who provide the best content and are adept at marketing themselves will attract readers and find success in monetizing their content”

    Couldn’t agree more. Exactly the same cause-and-effect phenomenon taking place here as, for example, the fact that it stands to reason that standing out in the rain without an umbrella will get wet and cold.

    great analysis, keep it coming !

  17. Adamu Says:

    Eh, what do you want from me.

    We have M-Bone here bemoaning the idea of branding when it is really inseparable from content itself. There is no abstract space where people will just write what they think is best with no sense of audience or purpose. Far from dulling originality, broader audiences and competition on a larger scale can push people to do even more and have a greater impact.

    As to the idea of fitting into a position, if people’s group identity starts to dominate their ideas that can be a bit unfortunate, but people have to be responsible for what they say.

    This is like wondering why bands often change their sounds when they get popular. Even if a band maintains its originality, the mere fact of the bigger audience and influence changes the whole game. Expectations are higher and the consequences greater. The same goes for writing.

  18. Joe Jones Says:

    “It only stands to reason that bloggers who provide the best content and are adept at marketing themselves will attract readers and find success in monetizing their content”

    Ken Worsley and Tobias Harris are already popping up in the MSM from time to time, so this is really not so much a prediction as a statement of fact.

    Of course, Tobias is more or less a full-time talking head and Ken is self-employed, so they have it a bit easier than salaryman schleps like Adam and me, who are going to be hobbyists for as long as we suck on the teat of lifetime employment.

  19. Bernard Fuck Says:

    having perused Ken Worsely’s blog I have to say it looks like he should stick to web design as it is a case of lots of impressive use of web design but pretty weak content.
    There’s never much of great insight there,
    and you end up realizing you got a better deal from “Japan Considered”.

  20. W. David MARX Says:

    Is that your real name, Bernard???

  21. M-Bone Says:

    “it is really inseparable from content itself.”

    I actually agree with this in principle. But the early 2000s “myth” of the blogsphere was that it was going to transform the way that information circulated and the way that people conceived of content. To make an extreme point – maybe it only changed the way that people audition for mainstream writing gigs. On the (related) issue of bands – don’t most suck more the bigger they get? I hate to see this happening to independent voices and I’d love to be wrong about all of this.

    Japan blogs are different, but there is no way that they can compete in English (in terms of ad dollars or potential to be bought up) with various shades of US political punditry or video game news or the like.

  22. hlem Says:

    “maybe it only changed the way that people audition for mainstream writing gigs”

    I think this is largely true in terms of blogs that essentially duplicate the functions of old-school journalism (political punditry is a good example- yesteryear’s political blogs have largely transformed into on-line magazines)though blogs (like this one) which serve a more specialized function and lack mainstream antecedents will hopefully continue to thrive as blogs.

  23. Websites tagged "discourse" on Postsaver Says:

    [...] – Kosambi and the discourse of civilization saved by kohanababe2009-02-02 – Comment on The Birth of Blog Discourse, Pt. 1 by M-Bone saved by glacco2009-01-27 – Fist bump with a drunk homophobe saved by piazzeus2009-01-27 – Love [...]