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


GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

(Note: This column can be shared with others using the following link: http://tinyurl.com/julyr74)

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.

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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 http://tinyurl.com/j459sft 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 rep