Hint: They're Using iPhone Apps

The newspaper industry is in a downward death spiral, having been severely impacted by new technologies, the ubiquity of internet access, and a rise in citizen journalism. Here in the U.S., some papers are filing for bankruptcy, others are close to doing the same, and there's even a proposal to give the newspaper industry a bailout plan of its own. Elsewhere in the world, it's more of the same. In Japan though, the country's high population of elderly citizens is keeping the papers afloat...for now, at least. But like everywhere else, they will soon have to face the future: young people don't do newsprint.

As noted by the Washington Post in October of 2008, Japan's newspaper industry is still "surprisingly spry." The country's five big national dailies have kept nearly all their readers, only slipping 3.2 percent in circulation during the last decade. Compare that with the drop of over 15 percent in the United States, for example. Still, the industry in Japan is just as worried as everyone else because they can see the future ahead of them.

"I am in a dying industry," said Kenichi Miyata, a senior editor and writer at the Asahi newspaper, a daily with a circulation of 8 million. "Young people do not read newspapers, and our population is getting very old very rapidly."

Japanese Papers Collaborate on Mobile App

In many parts of the world, individual newspaper companies are trying different things to revitalize their industry. For example, we've seen a lot of innovation from the New York Times lately, as they embrace open data and APIs. (Disclosure: The NYTimes is a syndication partner of ReadWriteWeb.) 

However, there's still a feeling of "it's everyone for themselves" when it comes to developing new business models. In Japan, however, three of the major newspapers have decided instead to band together. The papers are all members of the Nikkei-Asahi-Yomiuri Internet Business Partnership, a group formed nearly a year ago to launch a web site that featured all their articles together in one place.

Now, those papers have once again collaborated on a new effort to bring their content to the tech-obsessed youth. Last week, the three collectively introduced an iPhone/iPod Touch application which delivers the cover stories, city news items, editorials, and pictures to the owners of Apple's smartphone.

The application is unique as it lets consumers browse and compare the coverage of news stories by the different papers all within one single interface.

Some Problems

The application is not without its faults, though. Although it sits at the top of the free apps section in the Japanese App Store, it's not very highly rated. This is because the app doesn't provide the full text of the papers, only abstracts. In order to read the complete article, users must click a link to go to the paper's main web site. That extra effort probably frustrates users, leading to its low rating of only 2 stars. In comparison, another news organization, Sankei Shimbun, has an app which does provide the full text. In time, through download counts and popularity ratings, it should become apparent how important full text is to a newspaper app's success.

At the moment, the new collective iPhone/iPod application isn't monetized, but the companies involved hope it will motivate customers to actually read the physical newspapers. We doubt that will happen, but it will certainly be interesting to follow the success or failure of this newspaper triad. Will there be safely in numbers? We don't know yet, but it's a possibility worth looking into.