The Google News Initiative is designed to help news organizations adapt to our changing digital landscape. We sat down with Hiromi Ohnishi, executive director of digital business and international affairs for Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, to hear her perspective on the challenges of the modern news era and his strategies for growth.
Twenty years ago, before publishers started pushing content online, paper services did well. But over time, newspapers started losing advertisements — and subscriptions — and people simply aren’t as interested in print anymore.
The good thing is that technology has given us a number of ways to improve how we work. Unlike TV networks, which can check their ratings regularly, newspapers never had that privilege. We could only see circulation as a whole. Even if you wrote a really great article, there was no way to know how many users read it. But with digital, the metrics were much clearer. We now share the analyzed data with the newsroom so they know which pieces performed well and which ones didn’t.
Going digital also helped localities break through geographic barriers. A locally written article in small-town Japan suddenly got a much broader recognition from audiences we’d never thought about before, like in the U.K. We were no longer bound by the limitations of print distribution.
In the early 2000s, as subscriptions dwindled, it was important to drive more business through advertisements. We needed to create more inventory to make money. And at the same time, we needed more readers from new channels. To tap into new revenue streams, we started working with TV stations and syndicating to channels such as Yahoo, which provided us with further insights. We learned, for example, that politics continues to sit at the top of the echelon while lifestyle gets more pageviews.
About six years ago, we shifted from an ad revenue model to a subscription model. Since then, we’ve been doing organizational transformations every year. Originally we had a small news team, then we created a digital team that sat within the editorial team. Everyone knew that digital was important, but no one looked into their metrics, which resulted in a lack of planning. While innovation was important, we weren’t doing it methodically enough. We then moved the digital editorial team to sit with the digital business. They learned the ins and outs of the business side while keeping the wheels of the digital editorial side running. Two years ago, we sent them back to the editorial department, and now they are communicating with the other editorial teams and working together.
The traditional paper was traditionally the “department store of jobs.” They belonged to one company, but each section worked separately, as if they belonged to a different company. The news organization of the future will be an integrated newsroom where journalists will work with engineering and ad planners with writers. Personal skill sets will be more diversified, with reporters who can program data visualization and engineers who can plan new services. Only then, will we be able to create content or services that fulfill the needs of the modern reader in the format they want, when they want it.
What words of wisdom do you have for your younger self who’s just starting out in this career?
When I started in this industry, I liked the idea of writing with a pen — as a journalist, I had a story to tell. In the 20th century, pictures were used to tell stories. Today, there are many mediums by which to tell a story, but don’t feel forced to use that new technology.