Nikkei Nation: An experiment in web-based news for Japanese Americans

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I have to hand it to George Johnston, a Japanese American journalist and entrepreneur who is a veteran of news media.

After he got laid off from the Hollywood Reporter, where he’d been web editor, he launched Nikkei Nation, a site that features news about Japan and Japanese Americans, in categories from Arts & Entertainment, Sports, Events and Science & Technology to Japan & Asia, Community, Obits and Obon Schedules. He has a partner Susan Yokoyama handling the business and marketing side as Associate Publisher, but this is a one-man band, editorially speaking.

Johnston serves up the news several ways: Original reporting (he’s a fine straight-ahead reporter as well as a seasoned columnist), repurposing of press releases and aggregated links to many other sites with headlines and brief descriptions, such as these for yesterday:

Obama, Kan to meet on Thursday (Sun., May 22, 2011)
U.S. President Barack Obama will hold talks with Prime Minister Naoto Kan on May 26, the first of a two-day Group of Eight summit meeting in the French resort town of Deauville, the White House says. (Japan Times)

Hawaii’s Rep. Mazie Hirono announces U.S. Senate bid (Sun., May 22, 2011)
HONOLULU — The democratic field to replace retiring Sen. Dan Akaka doubles as Rep. Mazie Hirono announces her candidacy for the U.S. Senate. (KHON2.com)

Budokan lease approved, fundraising is next for Little Tokyo sports complex (Sun., May 22, 2011)
The Budokan of Los Angeles gets final approval to move forward after the Los Angeles City Council voted to grant a long-term ground lease to build the $22 million sports and activity center in Little Tokyo. (Downtown News)

Obama’s appeals court pick Gordon Liu blocked (Sun., May 22, 2011)
WASHINGTON — President Obama lost his first vote on a judicial nominee, as Senate Republicans derailed the nomination of a liberal professor who leveled acerbic attacks against two conservative Supreme Court nominees — both now justices. (Boston.com)

I included George during my panel last month, “From Newsprint to New Media: The Evolving Role of Nikkei Newspapers,” because he’s diving headfirst into an online-only business model. This month he took the bold step of announcing the free email subscriptions many of us have been receiving for months with daily roundups of all his news headlines will end, and if we want his news, we’ll have to pay for it.

It’s not that costly — $29.99 a year, which Johnston snarkily points out is much less expensive than the Rafu Shimpo, the best-read o all Nikkei newspapers, and one that still puts out a print edition, much of it in Japanese: “Compare that to $149 for an annual subscription to Rafu Shimpo, which is 3/4 in Japanese (useless if you can’t read hiragana, katakana or kanji!), arrives late via the USPS, kills trees and has in recent years dwindled from publishing Monday-Saturday to only Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.”

Ouch. Take that, old-world publishers!

What’s odd — and maybe only possible in the wacky world of the Japanese American community, which is small and hopelessly inbred — is that Johnston has been for years, and still remains, a columnist for the Rafu Shimpo.

Anyway, at a time when major newspapers are putting up “paywalls” on their websites to force readers to pay for access to the news, but with much trepidation and teeth-gnashing because it’ll hurt their online traffic figures, Johnston’s doubling down on the future need to charge people for content online. Who cares if the New York Times has been free for almost 20 years on the Web? In 20 years, free news will seem like some distant sweet memory, like some sort of media paradise lost.

That’s what Johnston hopes, anyway. I’m not so sure that forcing people to pay for news that most people can still find fairly easily for free elsewhere will work out. But I’m impressed by Johnston’s resolve, and I wish him well.

Click to the Nikkei Nation subscription page and support his efforts if you think he’s doing a good job giving you news you can use.

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