Annals of cheap: Only Free Paper

February 19th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Free magazines and newspapers, which in Japan are lumped under the general English term “free paper,” are the cheapest form of entertainment you can find in Japan. And while the digitalization of everything under the sun has caused huge problems for the publishing industry and related fields, free papers appear to be thriving. According to a survey conducted by the Japan Free Newspapers Association (JAFNA), in 2009 at least 337 million copies of free papers were printed that year by profit-making organizations, which means the survey didn’t take into consideration the thousands of free publications printed by non-profit concerns such as universities. About 61 percent of the publications included in the survey were newspapers and 38 percent were magazines. In terms or frequency, 43 percent were monthlies and 19 percent weeklies. Biweeklies and “seasonals” accounted for 11 percent each.

No cover charge

JAFNA doesn’t give figures on content, which is what most people care about, but it did study the “purpose” of the free publications and found that 64 percent were distributed as “customer countermeasures,” which means premiums for people who bought other things from a company, including itmes such newspaper inserts or special free editions from publishers who otherwise charge for their product. Another 39 percent were created to “increase revenues” (zoshu taisaku) of companies’ main businesses, meaning presumably as promotional tools.

Thirty percent were strictly delivery devices for advertising. Sixty-six percent of free papers were funded by resources other than advertising, such as charging other advertisers to insert flyers in their publications or simply through direct sponsorship by parent companies. Of those that sold advertising, about 40 percent reported yearly revenues of less than ¥30 million each and 26 percent revenues of more than ¥100 million each. However, probably the most significant figures were those for distribution methods, since the whole idea of free papers is to get them in the hands of as many people as possible. About 42 percent were made available in places of business (restaurants, book stores, etc.), while 37 percent were distributed as either direct mail or other forms of delivery; 24 percent were placed in “public areas”; and a full 16 percent were put in railway stations. About three-fourths have web tie-ins.

The free paper now has its own shrine, so to speak. In a tiny storefront off Meiji-dori in Shibuya, Tokyo, is Only Free Paper, a space that offers a wide variety of free newspapers and magazines, from purely promotional organs like the Blue Note clubs free paper to newsletters pushing environmental concerns and privately published zines on art and music. Since it opened in December, Only Free Paper has been covered extensively by the Japanese media mainly because of its novelty appeal.

Of course, all the publications are free but the proprietors ask visitors not to take more than two copies of any one publication. According to an article in the Mainichi Shimbun, which stated that there are “1,000 publications on display,” the creator of the space is a huge fan of “paper-based media” who believes that the reading experience loses something in digital form. For years he’s been collecting free newspapers and magazines, mainly in the realms of art and fashion, and had accummulated such a huge store that he decided to put them on display and offer space to anyone else publishing free periodicals.

He’s particularly interested in free papers from “individuals,” meaning publishers who have no larger company affiliation. Most of the publications do seem to have some kind of commercial purpose — advertising or promotion, mainly — but there are plenty of periodicals put together just for their own sake. Maininichi says that Only Free Paper receives about 100 visitors a day during the week and 300 a day on the weekend. It should be noted that the majority of publications are Japanese, but there are about a dozen or so in English as well.

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