Are digital newspaper subscriptions worth it?

November 25th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

We subscribe to three daily newspapers, one English and two vernaculars: The Japan Times, the Asahi Shimbun and Tokyo Shimbun. JT and TS are delivered to our front door each morning, and like everyone, including non-subscribers, we can access JT’s website, with content going back to about 2000, for free. Our Asahi subscription is digital only. Until last July we subscribed to the paper edition. So altogether we spend ¥10,830 a month for news: ¥4,480 for JT, ¥3,800 for Asahi and ¥2,550 for TS (morning edition only; with the evening edition added it would be ¥2,800).

Stuff you don't get with a digital subscription to Asahi Shimbun

Ideally, we would prefer receiving all our news digitally. Though at the moment physical newspapers are easier to read and browse on a day-to-day basis, they are more difficult to file and reference, especially for work purposes. Most digital newspapers have a function similar to Google Alerts, and with Asahi you can register up to five key words or phrases; every day articles that contain these phrases are compiled separately. We also like Asahi’s scrapbook function. You can save articles you want to return to later in a separate folder, and as far as we can tell the number is unlimited. Nihon Keizai Shimbun also has a scrapbook function, but you can only save up to 100 articles.

The search function is less helpful, especially if you’re trying to retrieve something from a past issue. Digital subscribers can search up to a year in the past for articles published in the newspaper and up to six months in the past for articles in the digital edition, but from our experience it helps to remember the headline, since using key words and phrases doesn’t always work. Also, some features available in print aren’t always available in digital form. Once we tried to access an article in the special “Be” section, which deals with financial and consumer issues and is published on Saturdays. When we called the newspaper they told us we couldn’t access the section digitally until Sunday, and even then it was only portions.

And if you want to access archives that are older than a year you have to pay extra: ¥3,150 for private users, and that allows you to go back to 1984. However, it only lets you read the headlines. If you want to read the attached article, you have to pay an extra ¥84, which allows you to download it for seven days. Nihon Keizai Shimbun allows digital subscribers to access 25 articles a month up to five years old for free, and then you pay ¥175 for each article after the 25th. Institutional subscribers, such as libraries, can get access to Asahi’s full archives back to 1879 for ¥26,000 a month.

In the United States, in most cases if you subscribe to a physical publication you can access the digital edition for free. We subscribe to both The New Yorker and Harper’s and can access their full archives at no extra charge. The New York Times also allows newspaper subscribers the same unlimited access to its website that digital subscribers enjoy.

Not so in Japan. If you take daily delivery of the Asahi Shimbun, it costs ¥3,925 a month. If you want the digital edition, it’s ¥1,000 extra. But if you want the digital edition alone, it’s ¥3,800 a month, a savings of only ¥125. Nikkei’s system is similar. A subscription to the newspaper is ¥4,383 a month and an added digital subscription ¥1,000. The digital subscription alone is ¥4,000.

The real difference is in charges for delivery. To have the New York Times delivered directly to your home you pay $5.85 a week if you live in the New York Metro area and $7.40 a week if you live elsewhere. That works out to the equivalent of about ¥1,800 a month for Metro deliveries and ¥2,300 for national deliveries. And that price gives you free unlimited access to NYT’s website. Basically, they encourage you to subscribe to the digital edition through price incentives.

Japanese newspapers, by making the digital edition the same price as the physical edition, don’t. In fact, several weeks ago Asahi sent an email to digital subscribers reminding them that if they wanted the physical paper also they didn’t have to pay full price for both. Apparently, some subscribers had taken out the digital edition for ¥3,800 and the newspaper edition for ¥3,925. The reason for the mixup is that the digital subscription is processed through Asahi’s website, while newspaper subscriptions are processed by local delivery agents, and it seems there’s no coordination between the two. If you receive the newspaper at home and also want the digital edition, you have to get a subscription order number from the distributor and then submit it with your credit card information to Asahi so that it knows you get the newspaper. Then Asahi charges you only ¥1,000 more for the digital edition.

Of course, it would be easier to apply for the digital edition through the distributor, as well. It would also be easier to have one place to make your monthly payments, rather then paying ¥1,000 to Asahi and ¥3,925 to the agent. But you have to remember: If digital becomes the norm, more agents might go out of business, so they want nothing to do with it.

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One Response

  1. LOL, yet another area where Japan is fighting progress to maintain the overpriced, inefficient, status quo.

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