The Problems with Otaku Journalism
As the years fly by, fandom morphs and changes while journalists slowly lose their pulse on fandom.
It's hard for me to believe, but it's been five years to the day since I wrote my first article for Animefringe, a review for Vampire Hunter D (2000). I first discovered Animefringe when I was hired by TOKYOPOP and was looking for information on the company's history. Adam's lengthy feature on the rise of Mixx and the birth of TOKYOPOP (Vol. 1, issue 6) is still, to my mind, the best feature in this online magazine's six-year history. That was an article built on extensive research and actual interviews, born out of a desire to get to the truth behind a controversy. In other words, it was real journalism.
A lot has changed since I first became involved with online otaku fandom in 2000. "Shrine" sites are out, LiveJournals are in. Webrings are out, fanlistings are in. (WHY?!?) Message boards are out, RSS feeds are in. Midi theme songs are out, podcasts are in. Newsgroups are out, forums are in. Fansub disto sites are out, bittorrent is in. You get the picture. And now, as Animefringe closes shop, the latest casualty for otaku fandom is the webzine.
Actually, the monthly webzine format has been dead for a while now. As a business model, a site that users visit once or twice a month just can't compete with a site that updates daily, or at least weekly. By the time a monthly site covers something, chances are that it's old news by web standards.
However, the Animefringe team was never concerned with business models or bragging rights. Quality and reliability have always been the site's top priorities. Feature articles went beyond summaries and hype. Adam and the rest of the staff tried to speak with someone on the creative side whenever possible, as well as translating Japanese content not available anywhere else in English as part of the research. Again, real journalism.
What passes for otaku journalism these days is mostly a combination of press releases and links, expanded upon by user comments. As a result, stories tend to be broken in other, more "legitimate" news outlets, in forums or via corporate PR. To be sure, the facts are still getting out there, more quickly and in greater quantity than ever before. What's missing, however, is an editorial hand. The news outlets (print and online) seem to be guided by the philosophy of "all the news that we can find" instead of "all the news that's fit to print."
Press releases are not news -- they are corporate propaganda. More often than not, they're harmless; just a list of upcoming releases with some gushing praise from the staff. Sometimes press releases try to make small things sound big, such as when EigoManga inflated their partnership with VIZ Media. Sometimes press releases hide bigger stories than what the headline suggest, such as the VIZ Media/TOKYOPOP Germany press release from last month. More often than not, the otaku press will merely summarize a press release as news, and link to the press release. I almost never see follow ups on press releases, aside from discussion in forums, and that's a shame. I don't mean just editorializing or speculating on PR -- I mean going to the relevant sources and digging beyond the spin.
The only real scoops are happening in forums where industrious fans have discovered ways to uncover upcoming releases. The AnimeonDVD forums have become the premier industry watchdogs, finding DVD glitches and manga fubars before anyone else. Companies with hands-on reps use the forum environment to solve problems in real time. This is great, and itís a level of communication with producers and consumers that's almost unheard of in other industries, but it is still not journalism.
Why do we need better news? After all, we're talking comic books and DVDs here, not global arms proliferation.
First of all, the press keeps companies accountable. In this industry, we rely on American companies to bring us content from abroad. I don't believe any publisher is out to deliberately deceive fans, but corporate objectives and fan desires don't always intersect. A professional and articulate press can carry great weight with publishers. A journalist who acts unprofessionally, however, is likely to be dismissed as part of the "lunatic fringe" in this industry. To any journalists or would be journalists reading this editorial, if you are serious about reporting on the industry, a phone call or in-person interview carries more weight than e-mail, and you'll get more honest responses. Much fuss was made over CMX's handling of Tenjo Tenge, and rightly so, however, the company has never properly acknowledged the seriousness of this kind of editing. Many people have worked hard to bring the problem to light, but I do think the press dropped the ball on holding CMX accountable.
The press can offer us our best peek into what's going on in Japan and why we should care. Blogs and news feeds have made it easier to get news snippets and sales charts from Japan, but more often than not, these are out of context or are limited to commentary in forums. Communication with Japanese creators and publishers isn't easy (even working for a major publisher, getting any information from the creators whose work you're selling can be like pulling teeth!), but in the long run, I think it's vital that the otaku press start acting internationally.
Finally, the press can give fandom relevance. Ultimately, we're just a community brought together by our common love of Japanese pop culture. Some of us try to make our careers in this industry as creators, retailers or localizers. Others write serious criticism on something that they care deeply about. We don't all have to agree on what's good or what we should read or watch, but we should respect each other and recognize that we're all in this together. Coverage of anime conventions should focus as much or more on cosplay, music videos, OEL manga and retro gaming as they do on anime/manga licensing, because those are the things that people do there. DVD sales are stagnant, manga shelves are becoming oversaturated, but conventions are booming. Why isn't that vitality being tapped in otaku news?
I do think that the otaku press has much room for improvement as a whole, but I do not mean to belittle the great work being done online and in print to cover this industry. I would like to emphasize my appreciation for those who volunteer their time and who often make great financial sacrifices in order to cover otaku fandom. There are many great projects going on right now that emphasize the importance of an objective press. Anime News Network's Encyclopedia has become the best resource for series and staffs anywhere, and it continues to improve. The forums on AnimeonDVD have become the number one source for breaking news, as well as one of the best review sites around for anime and manga alike. Love Manga, the UK based manga blog, has done a great job of gathering news and views on manga from a Western perspective. There are many other sites that I visit on a daily or weekly basis that offer other invaluable content, and I'm grateful for them all.
I imagine a future where an objective press provides up-to-date info about every series currently running in Japan, which network or magazine that it runs in, and a listing of its creators. Instead of just stand-alone reviews for dozens of anime and manga, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to build a cross-referenced database that could recommend new series to fans based on their preferences. Next time a publisher bowdlerizes an anime or manga release, I hope that that the otaku press will get the same respect from publishers that Publisher's Weekly would. When a series debuts in Japan, it's not that far-fetched to imagine a Western reporter attending press junkets and scheduling interviews alongside Japanese journalists.
As of this month, Animefringe may be gone (not completely -- the archives will still be accessible!), but I hope it isn't forgotten. This site, and its predecessor, EX.org, set the gold standard for what otaku journalism can be. Going beyond press releases, e-mail "interviews" and opinion pieces isn't easy, but it's absolutely worth it. Fandom has a powerful voice. Don't limit it to forums and feedback.
Oyasaminasai mo ganbatte.