By Daisuke Wakabayashi
Nihon Keizai Shimbun Inc., publisher of Japan's Nikkei business daily, said it will become the first of the country's four major national newspapers to offer an online subscription version, opening the door for other Japanese dailies to follow suit in one of the world's biggest newspaper markets.
While U.S. newspapers have struggled for years with declining readership as more people turn to free news available online, Japan's major national dailies have fared somewhat better because of their huge circulation base.
The Nikkei, which has a circulation of 3.1 million copies, said it will start offering an online subscription for 4,000 yen, or $44, a month starting March 23. For current subscribers paying 4,383 yen a month for the morning and evening editions, there will be an additional 1,000-yen charge.
"We don't expect this process to be easy, but if we want to succeed in five years or 10 years, we have to get started now," said Tsuneo Kita , Nikkei's president. "We can't reasonably expect the print editions to grow in the future."
Mr. Kita said it will make its new registration system and other parts of its Web platform openly available for other Japanese newspapers should they want to move to a subscription model. He said rival newspapers won't have to experience the "hardships" it went through in developing the systems to support the new subscription site.
All the major Japanese newspapers have Web sites but do not charge for them.
As part of a joint venture with SBI Holdings (TKS:JP:8473) Inc., The Wall Street Journal operates a Japanese-language Web site offering business news for a monthly subscription of 1,980 yen.
Helped by the country's high literacy rate, aggressive door-to-door salesmen and an efficient home delivery system, the Japanese newspaper market is massive. Japanese newspapers still sell 50.3 million copies daily, or about one per household, according to the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association.
The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, sells more than 10 million copies a day, more than the combined circulations of U.S. papers USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and London papers The Sun and The Daily Mail. Japan's top four—Yomiuri, Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun and the Nikkei—are also the world's biggest dailies.
Even so, circulation is down 6% over the past decade as more young people turn to mobile phones and the Internet for free news. Those figures are expected to continue to decline as the population shrinks amid a low birthrate and an aging society.
Write to Daisuke Wakabayashi at Daisuke.Wakabayashi@wsj.com