How Do You Say `Scooped Again' In Japanese?

In the press club at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, a corporate PR man was stuffing news of his company's financial results into club members' mailboxes. Jonathan Standing, a reporter for Bloomberg Financial Markets, a New York-based electronic news service, asked if he could have a copy. Instead, he got a loud reprimand from an exchange official for not waiting his turn and found himself suddenly surrounded by 15 or 20 angry Japanese reporters. "It was like a bench-clearing at a baseball game," he recalls.

Michael Bloomberg, the news service's founder, would have been proud. He is pushing his Tokyo staff to keep stirring trouble in their fight against Japan's cartel-like "kisha clubs." Anything but social, these clubs control press access at major public and private institutions and generally exclude foreign members. Those practices are a threat to Bloomberg's bottom line.

In the hypercompetitive financial wire business, every second counts. Bloomberg's company, with 22,000 terminals around the world, competes against the likes of Reuters Ltd., with 202,000. In that light, Japan Inc.'s obstacles to news gathering by foreigners are a barrier to trade in services--a key issue in negotiations from the Uruguay Round to North American free-trade talks. If the problem is not eased soon, it could turn upin U.S.-Japanese trade discussions aswell.

Beefed-up foreign wires are now competing against Japanese services such as Quick Corp., 40%-owned by financial daily Nihon Kezai Shimbun. Bloomberg sees himself at "a disadvantage" to Quick. "We and other non-Japanese news organizations are not asking for any more access than Japanese have in our country," he says. To jawbone the ministries and press clubs to open up, his company has enlisted help from Kevin Honan, chief of the U.S. embassy's trade unit in Tokyo.

There are some signs of opening. The kisha club at the Foreign Affairs Ministry voted on Nov. 16 to admit the Associated Press and Britain's Reuters as members. The Finance Ministry is opening many of its off-the-record briefings to foreign wires. But at the Bank of Japan, although foreign reporters are barred from few press events, club members still have the advantage of badges that allow them to prowl the bank to talk with officials.

Nor is Japanese access in the U.S. flawless. The U.S. Treasury recently turned down requests from Jiji Press and Kyodo News Service for desks in its cramped press room. At many U.S. agencies, some briefings with senior officials are limited to a handful of major media. Hiroshi Ogino of Tokyo daily Asahi Shimbun says while he was in New York, he had endless problems getting major companies to fax him press releases.

CATCH-22. In Japan, a catch-22 still prevents any rapid removal of barriers. Most of the press clubs insist that members must first join the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Assn. (NPEA)--which currently bars foreign media. The Foreign Ministry kisha club, to admit AP and Reuters, had to abolish this requirement. Now major foreign wires, including AP-Dow Jones, Knight-Ridder Financial News, and Reuters are talking with the NPEA while continuing efforts to join key clubs.

At the Tokyo Stock Exchange, meanwhile, the kisha club has threatened to revoke Bloomberg's "observer" status for breaking ranks. For now, Bloomberg reporters are waiting for releases togo into the boxes of members first. Bloomberg's Tokyo bureau chief, David Butts, says Asahi's Ogino, who now holds the rotating presidency of the exchange's press club, explained that the group has a responsibility to ensure fair disclosure. Butts's translation of the message: "We have a cartel that controls information, and we don't want any fissures to appear in the system." U.S. trade negotiators may see that as restraint of trade.

       -- Foreign wire services face delays in getting corporate earnings at the 
      Tokyo Stock Exchange
       -- No foreign press allowed in the Newspaper Publishers & Editors Assn., a 
      requirement for membership at most Japanese press clubs
       -- AP and Reuters are the only foreign members of the Foreign Ministry Press 
      Club, the only press group to admit any foreigners
       -- The foreign press is barred from many background briefings at key Japanese 
      DATA: BW