Interview with Martyn Williams

by Claire E. White

Picture of
Martyn Williams Although only 27 years of age, Martyn Williams is the Japan Bureau Chief for Newsbytes News Network, the largest and most comprehensive electronic news service covering the computer, interactive services, and telecommunications industries. Founded in 1983, Newsbytes has the timeliest and most extensive first-hand reported high-tech news files on the Web. The Newsbytes international journalism team files 100 daily reports, which become part of Newsbytes' 14-year searchable archive of high-tech news dating back to 1983.

A native of the United Kingdom, Martyn grew up in Sunnningdale, a small town just to the west of London. After graduating from London's South Bank University with a degree in electrical and electronic engineering, he went to work writing the Internet news and features on the MTV Europe and NBC Europe teletext services. He then went to work for Newsbytes, eventually moving to Japan and becoming the Tokyo Bureau Chief. He covers the Japanese computing, telecommunications and high technology industries from his home outside of Tokyo. Currently, he is also the Tokyo bureau editor of McGrawHill's Data Communications magazine, and runs a satellite broadcasting mailing list for Germany's Tele-Satellit magazine. A noted expert on emerging technology and telecommunications issues, his articles have appeared in numerous magazines in the United Kingdom, the United States and Norway and his column for Newsbytes, The Internet Update, is read by a worldwide audience. Martyn talked with us about how he got his start in journalism, what it's like to run an Internet news bureau and gave us the inside scoop on the new technologies we'll soon be seeing in the stores.

How did you first get interested in journalism?

Internet Update Image Since I was 15 or so I had been very interested in the news and always tried to keep myself informed of what was going on in the world. I guess the hours of watching TV news and reading the newspaper must have rubbed off because it sparked a desire in me to become a journalist, although at college I studied electrical and electronic engineering, not journalism.

What was your first journalism job?

My first job was writing a weekly bulletin on satellite TV news in Europe for Tele-Satellit Magazine, a German publication. I wrote in English and it was published in the magazine and weekly on CompuServe, and later the Internet, because the editor wanted the magazine name to become known outside of German-speaking Europe.

What were your duties when you worked for MTV?

This wasn't so glamorous as it sounds! I actually worked for MTV Text, the teletext service of MTV Europe. You may know teletext; it's a data broadcasting system that almost every TV station in Europe uses and most TV sets have the receivers. You can get all sorts of news and information on the service and I wrote a weekly guide to new sites related to music on the Internet.

How did you come to be Tokyo bureau chief for Newsbytes News Bureau?

Japan Newsbytes Graphic At about the time I joined Newsbytes, they were looking for a new reporter in Japan and I was interested in coming here, so it all fitted into place nicely! I began with Newsbytes writing Internet news and, since I could cover Internet news from anywhere I could get a network connection, I could do that equally well in Japan. Slowly, as I began to find my feet here, I started covering Japanese news in addition to the Internet stories.

What does being Bureau Chief involve?

With Newsbytes, it encompasses everything, because I'm the only one here! I have to search out news and keep myself well informed of everything going on and then decide whether it deserves covering, passing on, or covering when more of the story has developed. At the end of each day, my goal is to ensure that Newsbytes readers have coverage of everything important that has happened in Japan, and that, when they read the story, it is presented in an easy to understand way. One of the great challenges of reporting on foreign news is that it is easy to forget that people in other countries don't necessarily understand the background to some stories or the local marketplace. This means we have to put more explanation into an article destined for overseas readers.

What is the greatest challenge in running an Internet news bureau?

Keeping track of all the information! There are so many news sources and so much information, it's almost a full time job tracking it. Also, electronic publishing has made it much cheaper for companies to push out press releases and try to generate coverage, so once you've identified the few sources that provide almost all the news you need, you still need to filter through those to find the real stories from the fluff.

How has the Electronic Revolution changed the way the news is reported?

For the journalist and reader, it has made things much more immediate. As your readers are probably well aware, this isn't necessarily a good thing.
"I also think, and many may disagree with me, that what some people regard as 'quality news' today is not as great as they imagine. I don't want to attack any networks or TV shows, but when you compare some newspapers and radio like NPR with U.S. network TV news, you realise that TV delivers a very shallow version of the events of the day."
Because stories are now published every second, it means that a big news event might generate hundreds of wire stories, each one a little more complete than the last. The newspaper is still nice to read because it tends to be more complete, taking a day's events in a single article. I think it has also sped up reaction to news and the speed with which things happen. Look at the Iraq standoff now. Saddam can announce something in the morning, Clinton can hit back at lunch and Saddam can be back on CNN in the evening with something else. Before live TV and satellites presented all this into our living rooms, things happened more slowly.

What will the news business be like in 10 years?

Wow, good question! I think the mainstream news business will, with some exceptions, be more downmarket. I've heard radio ads for many TV news shows during the recent sweeps and what they are advertising sounds more like an entertainment show. There is a market for quality news and information programming and I think more people will turn to things like NPR as they see the TV news go downmarket. Unfortunately, the downmarket news will always be more popular because people love TV and TV is all about entertainment. I also think, and many may disagree with me, that what some people regard as "quality news" today is not as great as they imagine. I don't want to attack any networks or TV shows but when you compare some newspapers and radio like NPR with U.S. network TV news, you realise the TV delivers a very shallow version of the events of the day. It's especially noticeable here, where we get the U.S. news shows with commercial breaks edited out, so you realise you're only getting 20 minutes of news in a 30 minute show.

What is the best effect that the Internet has had upon the news industry?

It's given people around the world access to news they wouldn't otherwise have access to. This doesn't just mean that I can sit in Japan and read the Electronic Telegraph, but it has also given exposure to some great small publications and alternative news services.

Let's talk about what's news in the telecommunications and high technology industries for consumers. What's the status of Digital Video Discs ("DVDs")? Will we see them in the U.S. and the U.K. for Christmas at a reasonable price? Are laser discs obsolete now?

DVD is a very interesting area. It began as the future "do everything" format and it is now clear that its little more than many different formats all based on the same basic idea, but not necessarily compatible. DVD for computer use is already gaining followers and some Japanese manufactures are selling PCs with built in DVD-ROM drives, and soon DVD-RAM will launch.

Unfortunately, the rewritable system faces competition from the confusingly named DVD+R/W and DVD-R/W systems and others, but its great technology. I have a PD drive, which is a 650MB rewritable optical disk system from Panasonic, and that's great so I expect rewritable DVD for computer use to be a big success.

The video side is much less successful. Manufacturers here are seeing much lower sales than anticipated but I always expected that! Look for DVD to really get popular for video when the rewritable version debuts in a couple of years. The makers seemed confident that the quality and features would draw consumers but they were misguided. Millions of people are happy with the quality that EP VHS gives you - a very poor image - so what made them think people would rush out at spend $500 on a DVD player and then $40 on a disc?

The only area they are popular is with the video-phile community, the majority of which see them as superior to Laser Disc. As for LDs, they've been dead as a format for years, Sales are poor and no one is investing substantial money in the system. The only reason it is still popular is because it is widely used as the storage system for the millions of karaoke players in Asian bars.

What other new or improved products will be available in the next year for television and video(or other categories, if you prefer)?

I was just thinking about hot products for next year for an article for Newsbytes! Last week I saw some flat speakers at NEC. These things were mounted on the back of pictures and as hanging wall panels and sounded great, so expect to see them in a big way next year. Also, flat panel screens are continuing to become more and more popular and may soon begin appearing at consumer prices. There are several models of flat screen TVs now but the makers are still aiming at the home-cinema/business market with 50 inch versions that cost a lot! Hopefully, we'll see the first consumer 20 inch TVs next year!

Are Digital Audio Tapes ("DATs") gaining in popularity? Will they replace CD-ROMs for music?

DAT is very much a niche product in the recording industry now. What is really gaining momentum, at least in Japan, is the Mini Disc. It was launched a few years ago but has suddenly caught on and is now being found in new portable audio products, MD-Walkmans and car stereos. It won't replace the CD, that's just too popular, but is slowly replacing the regular cassette in Japan.

Will TV, stereos and telephone communications merge into one medium in the future?

Wouldn't that be great! It's not technology stopping this but standardization. If everyone can agree on a single standard, we're in business!

The first HDTVs go on sale in the U.S. in December 1998 and broadcasters have 10 years to convert to this broadcast format. Is HDTV already available in Japan? Is any of the television programming broadcast in HDTV? How much better is HDTV than traditional TV ?

HDTV has been available in Japan for some time. A single channel runs on satellite from early morning to late night and concentrates on classical music, movies, documentaries and sports. I think current HDTV sales are somewhere around 15,000 sets per month - a very small percentage of the total. The system in use is an analog HDTV format called MUSE, or Hi-Vision. Hi-Vision sets are very expensive, the cheapest is somewhere around the $5,000 mark, but they are getting cheaper and cheaper each year.

Japan has decided to scrap the MUSE system and adopt a digital HDTV system. The new system is scheduled to launch somewhere around 2000, although the MUSE broadcasts will continue until 2015 or so for people with the sets now.

HDTV offers a great picture but, like DVD, I wonder how much this is worth to people. Think about the TV you watch - maybe you put up with a poor picture from a distant TV channel, still haven't fixed the TV antenna or are happy with the occasional glitches and motion problems that the digital satellite services suffer from. If you are happy with a less than perfect picture now, as many people are, why would you spend double the price of your present TV for HDTV? When HDTV is almost the same price as a conventional TV, it will become popular.

From a technological standpoint, what is the most controversial issue facing Japan today?

Probably the regulation of the telecoms market. It's all changing this year but the domestic players still have an effective lock on the market. There is no real competition between carriers, often prices are identical, and they don't seem to mind. Even Japanese people don't seem to worry so much about the lack of competition and the high prices.

How "wired" is the average Japanese household? Does most of the population own a PC with a modem?

Not very. When I came to Japan in 1995, there were about six Internet providers and I had to dial long distance to get a connection.
"The Newsbytes audience is pretty clued in to technology so I'm not writing for a complete lay audience, but I always have to remember that an expert in computer networking might know nothing about Plasma display technology, so everything has to be explained."
Since Windows95 launched, PCs have become much more popular and the Internet is available at the price of a local call in about half of all area codes in Japan, but it's still a long way form the U.S. experience. There are a few useful resources online but nothing like the great job the U.S. government has done with putting information online. As for other things, some things might be more common here than they are in the U.S. like, say, home faxes or next-generation video game machines. The most popular thing these days is the cellular telephone. Something like 30 million people (out of the 120 million population) have them. Unlike the U.S., Japan (and the UK) don't charge users for receiving calls - something I've never understood - so as a result everyone hands out their number freely. If you call a cellular phone, you get charged the extra rate, but its not much more than a regular phone. Using cell phones is also really cheap thanks to lots of competition.

Is it difficult reporting on technological news to a lay audience?

Newsbytes News Network Image The Newsbytes audience is pretty clued into technology so I'm not writing for a complete lay audience, but I always have to remember that an expert in computer networking might know nothing about Plasma display technology, so everything has to be explained. I also try to use explanations that are simple enough for everyone to grasp, usually by relating it to something everyone already understands. For example, I once explained the Internet in relation to the national road network and several people thanked me saying the whole thing was clear after, something they never really understood first of all. This is always my goal in writing my articles, add enough explanation so everyone understands but not so much that the clued in reader gets bored.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I don't read fiction. Ever since I was young I have never really enjoyed reading books and was always more satisfied with a newspaper or magazine. Maybe that is unusual?

Do you like to write - other than the news, I mean? :)

I've never seriously tried. I guess my aversion to fiction makes me less likely to try writing a poem or story so I stay pretty much focused on news. To be honest, when I finish work each night, I've pretty much had enough of writing for one day!

How do you like living in Tokyo?

Not living there! I live in Shimizu, a city about 180km south west of Tokyo, near Mount Fuji. We're only an hour away by shikansen train (bullet train) so I can visit very easily but I'd hate to live there. It's so much more crowded and expensive. As for here, the nicest thing are the Japanese people, you seldom meet someone who isn't kind. The next best things are that we are on the Pacific Ocean, although a really good beach is about an hour by car, and only three hours away from the mountains for skiing in the winter!

What do you miss most about the U.K.?

Good question! I guess the answer is friends and family. I've discovered that there is very little in life that is irreplaceable. Many things I had or enjoyed in the UK, I now have here. Others, like say favorite foods, I can't get but they have been replaced with favorite Japanese foods that I would miss just as much if I went back to the UK.

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