Senior Researcher, Korea Press Foundation
Korean broadcasters and newspapers played a key role in the recent impeachment of the president, but their business is struggling online as powerful Korean-owned online portals, social networks, and messaging apps control access to news.
Portal sites such as Naver (64%) and Daum (36%) are the most popular news outlets in South Korea, eclipsing the websites of newspapers and broadcasters as well as social networks like Facebook (28%). These companies also dominate advertising revenue. In 2016 Naver alone generated US$2.7bn, which is more than newspapers (US$1.5bn) and terrestrial broadcasters (US$1.1bn) put together. In addition to news, portals offer web search, email, computer games, and shopping. Naver is also the creator of the messaging app Line, while Daum operates chat app Kakao Talk along with the social networking site Kakao Story.
Two years ago, Naver and Daum jointly formed a Committee for the Evaluation of News Partnership to manage the quality of news displayed on their websites. The Committee determines the eligibility of news providers who want to supply content, and penalises those that are judged to violate ethical standards. This process has helped to significantly reduce the manipulation of search results through keyword stuffing and other bad practices. However, the Committee has been criticised for prioritising the interests of platforms over publishers. As one example, news providers are still not able to publish sponsored content through these portal sites.
As a result, calls for transparency and accountability of platforms are becoming louder. News providers in particular would like to understand more about how their powerful recommendation algorithms work. In 2016, the Korea Press Foundation launched a News Trust project to investigate ways in which high-quality content is prioritised in news recommendation algorithms.
With the print business in decline, legacy newspapers are rushing to transform themselves into digital-first enterprises. Newspaper Joongang Ilbo has built an integrated newsroom consisting of three sections – Command, Intake, and Output. It now encourages reporters to publish news articles online-first, with print coming later in the process. Similar strategies are being planned by Hankyoreh Shinmun, Hankook Ilbo, Donga Ilbo, etc.
By contrast broadcast brands have tended to shun integration, building dedicated digital teams instead. KBS has created a unit to adapt its television news video for online. SBS has established an independent digital brand Subusu News on Facebook to appeal to the younger generation, while cable channel YTN has also been successful in engaging users with video content on Facebook.
In an effort to diversify revenue streams, some newspapers have been working with Naver to build new services based on information and data such as jobs, travel, movies, and agriculture. Chosun Ilbo created a recruitment service called ‘Job &’ that attracted more than one million job-seeking subscribers in a month. Hankyoreh Shinmun and Naver started a movie information service based on content and listings from its cinema magazine. Chosun Ilbo and Maeil Business Newspaper are testing the potential of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) for enhanced storytelling and for business opportunities.
The news media have played a critical role in South Korea’s dramatic recent political crisis. Broadcaster JTBC, along with newspapers Chosun Ilbo and Hankyoreh Shinmun, led in accusing the Park administration of pervasive political corruption, and this resulted in the unprecedented impeachment of a president. By disclosing evidence of corruption and cronyism, cable channel JTBC has become the most trusted and popular offline brand (60%), leaving the public service channel KBS (44%) a considerable distance behind. Public service broadcasters (KBS, MBC) were criticised for having their news agenda influenced by Park’s administration and are under pressure to reform their governance structures to restore public trust.
In the run-up to the presidential election, concerns about fake and partisan news escalated, as did initiatives to limit its impact on voters. Seoul National University launched a fact-check system called SNU Fact-Check in partnership with Naver and 15 other news organisations. Journalists checked the accuracy of campaign messages and investigated suspicious claims reported by audiences. The results were released both on Naver and through news websites. During the election period, journalists also experimented with new formats such as data journalism, election-related quizzes, and live social video.
Overall trust in the news remains lowest among the countries surveyed, even if some (JTBC) have had their reputations enhanced by their pursuit of political corruption. The small difference between overall trust and trust in the news I use, relates to the heavy use of portals, where people often don’t remember specific news brands.