Korea Press Foundation
Digital technology has significantly disrupted the media landscape in South Korea, as home-grown portals have become the leading destination for news, eroding the business models of traditional media companies.
South Korea is one of the countries where online news consumption (84%) surpasses TV news (74%) with online news access largely controlled by giant domestic platforms such as Naver (65%) and Daum (38%), which function both as onsite news aggregators and search engines as well as providing email and shopping services. Daum also operates the leading social network and chat apps in South Korea (Kakao Story and Kakao Talk) while Naver owns Band and created the popular messaging app Line.
But these powerful platforms are coming under increasing pressure to do more to help the news industry. Both Naver and Daum operate differently to Facebook in that they pay publishers tens of millions of dollars each year for access to content1 while restricting platform access to ‘approved’ publishers. Eligibility is decided by the Committee for the Evaluation of News Partnership, which is made up of representatives from industry and media associations.
In 2017, Naver announced that, in addition to these content fees, they would start paying a share of advertising revenues that appear around news content. They also said that they would create a readers’ fund called PLUS (Press Linked User Support) so that Naver users could help fund individual journalists or news organisations of their choice. Naver has also set up a series of joint ventures with news organisations such as mobile websites and apps around services such as job search, travel, movie, finance, education, and marriage. Meanwhile, Kakao (linked to Daum) launched a ‘Storyfunding’ service by which users can donate money to citizen journalists, civic organisations, and investigative reporters.
The way in which these platforms recommend news on their portals (using human editors) has been questioned over possible bias and occasional manipulation. In an international conference hosted by Korea Press Foundation, Naver said their recommendation systems would soon completely rely on computerised algorithms. Naver also went on to promise to open up their news algorithms to public scrutiny. Meanwhile, the Korea Press Foundation continues to develop an ‘independent’ public news recommendation algorithm.
Among the social platforms, YouTube (+7 percentage points) is becoming more popular, while the growth of Facebook is stagnant. Three-quarters (78%) reported that they watched online news videos in the last week, while more than half (58%) said that they listened to podcasts at least once a month. Blurring the boundaries between professional and amateur journalism, podcasts are gaining an increasing audience in South Korea. Kakao Talk, the most popular messaging app, also serves as a channel through which news and political information are shared and spread among its users (39%).
The rise of social platforms has prompted concerns about disinformation and fake news. Trust in news overall (25%) was lowest among 37 countries, and trust in news on social media (19%) was even lower. South Korean audiences are equally concerned about poor journalism (60%) and fabricated stories (61%). They also feel that media companies (79%), platforms (77%), and government (73%) should do more to separate what is real and what is fake on the internet.
The Korea Communications Commission (KCC) announced its willingness to take regulatory action against fake news, but has done little so far because of concerns that this could curtail freedom of speech and expression. Enhanced transparency of information sources, fact-check journalism, and digital information literacy are considered more realistic and desirable approaches.
When it comes to individual brands, top broadcast channels tend to be more trusted than top newspaper brands. Among broadcast channels, cable channels such as JTBC and YTN tend to be more trusted than public broadcasting services (KBS and MBC).
The policies and measures to strengthen independence and impartiality of public broadcasting services have been actively discussed since 2017. Public broadcasting services are encountering digital challenges, because fewer younger people watch TV news. Newspapers are still struggling to adapt to the digital environment. Amid plummeting newspaper subscriptions and ad revenues, they have yet to find a way toward a sustainable future. Digital subscription strategy is difficult to implement in South Korea due to widely available free news on portal sites and social platforms, which also take the majority of digital ad revenues. Only around one in ten (11%) say they have paid for any online news in the last year. Although it may be impossible without institutional endorsement and readers’ participation, interest in not-for-profit journalism as an alternative model is on the rise.
Koreans have been some of the fastest to adopt new mobile technologies in our survey, with 70% saying they use smartphones for news. This is not surprising given that Samsung is one of the country’s biggest and most successful companies.
Trust in news was 25%, but almost half (46%) said that they neither trust nor distrust news. These results imply that a majority of Korean audiences are uncertain about the quality of news overall, partly because too many online news sites (more than 6,000 registered news sources) show widely varying degrees of quality.