Wednesday, April 15, 2009

South Korea: Saving Newspapers

Almost all industries are feeling the pinch of the economic crisis around the world and newspapers are no exception.
In late March, Bloomberg News shed light on the plight of American newspapers undergoing severe financial woes. The Tribune Co., which has the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune under its wing, has declared bankruptcy and so has the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has halted its printed edition and became an Internet-only news company. The 100-year-old Christian Science Monitor published its March 27 final daily edition and plans a rebirth as a weekly publication.
Survivors are also faltering. The Star-Ledger, the largest circulated newspaper in the U.S. state of New Jersey, has cut its staff almost in half and the Baltimore Sun has closed all its foreign bureaus. Even the New York Times took several measures such as the sale of its share in its headquarters building in Manhattan to cut costs and lighten debt and threatened to shut down the Boston Globe it acquired for $1.1 billion in 1993.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has come to the rescue of the newspaper industry, arguing that ``it is legitimate for the state to consider the print media's economic situation.'' In late January, he announced 600 million euros in emergency aid for troubled French newspapers and unveiled a pilot program that will give teenagers celebrating their 18th birthday a year's free subscription to the paper of their choice.
According to the Guardian of the United Kingdom, the French press, among the least profitable in Europe, is lurching from crisis to crisis, apart from the latest economic firestorm. The daily circulation of all French national papers remains at 8 million ― half that of the United Kingdom and one third of Germany.
Of course, most South Korean newspapers are in financial distress as well and there have been calls for the government to provide aid for the local newspaper industry. Rep. Choi Moon-soon of the main opposition Democratic Party organized a debate on state support for newspapers at the National Assembly on March 23 and participants concurred on the need to help the ailing newspaper industry. Specifically, a member of the Korea Press Commission proposed creating a 2-trillion-won fund through next year after providing newspapers with 80 billion won that is now reserved in newspaper development funds.
Indeed, the local newspaper industry is undergoing unprecedented difficulties as readership shifts to online news and free newspapers. Against this backdrop, newspapers, especially financially strong companies, have been courting readers with gifts such as bicycles, thrusting the entire newspaper industry into disorder and chaos.
Newspaper ad revenue reached a peak of 2.12 trillion won in 2000 and has since been on the decline, plunging to 1.7 trillion won in 2006. In particular, even major newspapers such as the Chosun Ilbo have been suffering sharp falls in both sales and earnings year after year. According to the Korea Press Foundation, the country's newspaper subscription ratio, which measures the proportion of regular newspaper readers, tumbled from 69.3 percent in 1996 to 59.8 percent in 2000 and 36.8 percent in 2008.
There is an enigma in the Korean newspaper industry ― few are going under no matter how tough the economic conditions are. The fact is that some newspapers manage to live on favors from big business conglomerates, and others keep going thanks to contributions from churchgoers. Evil practices are more prevalent in the provinces as most provincial newspapers are suffering from constant business woes.
In these tough times, the claim to help newspapers sounds plausible in consideration of the need to ensure a diversity of public opinions, but will it be justifiable if press people ask for taxpayers' money to prop up their crumbling businesses?
Views on the subsidy call appear poles apart along the ideological lines of newspaper companies. Hankyoreh, Kyungyang and other liberal media outlets, which are mostly financially weak, are anxiously looking for government subsidies, saying the entire newspaper industry is on the verge of collapse and crises are not confined to only a few companies. On the other hand, major newspapers such as Chosun, Dongah and JoongAng are lukewarm about the state aid, saying the general public won't understand the provision of taxpayers' money for the press whose axiom has to be impartiality. They seem to see the latest global crisis as an opportune time to kick weak left-leaning newspapers out of the market.
As things stand now, the government will have difficulty in deciding on its direct assistance for the newspaper industry. The substantial movement comes from the National Assembly where some lawmakers are drafting a plan to let each of the classrooms in middle and high schools across the country subscribe to four newspapers. The government would shoulder 84 billion won out of the 128 billion won cost over the next five years.
The local newspaper industry marked the 53rd Newspaper Day Tuesday in a gloomy mood, but its future might be much darker if current malpractices ― bias, distortion, favoritism, factionalism and so on ― linger. Now it's time to restore people's trust in the press.


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