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Paper Tigers

S. Korea Dailies Going All-Out to Prosper


SEOUL — People moving into apartments in this city's burgeoning suburbs can count on an unorthodox source of help: newspaper deliverymen so desperate to snare new subscribers that they will even help carry boxes to curry favor with potential customers.

Subscribers can also expect lavish gifts such as exercise machines and satellite dishes. Anyone who who declines is likely to find a newspaper--or five--waiting on the doorstep just the same.

Competition among South Korea's 119 daily newspapers has become so fierce that a distributor for one major Seoul newspaper recently confessed to storming the offices of a rival who had lured away a prized subscriber, fatally stabbing one employee and wounding a second.

The killing intensified a newspaper war that has featured muckraking, allegations of dirty tricks and the unlikely spectacle of the nation's second-largest newspaper, Joong-ang Daily News, suing the largest, Chosun Ilbo, for libel.

Behind the sensational headlines is a struggle for the soul of this nation's newly freed press. Critics maintain that newspapers, only recently liberated from government repression, now find themselves owned by powerful conglomerates, or chaebol, that use their columns to promote corporate agendas.

"We supported the newspapers in fighting dictatorship," said Lee Young Woo, chairman of Media Watch Coalition, a citizens' group that has been agitating for press reform. "Now they have freedom. They have to serve the people now, not their own interests. They are not doing this."


There are signs that media moguls here, under pressure from parliament and the public, are taking steps to reform the economics and ethics of the newspaper business.

Samsung Group, the largest conglomerate in South Korea, has promised to spin off its paper, Joong-ang Daily News, by the end of this year to end charges that the chaebol influences news decisions.

Korean journalists also have adopted a strict new ethics code that calls for higher standards of independence and bans the practice of accepting money from news sources, including government agencies and corporations.

But jettisoning a legacy of more than 25 years of strongman rule will not be done overnight.

For decades, the government limited the number of papers permitted to publish in South Korea, kept careful control over their content and even regulated the number of pages each was allowed to print. Each region was permitted only one paper, and the Seoul-based dailies were required to get reports about what was going on elsewhere in the country from the state-controlled Yonhap news agency.

"Chosun Ilbo was allowed to put their own correspondents in Washington or Tokyo, but not in Pusan," South Korea's second-largest city, said Park Kwon Sang, former editor in chief of Dong-A Ilbo and now a syndicated columnist.

The generals could count on a tame press; newspaper publishers, in turn, were insured against competition.

When the repressive press law was abolished in 1987, chaebol--flush with capital from their skyrocketing exports--began starting up papers as fast as they could buy ink and import the newsprint that had been in short supply.

"Now each province has two or three or four newspapers, most of which are owned by little, local chaebol," Park said.

From 30 dailies nationwide in 1987 the number zoomed to 65 in a year's time. By 1995, there were 148 dailies. The total has fallen to 119 as of this month, a victim of newspaper overpopulation, the Korean Press Institute and the Ministry of Information report.

Readers are so inundated that some distributors are accused of giving away papers for months on end, bribing readers with gifts worth vastly more than the cost of a subscription and even refusing to allow people to cancel subscriptions.

Without an accepted system to audit the number of copies sold, some publishers print thousands of papers that go straight from press to dumpster just so they can claim high readership to justify higher advertising rates.

Park says that 5.5 million of the 12 million papers printed in Seoul daily are given away and that 3 million copies, equivalent to 1.2 million tons of newsprint, are dumped every day. "They say [the publishers] are losing 20 billion to 30 billion won [$25 million to $37 million] a year, but they're willing to spend the money for propaganda purposes or to protect themselves against competitors or to gain access to power," Park said.

Of Seoul's leading dailies, three are owned by the conglomerates Samsung, Hyundai and Hanhwa. Two more are owned by giant newspaper companies, two by churches and another by the government.

Large and small, the chaebol are in fierce competition for everything from government contracts to hotel customers to the political influence gained through a large newspaper readership. "Naturally, they select news in favor of their own interests or against the interests of their competitors," Park said.

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