The fight for South Korean readers has gone too far. David Kilburn
Newspapers in many countries adopt aggressive tactics to win readers,
but in South Korea healthy competition has escalated into open warfare -
Playing die hard with a vengeance in the streets of Seoul is the Joong-
Ang Ilbo, a major national daily owned by Samsung, South Korea’s largest
industrial group. Its foes? The rest of the newspaper industry. Incensed
that a distributor for the rival Chosun Ilbo newspaper was ‘snatching’
subscribers, executives from one of the Joong-Ang’s distributors raided
his office last month and, allegedly, stabbed him to death.
The seeds of the rivalry were sown in April when the Joong-Ang switched
publication from the evening to the morning, reflecting the ambitions of
its publisher, Hong Seok-Hyun, who wants to make it the biggest
newspaper in Korea. However, it was the newspaper’s aggressive marketing
tactics that really provoked its rivals. Besides spending heavily on ads
and giving a free month’s subscription to new readers, the Joong-Ang
offered subscribers gifts, such as Samsung-made clocks, as competition
Korea’s other mainly independent newspapers protested they lacked the
support of backers like Samsung and could not match the Joong-Ang’s
The Joong-Ang claims its circulation has climbed from 1.6 million to 2.2
million since 1994, just behind Chosun Ilbo’s 2.4 million. However, it
is unclear whether these figures are accurate, since circulation is
unaudited in Korea.
The killing has allowed the Joong-Ang’s rivals to exact revenge. The
paper was ejected from the national newspaper sales organisation. The
government, meanwhile, is considering an investigation into newspapers
owned by big industrial groups.
Last year, Korea’s Fair Trade Commission prepared guidelines to curb
newspaper marketing strategies, but these were never introduced because
publishers complained they were an attempt to limit the freedom of the
press. Now revulsion at the murder may give the government the chance
to put the industry in order.