CLOSE-UP: GLOBAL BRIEF; Asian publishers play deadly

The fight for South Korean readers has gone too far. David Kilburn investigates

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 -

with fatalities.

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

promotional budget.

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.


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