The vast majority of South Korea’s population now relies on aggregators to learn what’s going on in their country and the rest of the world, presenting huge problems for news organisations fighting to survive.

This has left the country’s newspapers with a major challenge: how to monetise their digital content.

As in so many other markets around the world, newspaper print subscriptions are generally in decline in South Korea and paywall models have had mixed results. 

In 2013, the country’s largest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, began a premium online service that included a stellar line up of expert writers, celebrities, and other public figures, even including former prime minister Chung Un-chan, reports the Nikkei Asian Review. But plans for a $2.50-a-month paywall were scrapped and the service ceased four years later as it was felt readers would not stay with the service if they had to pay.

So far, Nikkei reports, no mainstream South Korean media outlet has found a way to build a stable income from online news, which is why, now, many are turning to brands in other countries, such as The New York Times, The Financial Times and The New York Times, to see if they can learn from their business models.

The Chosun signed an agreement with The Washington Post's Arc Publishing at the beginning of this year in which The Post will aim to help create a more efficient and streamlined workflow for the Korean title. Meanwhile, midsize daily The Hankook IIbo has been looking at Japanese newspapers’ business models for inspiration.

One of the biggest challenges for Korea’s titles is Naver, the country’s largest internet company, which offers news content for free, Nikkei reports. Its reach is vast, with 62% of the country’s population accessing Naver’s news service more than once a week, according to Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2020.

Naver’s dominance, and a lack of trust in local media, are seen as major obstacles to the success of a paid subscription model in the country. The Reuters Institute report says only 21% of South Koreans trust the news overall, which is the lowest ranking of 40 countries examined by the institute.

There may still be ground for optimism, however. Help in lessening the media’s trust deficit has come from an unlikely source – the coronavirus pandemic. Son Jae-kwon, head of Miilk, an information technology company, says demand for credible news is growing at a time of confusion and contradictory information. This has given Korean media a chance to prove its value.

"News consumers visited branded news sites more than social media or mobile messengers when they needed journalism," wrote Son in a Korea Press Foundation journal. Son quoted a survey by the Reuters Journalism Institution showing 77% of South Koreans got information on the pandemic from news organisations – far higher than the US (54%), and Germany (47%).

Meanwhile, Naver, which faces mounting criticism over its dominance of the online news market, has offered media outlets the opportunity to design their own pages and sell ads, Nikkei reports. In July, Naver reported that 44 media partners had drawn over one million users through the system. 

"The role of Naver news service is to connect the media and users eventually," Yoo Bong-seok, a director at the company's service management, told Nikkei. "We will offer a wide range of technology and data to the media so that we can grow together."

Sourced from Nikkei Asian Review