5 Reasons Why Online News Remains Free in Korea

Next week the New York Times will set the final stones in its labyrinthine and over-priced paywall. While newspapers in the West (i.e. Wall Street Journal and Financial Times) increasingly adopt this pay-to-read model, it has not caught on in Korea and, in my view, is not likely to catch on anytime soon. Here are five reasons why:

1. Competition and Consolidation: In the United States most people who read printed newspapers pick up their hometown or regional papers, not the New York Times. In Korea the situation is quite different. Three national papers (Chosun Ilbo, Dong-a Ilbo and JoonAng Ilbo) take up a majority of the readership nationwide, both online and off.

While much of the reason for this is Korea’s small landmass and population concentrated around Seoul, it also has to do with the fact that newspapers were tightly controlled by the government until a couple decades ago. The three mentioned above were already well-established during Korea’s pre-democratic years and have not shrunk in stature.

2. Strong Print Readership: Korean newspapers have maintained strong print circulations despite Korea’s world-leading broadband penetration and computer literacy rate. It is common for offices to subscribe to several newspapers, including the national ones mentioned above, business papers and industry-related trade dailies. Monday through Saturday home-delivery subscriptions are also quite common and affordable at about W20,000 ($18) per month.

3. Make the Portals Pay: Korean portals Naver and Daum have news aggregators similar to Yahoo News. But there’s a key difference. Yahoo primarily features articles that it buys from newswires like the AP, Reuters and AFP. Korea has only one newswire, Yonhap, which is still a quasi-governmental organization. To ensure they cover all the stories, Naver and Daum buy the rights to show articles directly from the newspapers, which are skilled negotiators. A few years back the portals weren’t willing to buck up and the newspapers all refused to syndicate their content.

4. Ads, Ads and More Ads: Koreans will put up with far more ads than will Americans. It’s a generalization, but one that holds true. Take a look at the screenshot from the Chosun Ilbo below and compare it to your favorite non-Korean newspaper. The ads are highlighted in red. Interstitials and inline popups also make regular appearances.


Even though they have so much online ad space to sell, Korean newspapers have mostly stayed away from ad syndication services like Google’s DoubleClick or Adwords. By cutting out the middlemen they can arrange long-term deals with advertisers, adjust prices on a client-by-client basis and eliminate value chain costs.

5. Corporate Tie-ups: Sponsored content goes way beyond advertorials in Korea. If your company is hosting a conference in Seoul, the best way to make sure it gets covered is to sponsor a section in one of the mainstream or business dailies. Flipping through the paper, you’ll regularly find that a series of articles has been sponsored by a particular company, whose logo is prominently displayed.

Is your favorite newspaper building a paywall? How common are paywalls in your country? Join the discussion in the comments section, below.