Working at the Nexus of Technology and News Media
Media and technology have a symbiotic relationship that makes them both best friends and the worst of enemies.
Thanks for doing this interview. Tell us a little about your background and how you came to Korea.
My background is a mix of both biology and computer science.
I studied biology in college and considered a career in the medical industry by pursuing a graduate degree in that field, but despite my best intentions, I continually distracted myself from studying biology to play with computers. Eventually I decided to give in to my curiosity and got a master’s degree in information technology, instead.
I originally came to Korea mostly on a whim. After finishing grad school, I saw a job ad in a magazine and decided it would make for an interesting working vacation before I got serious with my career. Also, Korea appealed to me for family reasons. My grandfather fought on the ground in the Korean War, and my father later served in the Air Force monitoring the DMZ. I was curious to see what all that effort had been for.
You have a background in IT but have largely worked in news organizations in Korea. Were you always interested in working in media or was it an accidental relationship?
I didn’t start out intending to work in media. I just answered a job ad to be an editor for an IT-based magazine here in Seoul and gained a lot of experience working in media through that. Having said that, I don’t think I strayed too far, because it is almost impossible to separate a news organization from the information technology used in media creation and distribution these days; in many ways, the two fields are one and the same. All of the Internet is about communicating with other people quickly, reliably, and effectively, and the news industry is about communicating accurate information that people need to know. These two industries were made for each other. I like to think my career reflects that match.
Where do you see news and media going, globally speaking, now that so much media is consumed on mobile devices and other digital platforms?
To war. Ok, that’s a little dramatic. News and media have been part of a war for a while now: the war for eyeballs. In a world of plentiful content, the scarce resource is attention. Just as humans started fighting on land, then moved to sea, then to the air, then space, and finally to cyber space. Media competition probably started with word-of-mouth, then print, then radio and television, then the Internet, and now finally mobile devices. I see news as one of the basic functions of mobile devices.
Everybody wants to know instantly about what they’re interested in, and getting accurate information as soon as possible on a mobile device is key to that. Also, news media organizations want to use their digital platforms to reach as many people as possible, so their end goal is to get their text and video onto as many mobile devices as possible.
That sounds great for everyone involved, providing, of course, that the consumers of media value it enough to make it a viable business for producers. Whether you read the latest news on one platform or another is directly related to cold, hard cash, so news organizations are under a lot of pressure to attract the most eyeballs they can, which tempts them to cut down on some traditional safeguards and emphasize sensationalism. While the balance between the two is not new to the media, the decisions must now be made in seconds rather than hours. We can see the upshot of all this in how many mistakes, mistakes that could have been avoided, would have been avoided, in the past, are now being made by news organizations around the world. News organizations are under more pressure to perform, with performance being more often defined monetarily, and have less time to do it in.
This is all very regrettable when we consider how important the media’s role is in democracy and other institutions we hold dear. The new reality of competition may have lasting negative consequences for both the media business and society as a whole.
The relationship between news producing organizations and news consumers, is unfortunately, not a two-party conversation. There is usually a third party at the table: the people who pay the bills, the advertisers. Advertisers don’t always have the industry’s or the public’s best interests at heart, so their goals may conflict with those of the other two parties. In the end, advertisers want conversions; they want ROI. Where previously we had advertisers bombard us with messages on tv or in print that we may not have wanted, now we have them deliver their messages with pinpoint accuracy. That’s great for minimizing noise, but not so great for our privacy. There is a power imbalance now that may not have existed before - too many media channels and not enough advertisers. Power has shifted to the advertisers and the ad networks that aggregate digital advertisers, like Google and others.
Add on to all this, the latest overlay on the industry - social media, and we have the makings of the most challenging media environment in history. Where the number of news producers and distributors has exploded, social media has effectively forced everyone to distribute through a few tight funnels: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and their local equivalents. Good material or not, if you can’t get into a newsfeed, you can’t get eyeballs. So, now media companies must deal with both advertisers and social media companies, who display their own advertising before yours is seen.
I sincerely hope news organizations find an alternative solution to their funding problems, although I haven’t been able to find one, myself. What I worry about happening is organized media losing all credibility and people exclusively turning to their friends’ social media feeds for dubious information. Then we will all be lost in a post-news Mad Maxstyle age of misinformation while our communications devices will constantly be trying to sell us things.
What has been the impact of social media on the news industry? Do you see it as a net positive or net negative?
I see social media itself as a net positive for humanity. Geography had been pulling us apart, and social media is now putting us back together. But I think social media is bad for the news industry for the same reason.
All of these systems of media distribution, tv, radio, even print, were put together to help people communicate over vast distances. Now, that’s what the Internet does, and atop it, social media. In the best light, social media can be seen as the answer to geographic disparity; now we are all on one virtual Main Street, shouting our jovial insults to each other with casual abandon. We think we don’t need that old overly stuffy gatekeeper to national discourse, news media, anymore, but in reality, social media is now playing the same role traditional media played: the editorial role. The only difference is that social media is playing it mindlessly, with algorithms driven by profit-oriented goals, rather than social ones. Those algorithms play an editorial role without intending to, but it is editorial nonetheless.
This role of social media as a replacement for news media was recently brought to light in December of last year when Mark Zuckerberg first tried to deny, and then eventually admitted, that Facebook is a media company.
So to answer the original question, I think social media is bad for the news industry in that it is replacing it. I am hopeful that it is a net positive for us, because national and international discourse can, theoretically, be more direct. We’ll just have to wait and see how well the programmers can solve their distribution problems and with how much integrity the large social media companies can operate.
What do you see as the biggest issues related to Korean media? Can Korean news media reach out beyond Korea and embrace a larger audience? Would there be any incentive for that?
There are three big issues that I see plaguing Korean media. Unfortunately, it exists in a unique ecosystem that often hinders it from doing its presumed job, which is to pass on accurate information. First, a long-standing defamation law makes it possible to hold someone legally liable and even bring criminal charges against them for a true statement if it hurts someone’s reputation. This paralyzes news media in Korea.
Furthermore, there is a long-standing tradition in Korean news media of not identifying sources. Spend enough time reading Korea-written news and you will soon begin to recognize the common phrase “said an official source who declined to be identified.” I have personally gotten into arguments about whether or not to publish the names of sources even though they didn’t live in Korea, even though they gave their permission, even though the entire conversation was documented via email. It put my publisher on edge to even consider putting someone’s name next to a quote from them in an article.
Third, many Korean people at all levels of organizations both inside and outside of the media feel an obligation to put Korea in the best light possible when communicating with “outsiders.” That obligation is always in effect when writing in English, since it is not the native language. I have experienced junior members of an organization I was a part of break ranks and try to prevent me, their manager, from publishing a story that paints Korea in a bad light.
I’ve also seen a supervisor in a news organization in Korea encourage putting Korea in a good light too strongly, causing discontent among other reporters in the organization. These three factors I think prevent Korean news media, at least those reporting in English, from doing the same quality job as news media organizations outside of Korea do, and therefore from appealing to a larger audience.
As stated before, you also have a technology background, so let’s discuss that as well. Are there any media startups in Korea that have caught your eye? Anything interesting in terms of news media innovation that you’ve seen?
Well, there is the web site OhmyNews, which experimented with citizen journalism. It has a kind of open source model for journalism, where anyone can write an article. It had a heyday about ten years ago, but failed to expand to Japan or internationally. The Japanese version was heavily criticized and closed within one year of its opening in 2006, while the international version stopped being updated in 2010, because the paid editors were unable to keep up with fact-checking the torrent of articles coming in from all over the world.
The most interesting media-related innovation I’ve seen in Seoul is drones flying around. Look up more often. You can see drones flying in perfect lines down the main streets of Seoul or hovering above major intersections. At least, I hope they’re news related. Their cameras are always looking down at us...