Seoul's English-Language Magazines Struggle to Survive
Different English-language magazines are competing against each other to represent what they deem as Seoul's under-represented faction of English-speaking magazine readers
By John Scott Marchant
"You'd think that in a city as cosmopolitan as Seoul they could do a little better," snorted Daniel Gooch while flicking through the pages of Seoul Classified and its higher-brow rival, Seoul. "Look at this slop, absolute dunce cap efforts. Poorly written stories on boring subjects with the only comic relief coming from grammatical errors and spelling mistakes."
Theatrically tossing both magazines in the trash, he added, "This really is amateur hour stuff."
Gooch, 39, a ruddy-faced Australian, is visiting Korea to finalize negotiations for the launch of Seoul View - a free English-language entertainment magazine. As a former English teacher with a background in public relations, he believes Seoul's readers have been shortchanged for far too long by their "infotainment" publications.
"The people of Seoul deserve better. There's so much going on here that's just not being covered. I'm talking about really interesting stuff, things that you don't know about but the others are afraid to print. There are just too many cross-cultural yawns that always seem to make up the numbers in these publications."
And with a further four titles - DDD Life in Korea, Decked, Seoul Times and work n play - set to join Seoul Classified and Seoul in the trenches this summer, the struggle for the hearts and minds of readers, as well as those lucrative advertising crumbs, is well and truly under way.
According to Scott Liam Soper III, 36, the founder and public face of DDD Life in Korea - a bilingual cross-cultural Internet site making the leap from cyberspace into the print media - his organization's concept is "peerless" and in a "different league" to the competition.
"This isn't a white guy project and it's not about making money - we're coming out with a necessary cultural reality. This is a novel, revolutionary idea; a democratic product for the people by the people," he explained.
In modeling DDD Life in Korea after landmark U.S. publications the New Yorker and the Village Voice, Soper - a New Yorker who came to Seoul after immigration officials evicted him from his Buddhist temple home of three months on JejuIsland - is hoping to create a product that entertains readers inside its pages. By tackling eclectic, deep impact stories such as Kim Sun-il's decapitation, student suicide and foreigner/Korean marriages, he is forecasting circulation numbers of up to 40,000 per month in Seoul alone. "Everyone wants this magazine concept," he said. "When it was first released in Daejeon, I even saw mafia guys walking down the street reading it."
Asked about his publication's competition, Soper is scathing in his criticism. Describing the Itaewon-based Seoul Classified as an "unambitious" project for people with no involvement in Korea, he said, "The only way for Seoul Classified to get better is by including two-for-one drink coupons."
Yet he is far more forgiving of Seoul, a monthly magazine that serves as a mouthpiece for the Seoul Metropolitan Government's Hi Seoul brand. Published by the Seoul mayor and Kim Hyung-geun (Hank Kim), who did not respond to e-mail or telephone requests to be interviewed for this story, Soper believes there will always be a place for this tourist-oriented publication.
Likening DDD Life in Korea to the free English-language magazine market's "great white shark," Soper predicted that information and entertainment zines representing the Itaewon crowd would devour each other.
"It's going to be competitive and the competition is worried about us," he said. "Seoul Classified and work n play will be in each other's food chain."
But for Song Yong-eui, 52, publisher of Seoul Classified, the much-maligned heavyweight champion of Seoul's free English-language magazine market, competition is a reality of business life that he enjoys.
"It's good to have competition," he smiled. "We welcome competition. It encourages us to do a better job."
Looking fit and relaxed, Song freely admitted that the Seoul Classified had its share of problems and made mistakes.
"We have problems but we'll try harder and take these criticisms into consideration and improve," he said. "I welcome criticism - it shows that people are reading our magazine. In business you don't make excuses. We're just going to try to be more professional."
Celebrating its sixth anniversary with a boozy Itaewon bash in May, Seoul Classified has seen numerous competitors fall by the wayside during its time on the Korean publishing scene. Song believes any publication with a circulation of 40,000 would require a great deal of money, time and effort to be successful.
"This is a tough business," he said. "It takes a long time to create a magazine. With 80 percent of ventures failing in the first five years, it shows just how difficult it is to get by."
A belief that Lee So-young, 26, of work n play, another Internet-based organization taking the plunge into the print market, shares. "Going into print is a good decision for our business but it's going to be difficult." In targeting the ESL employment and infotainment niche market, Lee is hoping her magazine will be able to increase its circulation while remaining on good terms with the competition.
"We want to create a big community and remain friends with everybody," she said. "But, yes, in the short term it's going to be very competitive and some magazines will close down."
A magazine closing down is the challenging proposition that Alex Leonard, 29, co-founder of Decked, a publication that explored Korea's subcultures, was confronted with in February.
After releasing just one issue, Decked closed its doors due to internal organizational difficulties but plans to be back this summer. "I don't regard Decked as having failed - it's more like it fell apart," Leonard said.
A marketing manager and native of San Francisco, Leonard believes the English-language magazine market in Seoul has finally reached a stage where it can support more than two titles but worries about the outcome of too much competition.
"It's alarming that so many are rushing into the fray at once," he said. "The market cannot bear this many competitors. There is not enough marketing money to go around and it's going to be a case of winner takes all. Realistically, the publisher who comes up with a formula to represent the city and its cosmopolitan aspect will win."
Echoing the sentiments of Gooch from Seoul View, Leonard believes Seoul is a great city whose English-speaking readers are underrepresented and due a publication that does them justice.
"The magazines available at the moment are in dire need of improvement," he said. "They really need competition to raise the bar."
Yet he disagrees with Soper from DDD Life in Korea, advising that no one should think their publication is entitled to override the interests of another.
"All viewpoints are valid," he said. "I hope that some people are not saying they're superior to others. If a person was saying that, I'd have to question their intent. To want to dominate the mental landscape is just wrong."
And on that point, Song from Seoul Classified and Leonard agree. "There's definitely room for several different ideas in this market," Song said. "We wish everyone good luck and we'll compete; it's good for the community. Let's allow the readers and advertisers to be the judge of which magazine survives."