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[Yang Sung-jin] Media at a mobile crossroads

I have been running a personal website. This is hardly a novelty. After all, many journalists in Korea and elsewhere have a host of digital channels to communicate with readers, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Back in 1999, however, setting up a website was somewhat an “innovative” effort, regardless of occupation. Only a small number of local journalists ran personal websites, and I was, luckily, one of them.

The reason behind such a fresh and forward-looking attempt just ahead of the dot-com bubble here was the growing curiosity about new platforms among young reporters. A group of journalists covering the now-defunct Ministry of Information and Communication simply experimented with personal homepages as a new platform for spreading information.

I had no idea how to set up a site with HTML code, but we somehow managed to design a collection of online pages with the help of Namo Web Editor, Korean page-building software.

Thanks to the sheer rarity of such media-related websites, my page attracted more traffic than it deserved. My posts on English education and the Joseon Dynasty had more than 1,000 registered visitors ― a remarkable feat given that it was an immensely cumbersome procedure to create a new account and password.

As my website expanded, I even held a couple of offline meetings with my homepage members and chatted with them, offering a glimpse into the potential of a new digital platform. It was an inspiring experience, and I felt personal homepages would offer a new pathway for reporters willing to communicate with readers directly.

In the following years, however, my beat shifted from technology to culture to business to social affairs ― a typical career cycle ― and my homepage steadily fell out of sync with the latest trends led by blogs, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The take-home lesson is that we continue to encounter a wave of new platforms that can reconfigure the way we work and play and generate a wealth of commercial applications, and only a few people or businesses jump into the innovative platform to sprint ahead.

Understanding this cyclical nature of innovation is crucial, particularly at a time when the embattled Korean media companies are witnessing the emergence of another game-changing platform: mobile.

Almost all channels of information are converging to smartphones, the predominant mobile platform, and a wide range of businesses, including the media, are racing desperately to stay ahead in the mobile platform.

Google, the overseer of the global search universe, recently changed its policy in favor of websites with mobile-friendly interfaces. Preferably, websites should set up their own mobile version to rank higher among Google search results.

My current website is built on Sandvox software for Mac users, and I came across a thread on the Sandvox user bulletin board in which users complained about “threats” from Google regarding the mobile version. (Sandvox, for all its elegant simplicity, does not support a responsive homepage format or a separate mobile version.)

Naver and Daum Kakao ― Korea’s two leading portals ― are scrambling to strengthen their mobile competitiveness by introducing new services targeting smartphone and tablet users. Naver launched a mobile content service named Post in November last year, which allows users to upload their content in the mobile-friendly formats such as card image and webtoon. The country’s biggest portal is also preparing to launch a new mobile-only homepage platform named Modoo, aimed at small businesses and individuals.

Daum Kakao, known for its KakaoTalk messaging app, is also stepping up its efforts to carve out a share in the mobile platform battle. Its new mobile blogging service, Plain, is geared toward Korean users in their 20s and 30s who are familiar with Instagram’s photo-centered hashtag system.

While the business sector is galloping ahead in the competition for mobile platforms, Korean media companies are still struggling with the old problems: a mix of plunging subscriber base in the traditional media platform and lackluster performances in the new digital business.

There’s not much media companies can do to stop users from transitioning en masse from print to PC to mobile platforms. What can be reasonably done is to allocate more resources to develop and refine a mobile platform for users who bend their necks all day long to browse on their smartphones.

Given that Korean portals with an army of top-notch developers and engineers are already way ahead in distributing news and other information among smartphone users, the Korean press must make tremendous efforts ― simply to stay alive.

By Yang Sung-jin 

Yang Sung-jin is the digital content desk editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at ― Ed.