Magazines for expats do swift biz in KoreaJournalists, go East.
With the Internet consuming its profits and eroding its business model, the Western hemisphere’s print media may be in a terminal tailspin. But in South Korea, one sector seems to be booming: English language magazines.
Anyone staying at an international hotel in Seoul, or patronizing restaurants or bars in the city’s foreign quarter, Itaewon, will be able to pick up glossy monthlies like Groove, Seoul or Ten - all full color, professionally edited, heavy with copy and brimming with advertising.
And he or she won’t have to pay a cent. While subscribers pay, and some bookshops sell them, the magazines are widely distributed for free.
Groove includes reporting-heavy features on the exploitation of foreign workers, a first-person account of breast enhancement surgery and Asian travel pieces. Ten’s specializes in shortlists of “Top Ten” attractions nationwide, from coffee shops to mountains.
Both are distributed nationwide and include detailed “What’s On” listings and focus heavily on Korea’s sizzling nightlife.
Seoul, partly funded by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, is less racy, offering features on Korean culture and travel, and boasts first-class photographic essays. It is largely distributed in the capital.
While all three magazines are owned by local investors, with the nation’s labor market increasingly open to foreign talent, their American editors have found Korea a land of opportunity.
Groove editor Tracey Stark, a former crime reporter at a small-town paper in Virginia, felt that he might be “stuck writing the same silly crimes for the rest of my life.” So he came to Korea in 2002 for a change of pace. After working at an English-language newspaper here, his experience proved the right fit for the Groove editorial chair .
Robert Koehler, Seoul’s editor, arrived in Korea in 1995. He taught English, learned Korean and started The Marmot’s Hole, one of the most-read English language blogs on Korea. After gravitating to translation at a vernacular daily, he was head-hunted by Seoul Selection, a publishing house that specializes in foreign language works, including the monthly magazine he now works at.
Stephen Revere was a Korean language major whose first experience getting published was writing a best-selling Korean-language textbook, before he ultimately fell into the magazine world.
“I have the best job in the world,” he said. “After two years we still have to turn a profit, but we are getting closer all the time and I really enjoy what I do.”
Their market is tourists and Korea’s expatriate population, notably its population of English teachers: mainly young graduates from the Anglosphere feeding Korea’s insatiable demand for the language.
“The expat market has expanded greatly since I came here in 2002,” said Stark. “If you told me it has doubled since the World Cup, I wouldn’t doubt it.”
Advertising content indicates the health of an economy servicing expatriates.
“Our advertisers vary: bars and restaurants, skin clinics, plastic surgery clinics, dental centers, chiropractors, etc,” said Stark.
Writers tend to be readers rather than media pros.
“Contributors are mostly English speakers who live in Korea and would like to pad their resume and share some of their experiences with others,” Revere said.
Potential contributors are advised to be as handy with a camera as a keyboard. “Ultimately, people look at a magazine, they don’t read it, so image quality needs to be top-notch,” Koehler said.
In a market serviced by three English-language daily newspapers, the magazines offer an editorial focus with lighter weight.
Stark has commissioned serious features, but admits there are limits. “At times I see this as a serious journalistic endeavor, but there are constraints,” he said. “Without a full-time staff or an office, we do the best we can.”
While their editors bring international perspectives and skills, some local practices rub off. In a nation where only three newspapers are monitored by ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation), the magazines are reluctant to disclose their distribution. Groove has a print run of 15,000-20,000, Stark said; Seoul’s and Ten’s are undisclosed.
And local bureaucracy can be a headache. “It’s illegal for a foreigner to be publisher, CEO or executive editor, and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get a license to print a magazine here,” Revere said. “Tons of paperwork and it takes way longer than I thought.”
Still, all three are currently happy to continue doing exactly what they are doing - producing content on Korea for foreign consumption.
“I have been here for a long time and am generally thankful,” said Koehler. “So it is nice to think that in some way you are giving back.”