A tale of two newspapersWhereas the story of Donald E. Graham, the former proprietor of the Washington Post, is one of a dedicated boss who sold the paper with its best interests in mind, the tale of Chang Jae-ku, the disgraced former owner of the Hankook Ilbo, is one of a thieving despot who got what he deserved later than he should have.
As someone pursuing a career in journalism, it is deflating to admit the fact that the newspaper industry is financially black and blue, and has yet to make a recovery.
The culprit is, of course, the Internet, which is guilty of giving currency to the unjustifiable notion that news should come free of charge.
But with all the paywalls, smartphone apps and at times genuinely fascinating interactive map-rooms, the major periodicals in the United States and the United Kingdom still can’t seem to make amends for the print advertising revenue that has long been in free fall.
And it is in this context that Mr. Chang’s actions are to be judged. Having inherited a fine institution of journalism, he failed to deliver the innovative business strategy that newspapers so desperately need in the digital era.
In fact, he did the exact opposite, financially defiling a paper that was a rare bird in Korean journalism - one that strived to take a neutral position in a country so wildly polarized by partisan politics.
So far, Mr. Chang hasn’t shown so much as a hint of repentance. This unsurprising fact is all the more reason that his case is one of genuine depravity. Rarely do we get to witness the ownership dismantle a major periodical in the way that Mr. Chang and his brothers have.
Now, the Hankook Ilbo lies wheezing before a court-appointed bankruptcy manager. Its fate couldn’t be more different from that of another newspaper on the other side of the Pacific.
The Washington Post was recently sold to Jeffrey Bezos, the mastermind behind Amazon. The sale was engineered by Donald E. Graham, a proprietor who held ideals that perhaps Mr. Chang never had the spine for.
He, like many newspaper barons, struggled to lift the household name from financial woes brought on by the Internet.
The Washington Post operated through seven consecutive years of diminishing income, downsizing to 640 journalists from the thousand of a decade ago.
Nonetheless, it is beyond doubt that Mr. Graham gave his all to save the paper that his family had run with guile and pride.
Under Katharine Graham, his mother, the Post enjoyed its most vigorous period, becoming “the paper that brought down a president” - a powerhouse in American journalism and a major part of the fabric of the country’s capital.
Dave Kindred, a columnist at the Post from 1974-88 and author of “Morning Miracle,” wrote in his book, “Everyone at The Post, and I mean everyone, believed that Don cared more about The Washington Post than anything in his life. … Everyone looked at him as the personification of the great newspaper that they dreamed of working for.”
Having included this quote in his letter to Graham, Peter Karl, another former editor of the paper, noted, “The tears you witnessed on staffers’ faces were not just for themselves, but for you and the pain you were so clearly feeling. I hope you appreciate how deeply we all care about you.”
Evidently, the paper was much more than a public service for Don Graham.
The fate of the Post is by no means certain. But analysis among its journalists about the takeover is for the most part enthusiastic. At worst, they feel they need to be vigilant.
Graham saw in Bezos someone who could get his family business back on its feet with a will to “innovate like hell” - a strategy that Graham had tried to implement himself.
Bezos may have spent $42 million on a giant clock that’s supposed to tick for 10,000 years, but a purchase worth less than 1 percent of his fortune could hardly be called a vanity stunt, nor does his motive seem similar to Rupert Murdoch, with his pandemic of acquisitions, as was noted by legendary Post reporter Bob Woodward.
Possibly, the takeover may even rewrite the script about a declining industry, which, up to this point, has been smeared with blanket pessimism.
What newspapers desperately need at this stage - digital innovation - Bezos surely has plenty to offer. The point to take home is that the transaction was less a sale of a faltering business than a handover that fully took the future of the Washington Post into consideration.
On the other hand, the malady that the Hankook Ilbo was made to endure was a story of manic greed deserving of its own patent. Fortunately, that part has ended and a new chapter is already being written. On Monday, Aug. 12, the paper printed a normal edition after 58 days of stagnation.
Where the paper heads depends largely on the staff that has taken the reins. And for a fledgling journalist, what becomes of the Hankook Ilbo is of immense importance not only to Korean journalism, but also society at large. The journalists of Hankook Ilbo are more aware than anyone.
* The author is a contributing writer currently pursuing a postgrad degree in Sinology in the U.K.
by Lee Won-seok