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April 5, 2017, 10 a.m.
Audience & Social

“Society 10 years from now”: This South Korean social video startup is made by millennials, for millennials

In a rigid media landscape, Dotface finds a large — and growing — audience by publishing on issues that are passed over (or unevenly covered) by legacy news outlets.

Sodam Cho dropped out of studying for the South Korean media exam after her little brother was beaten by his teacher. When the incident made the news, the tables turned for the young aspiring journalist, who was now the one being interviewed by the press. That was when she experienced disappointment in what she saw as the superficiality of South Korean traditional outlets — ask a few questions prodding for emotional quotes by deadline, then sensationalize the story without getting to know the victim’s situation.

“I was really skeptical,” she said. “They would just get one or two sentences for the story, and that would be the end of it. In contrast, I would want to sit with the person on the floor together and have a conversation.”

Seeking a more intimate connection with subjects is what fueled Cho, 27, to start Dotface (styled as .face), a new social-native video outlet for South Korean millennials launched last September. With 40 million won (about $35,000 USD) in financial support from Seoul-based media incubator and seed investor Mediati, Dotface has focused its coverage on five areas it deems important to a younger generation: social justice, LGBTQ issues, feminism, urban ecology, and how technological development impacts societies. The nine-person Dotface team provides articles and videos on community, national, and international topics, from presidential contenders to Emma Watson’s thoughts on college, guided in part by their followers’ chatter on social platforms.

Last summer, traditional outlets covered a gay pride parade near Seoul City Hall as a typical social conflict story: conservatives versus liberals, Christians versus queer-identifying people, traditional values versus loosening social mores. But Cho focused on the presence of parents of LGBTQ children who were offering free hugs to the crowd.

“I looked at all the reports later that night, and this scene was not mentioned once. In contrast, we were able to cover this because we had our own subjective standard — that embracing diversity is something to be valued,” Cho said. Dotface’s video covering that scene went viral, amassing 5 million views on Facebook alone.

Cho believes younger Koreans are thirsting for media content that goes beyond conglomerate news, dense political coverage, and rewrites of government press releases. She says her friends often share poorly translated articles and videos from U.S.-based digital outfits like BuzzFeed or ATTN: about everything from job interviews to not wearing bras, just for something new to read. While 70 percent of Koreans head regularly to major portals like Naver and Daum for news, Dotface is attracting its audience through social media, which has erupted as a source of news, especially for those who prefer to get their news via mobile. Virtually all Koreans in their 20s read their news online, with 75 percent getting it from social media, according to the Korea Press Foundation. Dotface’s niche is on platforms like Facebook and the Korean app Pikicast, where twentysomethings congregate over news of mutual interest and share open comments. Dotface’s videos get around 6 million views a month; 42 percent of its Facebook users are between the ages of 18 and 24.

“When we think about media startups targeting Americans in their 20s, we can think of Mic, ATTN:, Vice, Bustle, and many others. But in Korea, there are no names that come up immediately,” Cho said. “There are many cases where traditional media makes a ‘younger version’ as a sub-brand.”

In Cho’s view, traditional coverage is not only formulaic but also drifting further away from her generation’s viewpoints. Other Korean attempts to move away from traditional models of news include outlets like the longstanding Ohmynews, which promotes citizen reporting; Newstapa, a donation-based outlet formed by investigative reporters fired from traditional news outlets; and Pressian, a cooperative. Dotface is staffed entirely by university students and recent graduates, with a mission to shape a “new common sense” for their generation.

“Our goal is not just to become a good media company, but to provide people with different knowledge,” Cho said. “We want to become a media outlet that will help the millennial generation find identity and values that will be needed to prepare for the society of 10 years from now.”

Traditional outlets like the national broadcaster SBS have set up their own social media teams to create Facebook-friendly video clips targeted at younger audiences. But Cho sees an opportunity those outlets can’t quite grab: Legacy media outlets might be able to create content in these newer formats, but they can’t change their institutional voice, bound by the constraints of having to accommodate older generations and pro-government self-censorship. South Korean distrust in journalists and news organizations is higher than in the U.S., U.K., and many other Asian countries, according to a Reuters Institute report. These issues came to the fore once again when major broadcasters, whose leaders are government-appointed, were criticized for undercovering the first burst of protests last year against impeached President Park Geun-hye.

“Traditional media tries to make content to target people in their twenties, but the audience doesn’t feel like that is their voice,” she said. “It’s not just having media that people listen to, but media that they can actually communicate with.”

Small media startups are impeded from cracking into wider audiences by a variety of policies that are intended to block spammers and fake news producers. The Committee for the Evaluation of News Partnership, an alliance of interest groups, regulates media outlets through a strict screening process that generally prevents smaller outlets from reaching the news portals of Naver and Daum. Meanwhile, Naver TV Cast, a popular web broadcast portal, allows only existing broadcasting companies’ content.

These restrictions are loosening, however, as these news portals are now branching out to partner with multichannel networks. And Cho is confident that as more media startups launch that fall somewhere between legacy media and Facebook-only verticals, the South Korean media landscape will see a revolution.

Dotface is still figuring out its business model. Some advertisers might be wary of associating with a media outlet willing to publish a documentary on the drag queen culture featuring Korean-American diva Kim Chi; Dotface also reserves the right to decline advertising from companies whose values conflict with theirs. (That said, “there has not yet been a time when an advertiser backed out of advertising with us,” according to Cho.)

Dotface has experimented with branded content, producing videos for companies that want to reflect a message appealing to its readers. One recent video sponsored by local oil refiner GS Caltex, produced by Dotface, portrayed the endurance of a man backpacking through Patagonia. But that revenue stream is limited by the young startup’s limited connections in the ad agency and content distribution worlds.

The startup plans to continue experimenting with native advertising and Dotface-branded merchandise — such as, Cho suggested, a potential partnership with sex toy brand Tenga. It’s also floated ideas like creating community-based platforms such as a dating app friendly to both straight and queer identities.

“Entertainment agencies are trying to become media companies, and they can actually push aside content from traditional media,” Cho said. “So in reality, with all the new competition coming in, if it isn’t fun, it’s hard to survive. It’s the same for news.”

Ryu Ji-min contributed to the reporting of this article.

Photo of Sodam Cho by Elaine Ramirez.

POSTED     April 5, 2017, 10 a.m.
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