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Dec. 2, 2019, 9:24 a.m.
Reporting & Production

In South Korea, independent newsroom Newstapa has seen what happens when it investigates its donors’ favorite politicians

Under a conservative government that restricted press freedom, Newstapa became a favorite of Korean liberals who backed its lonely fight. But when a more liberal president took charge, some of those donors weren’t too keen on its investigations.

The South Korean nonprofit investigative newsroom Newstapa was born from frustration with the country’s media landscape in 2012. Its founders were a group of journalists who had been either dismissed or marginalized in their newsrooms for demanding editorial independence. Tapa means “defying conventions” in Korean; think of “Newstapa” as “breaking away from conventional news.”

Newstapa didn’t have a funding model — nor any real plans to establish a sustainable one — when it started. But today it’s grown into a media organization with 50 employees, including 35 editorial staff. Its investigative newsroom has a unique blend of broadcasting, documentary-making, and membership, breaking traditions and taboos in South Korea’s conservative media environment and serving as a model for nonprofit media around the world.

“We only planned to run it for about a year,” said Kim Yong-jin, co-founder and editor-in-chief of what is today called KCIJ-Newstapa (KCIJ stands for the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism).

Kim was still with national public broadcaster KBS when he first joined Newstapa as an advisory member and started coming to Seoul on weekends to work as a desk editor. He’d been transferred to Ulsan, a five-hour drive from Seoul, after being demoted from his position as the head of KBS’s investigative reporting unit for protesting the network’s self-censorship. The National Union of Mediaworkers provided a workspace — a meeting room that Newstapa members could use when unoccupied — and around 20 million won (US$16,830) to cover travel expenses and other minor costs for six months.

Newstapa didn’t even have a camera, relying on a small HD camcorder it borrowed from a math instructor. But the response to its web TV show was immediate. Its first episode, on changes in polling station locations ahead of a special election, attracted over 300,000 views on YouTube. “We also benefited from digital technologies that allow us to create and distribute content without big initial investment,” Kim said, noting that Newstapa reporters, many veteran journalists, didn’t encounter much difficulty gaining access.

Currently, Newstapa has more than 400,000 YouTube subscribers, 600,000 Twitter followers, and 200,000 Facebook followers. And it’s produced three documentary films that have attracted a half million viewers to movie theaters.

Establishing a funding model

A few months after launch, Newstapa started accepting donations. Within a few days, it had secured about 1,000 donors, either one-time and recurring). By December 2012, its number of recurring donors had passed 25,000; that’s when Park Geun-hye, a daughter of military strongman Park Chung-hee, won the presidential election with the help of right-wing media.

Following Park’s inauguration, Newstapa appointed Kim as its new chief and aimed to turn it into a sustainable, nonprofit, non-partisan investigative news outlet that neither accepts corporate sponsorship or runs advertising — limiting its potential routes to revenue. KBS reporter Kim Kyung-lae and other prominent journalists quit their jobs and joined Newstapa as the country’s press freedom showed no sign of improving.

“When the Lee Myung-bak administration took office in 2008, it became extremely difficult for us to report anything negative about the government,” said Kim Kyung-lae, who accepted a pay cut of about 10 percent when he moved to his new job in 2013.

The country’s press freedom was in serious jeopardy between 2008 and 2016 under the conservative administrations of Lee and Park, both of whom have been convicted of corruption and sentenced to prison. South Korea’s press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders plunged under the Lee government, from 31st in 2006 to 69th in 2009. It slipped down another notch to 70th in 2016 during the Park government. (Freedom House reduced its rating of South Korea’s press freedom from “Free” to “Partly Free” in 2011, a level it’s maintained in the years since.)

Defamation is punishable in South Korea by up to two years in prison when the published information is true — up to seven years when false information is disseminated. So Newstapa launched a fund for the legal assistance of its journalists; it’s set aside about 300 million won ($256,000). Kim Yong-jin says Newstapa has been the target of 14 lawsuits and that it has won all except one, where it was fined 3 million won (about $2,500) for publishing a phone conversation without the subject’s permission.

Newstapa reported that the National Intelligence Service established a secretive cyber warfare unit that had created more than 600 Twitter accounts and retweeted over 200,000 posts in order to attack opposition presidential candidates. Using a social web analysis tool, Newstapa found at least 10 groups systematically operating on Twitter to manipulate public opinion in favor of presidential candidate Park Geun-hye. Newstapa’s donor numbers rose by about 5,000 after it published a series of reports about South Koreans who had shell companies in tax havens, in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The went up another 5,000 the next year after its in-depth coverage of the Sewol ferry disaster, when mainstream media erroneously reported all people on board had been rescued despite hundreds of passengers still trapped inside the vessel.

Newstapa has also often been a lone wolf in exposing wrongdoings of big advertisers, including Korean industrial giant Samsung. It investigated the illnesses and deaths of Samsung employees who contracted leukemia and lymphoma after working at semiconductor plants. (The company denied any wrongdoing, but later issued an apology and reached a settlement with former employees.) In 2016, Newstapa reported that the Samsung Group’s chairman had allegedly hired multiple prostitutes; that story got 13 million views on YouTube.

By 2017, its donor count had surpassed 40,000 and its yearly donations topped 5.9 billion won ($5 million) by the time the Constitutional Court removed President Park from office over a graft scandal. (She was later sentenced to 24 years in prison.)

The donor challenge

Ironically, the increased press freedom that followed under the more liberal Moon Jae-in administration hurt Newstapa’s donor base. Mainstream news outlets started to cover more of the taboo topics that previously only Newstapa had covered. In 2018, South Korea’s rankings in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index improved to 43rd, up 20 places compared to the previous year — and Newstapa saw its donations drop by more than 10 percent.

Kim Sung-hae, who serves as the head of journalism research at the Korean Society for Journalism and Communication Studies, says Newstapa now faces a challenge acting as a watchdog of the current administration — most of its donors are liberals and supporters of Moon, a human rights lawyer turned president. “Its success in the past can hamper it from pursuing impartial journalism,” said Kim Sung-hae.

Stories that have portrayed liberal politicians in a negative light have sometimes led to negative financial outcomes. Its donors plunged when it wrote about whistleblower-turned-lawmaker Kwon Eun-hee, reporting that she had underreported her and her husband’s assets by taking advantage of a legal loophole when running for office.

The number of its donors also fell significantly after it published a story about a nominee for prosecutor general’s alleged lie over an influence-peddling scandal during his confirmation hearing in July this year. The nominee had been a heroic figure among liberals, having led an investigation into corruption in the previous Park government.

Nonetheless, Kim Yong-jin says Newstapa will stick to its mission statement of impartially exposing abuses of power. Its recurrent donor count is currently about 31,000, and he said he’s confident that number will remain above 30,000.

Cross-platform collaboration

With the change in government and many pushed-out journalists being reinstated with their former employers, cross-platform collaboration has now become a major focus for Newstapa. Since May 2018, Kim Kyung-lae has hosted a current-affairs radio program at KBS, where one of Newstapa’s founding members was reinstated last year. Kim shares half of his extra earnings at KBS with Newstapa.

Newstapa also worked last year on a cross-border investigation led by German network NDR into a fake academic society — along with the broadcaster MBC, where former Newstapa member Choi Seung-ho now serves as CEO. Newstapa reporter Kim Ji-yoon presented the story on both Newstapa and MBC.

In October 2018, Newstapa collaborated with journalists from the media startup Sherlock, then verging on bankruptcy and without an office, to expose IT entrepreneur Yang Jin-ho’s physical abuse of an employee and his forcing employees to shoot a live chicken with a crossbow. Newstapa gave workspace to Sherlock’s reporters, organized a news conference, and distributed the story on its online news platform. In November 2018, Newstapa signed an agreement with the 24-hour news channel YTN — where three former Newstapa members had been reinstated — on content exchange and future collaboration.

Building a home for journalists

Newstapa reached another milestone in August this year by launching a co-working space for independent journalists, called the Together Center, through a crowdfunding campaign that raised over 270 million won (more than $230,000). The Together Center has a multipurpose TV studio, three editing suites, and two meeting rooms. Two university teams, each awarded 3 million won (about $2,500) from Newstapa for pitching stories about university dormitory fees and right-wing extremists on campuses, became one of the first beneficiaries of the co-working space, where Newstapa staff will provide them with mentoring. Independent documentary filmmaker Nam Tae-je is also using Together Center to edit his documentary about people living near a nuclear reactor in Wolseong. The film is expected to hit the big screen in November, with the support of Newstapa.

Newstapa has collaborated with independent producers and filmmakers since 2015 and has awarded 10 million won ($8,500) to documentary projects through public contests since 2018. It’s also run a popular online data journalism course since 2016 as a part of efforts to nurture future investigative journalists.

Kim Yong-jin says a key to making Newstapa sustainable will be earning the trust of its audience by demonstrating the values of unbiased news reports, and through collaboration and sharing of its resources with others. “You should prove yourself to be worthy before asking for help,” Kim said.

Lee Taehoon is a reporter and filmmaker based in South Korea. He is a Seoul producer for ARD and has worked on investigative documentaries for SBS Australia, Al Jazeera English, Channel NewsAsia, BBC, and Channel 4. A version of this article appeared at the Global Investigative Journalism Network and it is published here under Creative Commons license.

Photo of a protest in Seoul calling for Park Geun-Hye to resign December 25, 2016 by Ken Shin used under a Creative Commons license. Newstapa pamphlet by Nanhee Ha.

POSTED     Dec. 2, 2019, 9:24 a.m.
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