“BEING THE first female political reporter of JoongAng Ilbo since its establishment in 1965 is a record that no one can ever break,” said Lee Jung-min, the Editor-in-Chief of JoongAng Sunday. When she jumped into the field of journalism in the 20th century, she was the only female reporter entering the National Assembly Building. She witnessed six general elections from the 15th to the 20th and four presidential elections. The Yonsei Annals interviewed this living legend in the field of journalism, and asked her opinion about the future of printed newspapers.
Annals: Please introduce JoongAng Sunday. What distinguishes JoongAng Sunday from other newspapers in Korea?
Lee: JoongAng Sunday is the only newspaper that is published on Sundays in South Korea. Its content is comprised of magazine columns which cover culture, arts, design and performances, as well as news coverage on issues that happen up until Saturday afternoon, which makes JoongAng Sunday a type of a “newsmagazine.” JoongAng Sunday was established in 2006 with the goal of fostering high quality debate in Korean society and at the same time, becoming a quality newspaper that prominent opinion leaders read. One of the strengths of JoongAng Sunday is that not only the reporters of JoongAng Ilbo but also experts from various fields contribute to analyses and commentaries either through interviews or special reports. This new tendency of outsourcing experts has influenced other daily newspapers; some of them now publish articles of outsourced experts in their Saturday issues.
In addition, as the five-day workweek has been settled, the weekend has extended to two days. As it could be seen from developed countries’ trends of subscribing newspapers, more people take time to read newspapers more carefully. However, in Korea, there wasn’t a proper newspaper or magazine to read on Sundays, which is one of the reasons that JoongAng Sunday was established. Unlike daily newspapers like JoongAng Ilbo, articles of JoongAng Sunday are about 4,000 words long. With an abundance of information and in-depth analysis, we offer readers some space to contemplate on issues by themselves.
Annals: Now that you’re the Editor-in-Chief, tell us about when you were a reporter and editor. Since when did you dream of becoming a reporter?
Lee: To be honest, I did not thoroughly prepare to become a reporter. Although I felt a reporter was an attractive job when I subscribed to the children’s newspaper as a child, I did not consider becoming a reporter when I was in college. Actually, it was a coincidence that I took the entrance exam for JoongAng Ilbo. When I was attending an English academy to prepare for studying abroad to pursue an academic career, the people I spent the most time with were preparing for the reporters’ exams and for some reason, I joined them. I got employed at JoongAng Ilbo as a reporter in 1988, right after the Seoul Olympics. Even back then, it was quite competitive to be a reporter. In 1987, democratization was progressing at a fast pace and many start-up newspaper companies were springing up everywhere. Newspapers lengthened their pages as much as possible, and gained much more spotlight than today. I couldn’t be more astonished at how much things have changed since then.
While becoming a reporter seems attractive, the job itself is quite tough. As the Editor-in-Chief, the amount of stress is even greater. It is because I must constantly “judge.” Judging is nerve-racking because a single misjudgment could lead the newspaper in the wrong direction and, in the worst case, a false report. Not only reporters, but also, editors should always maintain some tension.
Annals: The door for female reporters was very narrow in the 20th century journalism industry – even worse for political reporters. I would like to hear your story.
Lee: “The 20th century journalism industry” sounds quite decent! And yes, it is true. The media environment, society atmosphere, and people’s perceptions were incomparably “old.” Female reporters were far rarer. When I was first employed at JoongAng Ilbo, there were only 9 female reporters including myself out of about 200 reporters. At that time, the journalism divisions for female reporters were limited to Culture, International, and Lifestyle Divisions, so the companies employed a minimum number of female reporters just for show. It was unimaginable for female reporters to enter the National Assembly Building. I, myself, was moving around the proofreading department, female department, and lifestyle department and finally settled at the Economic Division in 1995. I was able to enter the Bank of Korea and the finance sector as a reporter. At that time, online media or cable TVs were not as prevalent, and the number of reporters entering those institutions was quite small. Among them, there were only two female reporters. And finally in 1996, before the 15th general elections, I was transferred to the Politics Division.
Annals: What were your motivations as the first female political reporter?
Lee: One of the records of mine that will never be broken is that I am the “first female reporter of the Politics Division since JoongAng Ilbo’s establishment in 1965.” As I mentioned before, females were quite rare in the National Assembly. Female congressmen and legislative staff were hard to find, and even reporters were mostly males. In daily, weekly, other regional newspapers and broadcasting systems including the pressroom of the New Korea Party, the predecessor of the Saenuri Party, I was almost the first female reporter that had an entrance pass – “almost” the first because The Chosun Ilbo too sent off a female reporter during a similar period to the New Korea Party. As almost everyone there were men, they looked at me like a monkey in a zoo. Although the frame imposed on “the first female reporter in the National Assembly” was quite tough, at the same time it served as a motivation factor. I really put effort into my work to get away from all the attention, and luckily I even got to report “breaking news” several times, which alerted other male reporters.
Looking back, I also think that witnessing historical moments at the spot motivated me as well. I spent about 20 years in the Politics Division since 1996, and during those years, I reported every single general election from the 15th to the 20th, four presidential elections, and the regional elections, witnessing all of them in person. I also saw the transition of the regime, the impeachment of the late President Roh, and the election of the first female president in Korea very closely.
Annals: When was your toughest period? Did you ever want to give up your career as a reporter?
Lee: I cannot express everything in words, but I think every single thing was tough. Being a reporter is hard enough, but being a reporter in a country with rapid political changes is even tougher. I even had a child, which also added pressure on me and my career. To be honest, I had countless moments when I wanted to give up. There is even a reporter’s jargon called ma-wa-ri, which means to chase politicians here and there to just get one more word out of them. Despite all these adversities, what brought me back up was the strong will to accomplish what I’ve started. I had a rigid determination that I could not give up here. In hard times, I constantly promised myself to report news that nobody could write but me. I did not want to be judged like everyone else after all the effort I put into my work.
Annals: What do you think about the depressing perception on news contents and the newspaper industry in Korea?
Lee: Portal sites such as Naver and Daum provide convenient search engines for dictionary and shopping, and deliver new information quickly. Yet, they are the culprit of destroying the “news ecosystem.” They freely distribute invalid and low-quality internet news that desecrate the quality of news contents, with their power as major platforms. They use provocative news contents to attract more people to their websites while not paying the adequate fare for publishing more validated news online. The idea that news is free is quite prevalent and deeply rooted in people’s minds today, but consider the time and effort that reporters put to write one quality article. How much does media pay for that now? The major portal websites are neglecting this reality and continuing to abuse the news for their own benefit. In a nation with a population of 50 million, there are about 20,000 present internet newspaper companies without any system that verifies the validity and credibility of news articles. I believe that such major portals are, to some extent, responsible for letting too many low-quality news get published.
Annals: Would printed newspapers ever be replaced by online newspapers?
Lee: Compared to the past, surely the influence of printed newspaper has diminished. However, I don’t think it would disappear because it is the “paper” as a medium of news that lacks competitiveness, not the quality of news contents. It’s a matter of contents, in fact. Although news contents are currently underpriced under the power of portal website platforms, as technology becomes more sophisticated, such issues could be resolved.
Annals: Please give your advice to students dreaming to become reporters.
Lee: There are several important traits needed to become a reporter. But one thing I consider to be most important is promoting public interest. Public interest should outweigh individual interest. When viewing the world, putting the organization on top and the common interest of the nation over self-interest is essential. Aspiring reporters should carefully observe and explore how the society changes. In fact, basic skills such as writing and interviewing can be learned even after becoming a reporter; yet, how people think and behave do not change that easily.