There are two sides to the existential value of small media outlets in the digital age.
On the bright side, they make it possible to enrich the press world by dealing with news stories ordinarily shunned or disregarded by mainstream media organizations. On the dark side, however, they can be pseudo-press companies that survive only on ads supplied by companies in return for withholding stories about those companies in question or their chief executives.
The government took note of the dark side and revised the enforcement ordinance of the law governing newspapers in November. Under the new decree, Internet news media will have to hire at least five full-time journalists or editors, an increase from the current three. The revision will take effect after a one-year grace period and will apply retroactively to existing media.
The culture ministry says the revision comes from increasing problems with online media outlets reporting sensational news and spreading information harmful to adolescents. A culture ministry official was quoted as saying that the previous requirement for online media registration was too easy and nearly 1,000 small outlets emerged on average in each of the recent years. The ministry expects the new ordinance will help enhance social responsibility of online media and weed out false press outlets.
The revision of the enforcement decree puts thousands of Internet newspapers across the country at risk of having their registration revoked. According to a 2014 report released by the Korea Press Foundation, about 39 percent of the nation's 6,000 online news firms had fewer than five employees, meaning that at least 2,000 outlets might have to shut down unless they meet the quota requirement during the grace period.
The government's move to stifle small new media comes at a time when Naver and Kakao, the nation's largest online portals, are also seeking to oust online firms that post plagiarized articles or advertorials from their platforms. According to new rules announced by the two companies' media partnership assessment committee earlier this month, only entities that have operated for at least one year after registering can apply for a partnership with them.
They should have a certain level of news production capability, including an obligation to produce at least 200 articles per month in the case of a daily outlet; and also meet ethical standards. Those found to be undermining journalistic value are subject to five-scale sanctions, ultimately leading to the cancellation of partnerships. It's apparent that these restrictive measures by portals also seem to target smaller news providers.
Then does it make sense if the ongoing ''cleanup'' drive in the press world results mostly in the closure of weak and small ones?
Of course, there has been much talk about the need to regulate news services as more and more one-person news media have opened up. Corporate PR officials often complain that they are threatened by operators of these news outlets who rarely hesitate to barter stories for money. And this phenomenon is spreading because many retiring journalists are willing to launch Internet news sites with ease.
As more online news media began circulating news, more complaints against them have been filed with the Press Arbitration Commission. From 2011 through July 2015, there were a total of 19,136 petitions complaining about Internet news media.
More recently, portal sites have become a vehicle to disseminate malignant stories more broadly as they post them without filtering.
It is against this backdrop that the culture ministry and the large portals have taken actions to regulate what they believe are pseudo-journalists.
And all this is going almost unnoticed, even as it is about the rights of free expression, one of our critical democratic values.
Companies might feel it convenient, merely thinking that fewer media outlets would harass them. Large press companies might welcome the liquidation of their smaller competitors merely because competition for scarce ads could slacken.
What's more sinister is that all these restrictive measures might be the government's wicked move to get rid of ''watchdogs,'' using only its arbitrary standards. This argument might be convincing, considering that the ruling Saenuri Party has been raising the need ― consistently and stubbornly ― to regulate online news services.
But freedom of the press is too important to be slighted by administrative measures.
The most serious problem is that it might be irrational that the fate of media outlets must be determined merely by the size ― in this case, the number of full-time journalists. This is all the more so, considering that there has been no clear and objective evidence that the smaller organizations have caused unethical and abusive problems.
Another point is related to pluralism in our media community. Given the characteristic of the press, diversity should predominate over uniformity. This is the minimal requirement needed to help form public opinion freely and diversely. That's because democracy is also based on pluralism.
What's clear is that the freedom of free expression must be guaranteed comprehensively. "one should not burn the house to roast the pig,'' as the saying goes.
The writer is the executive editor of The Korea Times. Contact him at email@example.com.