Sasangge, the online literary magazine which is free… as long as you share

New online magazine, Sasangge, due to be launched in the next few days by Korean technology-entrepreneur, Won Hee Chang, will adopt a unique business model in an effort to monetise its online content. Chang proposes to offer readers free access to the magazine in exchange for the sharing of its articles via social media sites, hereby urging the content to go viral. She is reviving her grandfather’s magazine – a respected Seoul-based literary publication whose name roughly translates as “World of Thought” – which disappeared from newsstands in 1970.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | April 18, 2013

Woo Hee Chang believes she has the solution to a troubling paradox at the heart of the online news industry. As journalist Tyler Falk discusses in an article (in French) for business and technology website,, media businesses want their content to go viral and, of course, they want to monetise it, but more and more have made their content largely inaccessible by putting up paywalls. Some choose to keep a minority of their articles freely accessible, whilst others choose to provide a title and short summary for every article.

But blocking content to non-paying customers, seen now as a financial necessity for many newspapers such as the New York Times, can lead to the “stagnation” of a newspaper’s readership. When a paper starts charging for content, many potential new readers steer clear, especially in the case of a brand new publication which has no established reputation or faithful readership willing to pay for continued access to trusted content. This paywall strategy constitutes a “wall” in the very literal sense of the word – it erects a barrier between the newspaper and its potential audience.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported on the upcoming launch of Sasangge, explaining the workings of Chang’s business model: “Content, available in English, will initially be free. When readers log on to the site for the first time, they’ll receive a certain number of points—Chang calls them “karma points”—which will slowly be depleted as they click through articles. To restock on points and maintain access, they will have to share the site’s stories through social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.” The number of articles to which the reader has access will be directly proportional to the number of articles they have spread online. As for readers who recoil at the idea of sharing content? They can choose to buy their points (five will cost 99¢).

Contributors to the literary magazine will receive a “competitive up-front fee,” but will also be given a cut of the advertising revenue generated by their articles. “We’ll know the click-through rates for every single article, so we can actually give [them] a cut for the advertising that goes through,” she says. “[They] won’t get paid once; [they’ll] get paid continuously.” Chang also plans to use the site as a data platform by gathering information about readers (for example, demographics or reading habits) and selling it on to third parties.

In theory, it’s a win-win situation for both parties, a symbiotic relationship between magazine and reader that allows both sides to profit in their own way. Also, if the content succeeds in going viral, advertising revenue will skyrocket. However, the Businessweek article poses a valid question: “is it possible to coerce virality?” In order that readers are ready and willing to share Sasangge’s article via their social media profiles, the magazine will need to offer the type of reports, stories and interviews that people will want to share. Content, therefore, will be more important than ever; the quality and level of interest will need to be extremely high, otherwise readers may be reluctant to share content for fear of a negative personal reflection on themselves. Who wants their Facebook or Twitter feed to be cluttered with links to uninteresting, poorly-written articles? Businessweek reports that the first issue will focus on North Korea – “a timely topic that Chang is hoping readers won’t be able to resist sharing with their friends.” The success of the “free if you share” model, then, will serve as a clear judgment on the quality of Sasangge’s journalism.

The website as it currently stands is highly basic – it includes merely a short description of the magazine (sasangge is a mobile magazine focused on delight and long form cultural journalism, rewarding readers for engagement– brought to you from one of the most connected, internet-obsessed, device-diverse, mobile, and whimsical countries on the planet: KOREA.) and leaves readers with the option to leave their email address to receive an invite to their launch.

Won Hee Chang is now racing to launch the new Sasangge before the end of April to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the original magazine’s founding. The magazine has the advantage of an interesting history behind it, and therefore does not face the same level of concerns of a publication starting completely from scratch – it was closed right before Chang’s grandfather, Chang Chun-Ha, a pro-democracy activist, was arrested by the military government of Park Chung-Hee and then died suspiciously by following from a cliff.

It can be expected, then, that the magazine will generate a considerable level of interest, and therefore (supposedly) a high number of readers willing to share its content with their social media followers. It will be interesting to follow Sasangge in its first few months, to see whether this fascinating new “free if you share” strategy will be economically viable, or whether Chang will be forced to consider other models such as the increasingly popular paywall…

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