A Decade of Freelancing in Korea: Jason Strother

Jason Strother

Interview by Matthew Fennell

Jason Strother first visited South Korea as an exchange student in 2002, so when he decided in 2006 to make the move from working as a producer for an American 24-hour cable news channel into the world of freelancing, Seoul was the obvious choice. Fast forward 10 years and he has now established himself as one of the top freelancing journalists on the Peninsula. A regular at many Asia Society events, the Korea Center caught up with Mr. Strother to look back on what has been a memorable decade during which he has seen South Korea undergo major political and social changes.

You had a stable and interesting job working as a producer in America. What made you want to make the transition in freelance journalism?
 I was working in local news in NYC. I was tired of writing about triple homicides and exploding manholes. In short, I wanted more exciting life experiences. Since the time I was an undergrad in New Jersey I had wanted a media career that would allow me to live overseas and dive into a completely different society. My limited work experience as well as newsroom cutbacks in foreign reporting made it highly unlikely that I could land a correspondent’s job at that time, so freelancing was really the only way for me to report for the international press. In 2006, there were not many foreign reporters here and no one stringing for American public radio, so I found a niche. My career as a freelancer has gotten better every year. I still do radio, but have written for international newspapers, magazines and frequently appear on television.

During your time here, South Korea has changed dramatically politically and socially. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen?
When I arrived here, editors back in the US were mainly interested in stories that involved North Korea. Now, South Korea is much more on the map and I find it easier to sell stories that have nothing to do with the folks above the border. I think South Korea has become more globally confident since I first came here. The world now knows about Korean popular culture, cuisine, products and people. It’s really evident in the busloads of foreign visitors you see here - something that didn’t exist a decade ago.

South Korea has experienced many global news issues over the past 10 years. What story stands out as your most memorable?
Sadly, maybe because it’s the most fresh in my mind, is the sinking of the Sewol ferry. I was able to interview one of the survivors of the disaster the day after it happened - it really made an impact on me. I went on to meet relatives of some of those who did not make it off the ship as well. It was an incident that revealed so much about South Korea, for better or worse. It’s a shame that it’s still not completely resolved two years later.

Having worked in the media industry in both America and South Korea, how different are the press in the two countries?
Well, I think international surveys will show that there is less press freedom here in Korea than in the US. I also find that some newspapers here are sometimes shameless about showing their political bias. Strong libel and defamation laws also limit a journalist’s ability to do their job. South Korea is a young democracy with limited experience with media independence. It takes time to build this type of institution.

As a foreigner, have you experienced any resistance or had difficulties in accessing stories here in Korea? Or are more people willing to talk to you because you are a non-Korean?
I think whether you are a foreign or local reporter here, there is difficulty getting subjects to go on the record or completely open up. There is a strong sense of public shame in Korea that is much stronger than in western cultures. There are both benefits and disadvantages of reporting for the international press. In some cases, Korean sources feel it’s better to speak to international media because there is a feeling that what they say will have a broader impact. On the other hand, I have been told by sources that they do not want to say anything too critical, because they don’t want to bring shame onto their country. “That’s a sensitive issue” might be the most common response I’ve heard in Korea. 

What piece of advice would you give to the next generation of freelance journalists?
First, it helps to have one if not a few interests that he or she can focus on as a reporter. Broaden your skill set as widely as you can. The way the industry is going, an up and coming freelancer should not only be a competent writer, but also be able to produce multimedia reports. More practically speaking, a journalist who wants to go rogue and give freelancing a shot, should also prioritize how important things like income, family and professional flexibility are to them.