The Investigator: how one man is breaking news for Atlanta's Korean community.
Sang Yeon Lee, President of Atlanta K, tells me about his latest investigation, the need for more community journalism, and what he misses most about Korea.
Sang Yeon Lee, president of Atlanta K, the Southeast’s only Korean language all digital news publication, has a knack for doing something all journalists aspire to - being the first on the scene. When news alerts dropped about the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021, Sang Yeon reached out to his local connections and broke the news that four of the eight victims were Korean. When news of the Su Jung Sauna shooting in Norcross broke in 2012, he was the first Korean journalist to arrive at the site of the attack.
In Korea, where he was a reporter for seven years for the Korea Times, he witnessed the country’s largest peacetime disaster - the 1995 Sampoong department store collapse in Seoul that killed over 500 people. That same year, Sang Yeong reported on a gas explosion in an underground construction site in the southern city of Daegu.
Here in Atlanta, he’s brought that tradition of breaking stories and investigating wrongdoing, to his publication. And Korean speaking communities have responded. Even though there were already three other Korean language newspapers in the area serving the metro areas large and growing Korean communities (after English and Spanish, Korean is the most spoken language in Georgia), when Atlanta K launched, none of them offered what Lee thought was essential - easily reaching readers on their smartphones and focusing on originally reported stories. On any given month, Sang Yeong says the site gets around 450,000 unique visits - reaching readers mostly in Georgia, but also in states throughout the South.
These days, he spends his time between his home in Athens, and the offices of Atlanta K in Duluth and Suwanee, where his staff is in the midst of a major investigation. A week ago, Atlanta K broke a story that he says has shaken the Atlanta Korean community. The reporting documents allegations of financial mismanagement of COVID 19 federal funds by the former President of the Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta (KAAGA), as well as his failure to satisfactorily answer questions around other KAAGA accounting.
I spoke with Sang Yeon about Atlanta K, the needs of Korean communities in Georgia right now, and what he misses most about Korea.
Why did you start Atlanta K? How do you think it serves the community and what makes it different from the other local Korean newspapers?
I worked for the Chosun Daily for 10 or more years as an editor-in-chief. I have observed the rise and fall of local ethnic 'paper' news media. The population map of Korean Americans in Georgia is rapidly changing in terms of ages, education, and especially news consumption styles. Most paper media were not ready for this situation.
I thought that Korean Americans in Atlanta need new kinds of news outlets; handy, speedy but thoughtful. I wanted to make Atlanta K a truly mobile-based news platform and it has been a smash hit because 80% of the current readers are using their smartphones.
Most Korean news media here in Atlanta are 'franchise entities'. It means they get most news articles and sources from major newspapers in Korea. I simply don't want to do that. I have been focusing on local scoops and information for the Korean community here. We also concentrate on American politics, economy, and education news which could help Korean Americans understand the U.S. better.
Who are Atlanta K's primary readers? What types of stories are they most interested in?
About 60% of our readers are Koreans Americans in metro Atlanta area. And almost 25% are from the Southeastern states like Alabama, Florida, Carolinas, and Tennessee. I think the rest is from other major Korean communities like LA and New York.
Local news are always No.1 interests, business and education news are very popular. Last year, the spa shooting stories are most read.
What information and stories do you think the community needs more of, that they're not getting?
Government access issue is always the No. 1 concern of ethnic media. We need more information from federal and local governments and public organizations. We are trying to access county and city governments and police departments because our community needs direct information from them, not from mainstream media as late second-hand news.
I believe federal and local governments should try to reach out to ethnic news media with more organized ways.
What are some stories Atlanta K is working on right now?
We are investigating some financial failures of former leadership of Korean American Association in Atlanta now. We have more information right now and I think it could shake Atlanta Korean community for a while.
How has the pandemic impacted the Korean community in the Southeast? In metro Atlanta?
About 60% of Korean families here are running small businesses and many of them are 'mom and pop' stores. The COVID19 pandemic has deeply changed the ways of their businesses and lifestyles. Most are affected in negative ways, and only a few have thrived in spite of the pandemic.
However, there are bright sides, too. As you know, Asians including Koreans are the most rule-abiding citizens. Almost all of Koreans have been getting COVID vaccines and trying to wear masks regardless of government mandates.
I think Korean communities here will survive this Pandemic and jump more steps in the future.
What is your favorite part of living in Georgia? What do you miss most about Korea?
Believe or not, I am a huge 'American' football fan. I love my UGA team and I have never missed watching their games. My 2 sons and I are also ardent Braves fans. We cried together when they won the World champions last November. Only thing I wish in January the Dawgs win the national championship on Monday. Go Dawgs.
And weather, golf, centralized Koreatowns, direct flights from Korea... What's not to like?
I always miss my families and friends in Korea, though. In this pandemic, we can hardly travel to Korea and it hurts us much.