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South Korea boot camp for cub reporters

The young college graduate acknowledges that she has a job with pretty demanding hours -- like 3:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m.

Sometimes, to get any shut-eye at all, she shares a bed with a bunch of other trainees. Then there’s the minder who rules her every moment, even in the shower, not to mention the marathon drinking sessions to get her in fighting shape.

At 23, she’s a cub reporter slogging her way through a grueling round-the-clock journalism training program that often plays out more like a college fraternity hazing. It’s a sink-or-swim test of willpower and stamina designed to prepare young wire service, newspaper and television writers for survival in South Korea’s no-holds-barred news culture.

“I think the toughest part is not being able to sleep,” said the woman, running to another late afternoon court hearing at an hour when most workers were heading home. “That affects a lot of other things. Most nights, I feel lucky if I can sneak in three hours.”

The decades-old program is loosely organized among a handful of news outlets in Seoul. Not every news company participates, but those that do send all new hires -- an annual total of 100 to 200 cubs -- to spend as long as six months proving their mettle.

They are assigned to various police stations where they eat, sleep and bang out their stories on crime, courts and hospitals on laptop computers.

At some stations, as many as 10 reporters sleep together on a 10-by-12-foot raised platform that serves as a bed. They’re rarely allowed to go home, so even showers become a rarity.

The program is so rigorous that it was recently featured on a TV show detailing the country’s toughest jobs. The cubs, fearful of the wrath of their employers, declined to give their names.

Even the police scratch their heads over the bedlam. Asked where the journalists slept at one station, an officer pointed down a dimly lighted hallway. “Just look for the dirtiest room,” he said.

One local wire service reporter, a cub mentor who also endured the training, said big stories often require round-the-clock reporting efforts.

“Think about Haiti,” he said. “If that kind of large-scale disaster happens, reporters might not be prepared for those circumstances without tough training.”

Each news organization creates its own cub reporter hurdles. Some are higher than others. But most programs include a requirement that harks back to “The Front Page” days of American journalism: hard drinking.

Cubs endure marathon boozing sessions -- sometimes at lunch -- on the theory that plying sources with drinks will be part of their routine. The demands are less for female reporters, but many of them still coat their stomachs with medicine to survive the sessions.

“In Korea, the unwritten rule says you have to be a good drinker to become a good reporter,” said one 30-year-old cub.

On that night, he said, his minder would require him to consume two bottles of soju, a rice-based alcoholic beverage, and 10 bottles of beer.

The cub mentor said drinking is not a requirement for the job. “Overall in Korea, it is necessary to drink a lot,” he said. “But it depends what company and what reporter you work with. It’s not a part of the program. Also, you do not drink every day.”

Not everyone stays with the program. Some quit, put off by the long hours and physical abuse. Those who stay buck up, or suffer.

One reporter, now 26, said she carried her cellphone at all times, even while showering, in case her mentor called. She couldn’t eat without his approval, let alone rest.

“I wasn’t getting enough sleep and I thought to myself: ‘Why am I doing this? I’m a grown-up. I’ve finished college. And for what -- a job where I’m exhausted and getting yelled at?’ ” she said.

One day, after sleeping in and missing a call to her mentor, she was ordered to obtain a secret intra-departmental police memo. She worked hard, and she used her wits.

“I had made a friend in the department and she gave it to me,” recalled the 26-year-old, who spent three months in the program. “Out of sympathy, she showed me the document.”

In this pressure cooker, reporters teach themselves lessons. After spending weeks under orders to produce scoops at the expense of their fellow cubs, many devise a solution: They secretly share information.

“We decided to work as a team as a survival strategy, so we could get some sleep,” said one reporter, sitting in a sleep room littered with discarded clothes, cookie wrappers, chopsticks and wrinkled newspapers. “It’s great to show your independence as a reporter, but first you’ve got to survive this program.”

Two weeks into her three-month regimen, the 23-year-old recent college graduate is seeing progress. She doesn’t like alcohol but has gulped down her share of drinks. And she’s learning to get by on less sleep.

On one recent marathon day, it was 3 a.m. when she finished making her reporting rounds. But with her next check-in with her mentor just hours away, she skipped the bed and headed out to another station.

“Your body gets used to the pace,” she said. “But it definitely makes you go beyond your limits.”

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park in The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.


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