Advancing "News guerrillas"

08.09.2005

OhmyNews and 21st Century Journalism

In his autobiography, Oh Yeon Ho, the founder and chief executive of the Korean newspaper OhmyNews, describes how an Internet craze gripped South Korea in 1999 when he was launching OhmyNews. "We were late to industrialization, but let's lead in digitalization" was one of the slogans of the government and media at the time. "We shall lead Korea to become an information superpower," was another phrase repeated during this period. This translated into web editions of the major Korean print newspapers. "So the closed and elitist journalistic culture was transferred intact to the Internet," Oh observes.

With regard to his Internet background, Oh was then "a country bumkin." At the time, "I wasn't very used to technology," he admits. He had spent the previous 10 years, since 1989, as a journalist for the Korean publication, the monthly Mahl, owned by the civic group, the Citizens' Coalition for Democratic Media. As a journalist, he gave lectures to university students about how to become a reporter. Oh titled his lecture, "Every citizen is a reporter."

He was particularly concerned with the inbalance of power in the media environment in South Korea. There were eight conservative media organizations and only two that were progressive, the monthly Mahl and the Hankyoreh. He noticed how the conservative media companies in South Korea would determine what was considered news. If a story was published in the monthly Mahl it would get little attention by other media. If one was published by one of the conservative media organizations, however, it would be considered news.

OhmyNews and the '356'

Hoping to make the South Korean media landscape more progressively balanced, he put some of the money he obtained from selling his home into capital to support the creation of the first South Korean Internet newspaper which he decided to call "OhmyNews."Five '386' generation businessmen who sympathized with the aims of OhmyNews also invested seed money. (The '386' generation is a term used to describe the generation that participated in the student movement of the 1980s that helped to topple the military dictatorship in South Korea).

These five and Oh were the first stockholders of OhmyNews. Oh asked web designers he knew to write a program. By the end of 1999, he was beta testing a new online form of newspaper. The first edition of OhmyNews was December 21, 1999. At the time OhmyNews had a staff of four and received twenty articles from citizen reporters. By the official launch date, February 22, 2002 at 2:22 p.m., when the incorporation papers were signed, there were 727 citizen reporters.

His goal, Oh explains, was to create a media culture where "the quality of news determined whether it won or lost" not the power and prestige of the media organization that printed the article. Fortunately, Oh was embarking on an undertaking that would depend upon the nature of the Internet, which provides an online environment created to be plastic, malleable, interactive, general purpose, and which supports collaborative efforts (see "Dawn of the Internet and Netizen").

Every citizen is a reporter

These qualities of the Internet would help him to create an online publication which three years later, in October 2003, would be ranked 6th in a survey of Korea's Most Influencial Media by Sisa Journal and Media Research on OhmyNews turned a profit for the first time three years after its birth, in 2003. Jean Min, the Director of the International Division of OhmyNews, explains that today 70% of the funding for OhmyNews comes from advertisements, and 30% comes from news content sales and other sources. OhmyNews hopes this will change to a 50-50 mix to provide more stability.

The current personnel structure of OhmyNews is made up of paid full time staff. There are also columnists, international correspondents, and citizen reporters, who are not part of the paid full time staff. According to Oh, there are currently 75 paid staff, which includes 45 reporters. Among the reporters, 12 are editors for the submissions received from citizen reporters. Min estimates that there are currently 39,000 citizen reporters. Describing the thinking which led him to the concept of the citizen reporter, Oh writes:

Every citizen is a reporter. Journalists aren't some exotic species, they're everyone who seeks to take new developments, put them into writing, and share them with others. This common truth has been trampled on in a culture where being a reporter is seen as something of a privilege to be enjoyed. Privileged reporters who come together to form massive news media wielded power over the whole process of news production, distribution, and consumption. The seriousness of the problem is that the massive media power is the final gutter of Korean capitalist society. There is a lot about those media that is dirty, and yet they have packaged themselves as clean and acted self-righteously towards the rest of society. We therefore stand up to them raising high the flag of guerrilla warfare. Our weapon is the proposition that 'Every citizen is a reporter.' We intend to achieve a'News alliance of the news guerrillas'.

"The Revolt of 727 News Guerrillas: A Revolution in News Production and Consumption".

Explaining what he means by guerrilla warfare, Oh elaborates:

The dictionary definition of guerrilla is 'a member of small non-regular armed forces who disrupt the rear positions of the enemy.' Citizen reporters can be called guerrillas because they are not professional and regulars and they post news from perspectives uniquely their own, not those of the conservative establishment.

Some citizen reporters write only occasionally, but others submit articles regularly. Each day between 200 and 250 articles are submitted to the newspaper. Oh explains that about 70% of these will be published. The website is changed daily, and sometimes several times a day. The staff decides on the placement of the articles, whether they are to appear on the front page, or in one of the sections. Articles that appear on the main page of the website, or that are listed in the index of new articles on the front page, are likely to get more public attention than articles that are in the sections. Also a list of the most frequently read articles from the previous week appears each week. These articles continue to get attention for an additional week. A print edition is published once a week containing some of the articles that appeared online during the week.

Creating a better world

If a citizen reporter's article is used, the citizen reporter earns W2000 (W1000 = approx .80 euro), W10,000, or W20,000. Articles that appear on the main page earn W2000, those that appear at the top of one of the sections, earn W10,000, and those that appear somewhere else in the online publication earn W2,000. OhmyNews reports that when citizen reporters are asked why they submit their articles to OhmyNews even though they are paid so little, they respond that they want to contribute to creating a better world.

Explaining the criteria used by the editors to choose which of the articles submitted by citizen reporters will appear in OhmyNews, Oh writes, "Beginning with current events, how much sympathy the articles will arouse, how lively they are and how much social impact they will have." A graduate student studying blogs reports that bloggers feel that blogs are less influential in South Korea because many potential bloggers prefer to be citizen reporters for OhmyNews.

OhmyNews celebrated its 5th birthday on February 22, 2005. Oh describes the first 5 years of OhmyNews as the first stage of the young newspapers development. An objective during this stage was to gain a standing as a serious newspaper in South Korea. This was achieved by critiquing the activities of the big conglomerates and the big media. Coverage was given to important Korean progressive events like the campaign to win the Presidency of South Korea for Roh Moo-Hyun, or the campaign to turn back his impeachment. Oh also describes how articles about those with little power were written and published in OhmyNews. Another goal during the first stage of OhmyNews's development was to spread the OhmyNews model to the world.

English Edition of Ohmy News

The newspaper has been written up in major newspapers around the world, and this has brought inquiries from people in a number of different countries asking for advice about how to create a similar model. To respond to these requests, an English edition of OhmyNews was created on May 27, 2004, and publishes regularly. Articles are from citizen reporters around the world, from columnists or from the staff who work on the OhmyNews International (OMNI) edition.

Oh explains that OhmyNews has now entered its second stage. The objective of this stage is to "go beyond criticism of the existing social establishment to propose alternatives for a new society." To achieve this goal, OhmyNews will rely on staff reporters. Recognizing the influence a newspaper can have, Oh stresses the need for such influence to be used in a responsible way. Another objective in this second stage is to develop multimedia further, to aim to set up an Internet tv program, for example. This, however, takes money to fund, so it may not be a goal achieved very soon. With respect to the international edition, Oh doesn't foresee developing it as a competitor to current international newspapers like the New York Times or the Washington Post.

Instead, he hopes to spread the model, concept and vision of OhmyNews in order to help interested people in other countries to create their own national versions of OhmyNews. "In each country there are many specific, unique conditions to succeed," he explains, "If there are enough OhmyNews models in other countries, we can make an alliance to exchange articles and to help each other."

There are online users who are working to extend democracy in South Korea anf who consider themselves 'netizens'. Many 'netizens' have contributed to OhmyNews and it, in turn, has helped them to achieve important accomplishments in the current democratization of South Korea. For example, within two months of the birth of OhmyNews, four reporters were sent to cover the Blacklist campaign to prevent corrupt or incompetent politicians from being reelected in the April 2000 election.

Even more significant was the campaign waged by 'netizens' to help Roh Moo-Hyun, a politician not in the mainstream of Korean politics, win the Presidency of South Korea in December 2002. OhmyNews also played an important role in this campaign. In the Spring of 2004, 'netizens' and OhmyNews challenged the impeachment of Roh by organizing and reporting on the massive candlelight demonstrations in which many thousands of people participated.

More than a mere dream

Among the problems facing OhmyNews is the frustration of some citizen reporters with the difficulty of communication they have with the staff. Oh has a plan to try to improve such communication. In addition, some international citizen reporters have complained about the difficulty of getting the payments they are due for their articles.

On a recent visit to Seoul, I asked people I met whether they knew of and read OhmyNews. Many responded that they knew of OhmyNews, while several said they read it. In talking with people in South Korea about OhmyNews, some felt it was biased toward the current President, Roh Moo-Hyun, who it had helped to put into office. Others praised it as one of the few progressive publications in South Korea.

Just this past June, OhmyNews had an international forum in Seoul, inviting citizen reporters from around the world, and from all parts of South Korea to take part. The event was a significant gathering to sponsor and to fund for a young media organization that is but five years old. The daily Korean online publication and the English edition are a continuing demonstration that Oh's commitment to contributing to the creation of a 21st century journalism as an interactive and participatory journalism is more than a mere dream.

How the development and spread of the Internet will affect the future of journalism is still to be determined. In South Korea, OhmyNews and netizens have demonstrated that there is a different form of journalism vying to become the journalism of the future. Also they are demonstrating that the impact this new form of journalism will have on politics is not to be underestimated.

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