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Korea’s New Crusaders

Korea’s News Crusaders
By Jeremy Wagstaff/SEOUL
Far East Economic Review
Issue cover-dated October 07, 2004

South Korean real-time news site, OhmyNews, has turned every citizen into a reporter. Now, the founder aims to export his success story overseas

SOUTH KOREA’S MEDIA has been turned on its head by an upstart Internet news portal called OhmyNews. But can its revolutionary brand of citizen reporting and Internet-only delivery work elsewhere?

It started, simply enough, with one man’s anger. When mainstream Korean newspapers in 1999 started writing about the massacre of Korean refugees at No Gun Ri by United States soldiers nearly 50 years before, the story came as no surprise to local journalist Oh Yeon Ho. For one thing, the dailies were merely playing catch-up with U.S. news agency Associated Press, which had broken the story a few days earlier. For another, Oh had written a very similar story four years before: His story had appeared in a small left-wing Korean magazine called Mal, where it was largely ignored, and, unlike the AP story, won no Pulitzer prize. “I was just a proletarian of the media world,” he says.

It was then, Oh recalls, that he decided that South Koreans deserved something better. No longer should they have to rely on what he saw as a conservative media elite interested only in news that served their purposes. “It was a very sad thing for me,” says Oh of the fact that local media had ignored the No Gun Ri massacre for so long, writing on it only when a foreign news organization started to dig. “Which is why I decided to create a new kind of newspaper.”

His answer: An Internet Web site called OhmyNews, set up with $120,000 worth of computers and software. Four years on, and at an overall cost of $1.5 million, it has become one of the country’s most influential news outlets. Its tireless coverage of Roh Moo Hyun in the 2002 presidential election–a candidate largely ignored by the mainstream press–won it the first post-victory interview with Roh, nationwide recognition by millions of the president’s young followers and the grudging admiration of Oh’s foes, the newspaper barons.

OhmyNews is in fact little more than a Web site, edited by Oh and his fellow editors, and filled by ordinary members of the public–what the left-leaning Oh calls “citizen reporters”–who submit stories, comments, pictures and sometimes video by e-mail and from their cellphones. More than 30,000 of them regularly post pieces, and many more add their comments. A team of editors sift through the material, weeding out potential legal problems and rewriting for readability, while a handful of full-time reporters add their own stories on the top events of the day. Many of those full-time reporters come from the ranks of contributors, usually after their talents have been spotted by Oh and his team. Kim Young Kyung, for example, attracted the attention of Oh after, as an unemployed history graduate in the southeastern city of Pusan, covering local stories ignored by the mainstream press.

But the bulk of the material comes from the readers themselves: When popular anger against the parliament simmered over earlier this year over its attempt to impeach the president, for example, millions of people used their cellphones to access OhmyNews. Many of them, already part of the thousands of demonstrators cramming the streets of the capital, added content and comments: One item alone attracted 85,000 responses.

All of this has made OhmyNews a household name in Korea and an important alternative source of news for Koreans frustrated by traditional media, but for its founder its lesson is far broader. By allowing ordinary people to submit news and commentary, OhmyNews offers an interactive, democratic style of reporting that complements and challenges the traditional media. It has more news-gathering muscle than many newspapers could afford, with thousands of citizens sniffing out stories. For sure, it has been known to be fast and loose with the facts, but it has influence, and, with widespread tech infrastructure, it’s a medium that is here to stay.

“In Korea, generally we welcome this challenge because OhmyNews journalism claims a stance that is more about justice, open-mindedness and ‘everybody could be a journalist’,” says Don Kim, a former reporter. Overseas, OhmyNews has won fans among those who see it less as a challenge to existing media and more a futuristic collaboration between the professional and amateur worlds. “OhmyNews is an experiment in tomorrow. So far, it’s a brilliant one,” wrote columnist Dan Gillmor in his recent book, We The Media.

The site has attracted some advertising and broke even last year. Now, Oh and his team hope to export the idea and squeeze some profit out of the shoestring operation. Earlier this year he launched an English-language version of OhmyNews. For now, it takes contributions by e-mail, but engineers are working on translating the Korean software used on the local-language site so that citizen reporters across the world can upload their contributions automatically, says OhmyNews’s international director, Jean K. Min. Then, Min says, the company hopes to sell the whole software package and its experience to any customer wanting to mimic the OhmyNews business model. “Potential customers will be buying not only software but the extensive know-how OhmyNews has accumulated in nearly five years of operations,” Min says. Oh says he has already found interest from news organizations in Norway, Japan and the U.S.

ACCESSIBILITY IS THE KEY

While OhmyNews has found a place in Korean hearts, sceptics think it may not be so welcome abroad. They point to Korea’s three main newspapers, which have dominated mainstream journalism and are so conservative that they reported little of the left-leaning Roh’s presidential campaign. That kind of dominance may exist elsewhere, but not without some form of independent media emerging as a counterbalance. “In the West, we already have things like Indymedia and blogs,” says Robert Koehler, an American working as a translator in Seoul, who writes a blog on Korean politics and culture. “One of the things that made OhmyNews so revolutionary in Korea was that there were previously no ‘alternative’ news media.”

Others point to the fact that Korea is one of the most technologically advanced places on earth, where most people have a broadband Internet connection, and are connected even when they’re away from a computer, via a cellphone with built-in browser and camera. This massive penetration has created a way of life that’s “always on,” says OhmyNews chief editor Jeong Wooh Hyeon. He says the infrastructure is the fundamental part of the recipe: “You can’t have a factory if you don’t have a well-paved road.” But as broadband is rolled out around the globe, the instant-news medium will become more accessible.

The country’s homogeneous culture, however, may make OhmyNews’ success a peculiarly Korean phenomenon. With most Koreans living in the cities, they tend to be absorbed by the same kinds of issues, usually at the same time, resulting in one big fevered discussion. “I wonder whether it’s exportable,” says Yoon Young-Chul, professor of media studies at Yonsei University. “Korea might be a specific case.”

OhmyNews has its problems: There are accusations that its reporting is not so much journalism as polemic. Critics have said that a lot of material on OhmyNews is both wrong and incendiary, and would not pass muster overseas. Koehler, the American translator, says much of the OhmyNews coverage of the 2002 campaign was geared towards getting Koreans onto the streets, sometimes by skewing the facts. But in the absence of any credible alternative “younger Koreans . . . tended to believe what they read on OhmyNews,” he says. Oh acknowledged that some articles were misleading, but says, “We’ve started to be more careful about such issues”. He says four libel cases have been filed against OhmyNews. The company has lost one but is appealing against the decision.

This could reflect something of a backtrack in Oh’s revolutionary journey. Before, he talked of ending the elitism of journalism, where “news is lecture,” to where “news is debate.” Now, he says, he is more careful to maintain reporting standards, in part by hiring an experienced journalist, 44-year old Jeong, as chief editor. Jeong sees his job as slowly raising the level of professionalism within the organization, while encouraging individual journalists to dig up stories other newspapers won’t touch. “That’s the power of OhmyNews,” he says.

The English version of OhmyNews looks very little like its Korean cousin–the front page is a melting pot of different styles and topics, from night-time in Rome to Turkey’s bid to join the European Union–reflecting the different way the OhmyNews model may affect news coverage elsewhere. For now, the most lasting lesson Oh and his team can pass on is that it doesn’t take much to start a revolution. “We can do anything so long as we have an Internet connection,” he says.

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