Oh, my news: Citizen journalist
Online newspaper rocks South Korean media trend
Oh Yeon-Ho, president and CEO of OhmyNews, poses with portraits of citizen reporters from abroad at his office in Seoul. Oh Yeon-Ho founded his webpage, OhmyNews.com, in February 2000 as one of the world's first outlets for "citizen journalism" — with a myriad of online users filing whatever stories they think are worthy of coverage. AFP
SEOUL, (AFP) - Oh Yeon-Ho firmly believes in the slogan that hangs over the door of his office: "Every citizen is a reporter."It's a motto that has driven him to create one of the world's biggest and most influential "citizen journalism" websites, OhmyNews.com, and to build an army of amateur reporters tens of thousands strong.
"'Every citizen is a reporter' is no longer a slogan but a reality," Oh, 42, said in a recent interview at his Seoul office.
When he founded his web page in February 2000 as one of the world's first outlets for "citizen journalism," he had only four staff.
Now his 50,000 reporters are backed by 80 staff and churn out hundreds of stories in South Korea. Another 3,000 reporters are registered in Japan, plus 2,500 elsewhere, he said.
"They come from virtually all walks of society," Oh says of his contributors. "Schoolkids, housewives, policemen, novelists, doctors and even politicians."OhmyNews is now regarded as South Korea's most influential news website, competing with conventional media outlets and helping change the concept of journalism not just in South Korea but across the world.
"The citizen journalism pioneered by OhmyNews in South Korea is changing the paradigm of mass communications where media outlets unilaterally set what the news is and feed it to the general public," said Kim Byoung-Cheol, a journalism professor at Cyber University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
"Now, citizens are both the producers and the consumers of the news. The era of elite journalists monopolising the news is over. "Citizen journalism is not a transient phenomenon but a big global trend in line with the blooming democratisation," he said.
Oh couldn't agree more, and says his confidence is backed up by the numbers.
If a story becomes really big, up to two million people a day will log onto the site, up from the normal daily traffic of 500,000 to one million hits, Oh said.
Amateur journalists produce up to 200 stories each day for OhmyNews, some 80 percent of the total, and even though they receive relatively little money for their work -- up to 20,000 won (about 20 dollars) per article -- the stories keep pouring in.
"It is meagre pay. But it fits in with my way of living a consume-less life," said Song Seong-Yong, an organic farmer who has contributed around 200 human interest stories to OhmyNews since late 2002. "OhmyNews is a channel for me to engage in social issues from the remote countryside," said Song.
OhmyNews owes its success partly to the government's decision to install an extensive Internet system throughout the country, giving around 70 percent of South Koreans access to broadband as more and more people are receiving their news online. "It is crucial that you can get access to the Internet whenever you want and wherever you go," Oh said.
OhmyNews posted a loss for the first three years before making a profit up until 2005, Oh said. He had no figures for 2006 but expected to record a deficit for that year due to investment spending.
Oh did not give exact profit figures but said average annual revenue was six billion won (6.35 million dollars), 70 percent of it from advertising.
Editorially, the website's influence has been dramatic.
The bottom-up coverage by its "news guerrillas" of the 2002 presidential election contributed to the surprise election of President Roh Moo-Hyun. Roh gave his first post-election interview to OhmyNews. "We saw a big news value in Roh's fresh election campaigning -- what the conventional news outlets totally missed," Oh recalled. "We wanted to be with the grassroots voices, often ignored by conservative media."OhmyNews has gripped the public with coverage of major events, such as the accidental killing of two schoolgirls by a US armoured vehicle -- an event which sparked mass anti-US protests -- and the 2004 impeachment of Roh.
Its challenge to the media establishment reflects Oh's own life. As a student activist against the military-backed dictatorship he was jailed for a year in the 1980s and joined a progressive magazine in the 1990s.
Oh, who studied journalism in the United States after majoring in Korean literature, insists that media outlets should not be alone in setting the news agenda.
He says professional journalists should be on an equal footing with their audience.
The name of his website reflects the way he thinks reporters, whether professional or amateur, should react to a good story. "News makes reporters run. Good news makes their hearts beat. The moment you have a heartbeat with the exclamation 'Oh my God!' you should write. That's oh my news!" he said with a big smile.
Some critics warn of the shortcomings of such online journalism.
"Speed pressure, combined with the vulnerable reporting system of Internet media, can result in inaccurate and abusive reports," Jang Yong-Ha, a journalism professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, said in a recent report.
Oh admitted that his amateur journalists sometimes fell victim to hoaxes and had become embroiled in several libel cases.
But he said the problem could be minimised by his trained full-time staff, who fact-check stories filed by citizens.
Amateur writers are reminded of a code of ethics calling for the shunning of vulgar or defamatory language and banning plagiarism.