Thursday, December 16, 2004

Citizen journalists

A fellow panelist from the Trends in New Media panel in Korea was Oh Yeon ho, CEO and founder of OhmyNews,an online news organization driven by citizen journalists, or what he calls news guerillas. Launched in February 2000, it is, according to Mr. Oh, now the Internet's largest newspaper with 33,000 citizen reporters and more than 35 full-time reporters.

Mr. Oh founded OhmyNews in response to the massive media power wielded by big media in Korea. "Our weapon is the proposition that 'Every citizen is a reporter.'" And its working since the site has rapidly grown from its initial 10 reporters and 700 news guerillas in just four short years.

Here's how this two-way journalism works:
Anyone can register and contribute to OhmyNews, but must first agree to its code of ethics, agreeing to only write facts and not slander. Of the 150 to 200 posts received, about 80 percent will be accepted. Those whose work is accepted receive a small fee (20,000 won or $17), but Mr. Oh is very clear that these citizen journalists are not writing to make money: "They are writing articles to change the world. We give them something that money cannot. We make OhmyNews a public square and a playground for the citizen reporter and readers. Traditional papers say, 'I produce, you read' but we say 'we produce and we read and we change the world together.' That's the power of Ohmy News.

It certainly has clout. Right after the 2002 South Korean presidential election, Ohmy staff reporters got an exclusive interview with President Roh Moo Hyun. "This surprised not only the Korean media market, but also the whole nation," said Mr. Oh during his presentation. It was the first interview the president-elect granted to the domestic media after his election.

In March of this year, 200,000 people gathered for a candlelight ceremony in the center of Seoul to express support for President Roh (who was being threatened with impeachment), an event covered by 20 staff reporters and several citizens reporters. Using text, photo and video, Ohmy published a special edition of the weekly paper. "We broadcast the event live on OhmyTV and updated text articles every 30 minutes during the six-hour demonstration," said Mr. Oh. "About 400,000 OhmyNews readers participated in the demonstration online and more than 80,000 comments on the one issue were recorded on our site. With this kind of coverage, OhmyNews is challenging and changing the traditional media formula of how to write and how to edit." Oh showed footage of the demonstration, which clearly shows what real-time reporting should be.

But is this a successful venture? According to Mr. Oh, the Sisal Journal survey of media ranked OhmyNews the sixth most influential, up from 10th in 2000. And last year the site broke even financially.

Mr. Oh talked about why this concept took root in South Korea and noted several things:

• Korean readers have been disappointed by the mainstream conservative media and have sought alternative sources.
• Korea's Internet infrastructure is superior to most other countries — 75 percent-plus broadband penetration allows for easy use of multimedia.
• South Korea is small enough in size, allowing a team of staff reporters to reach news scenes in a few hours to verify citizen journalist articles. Yes, that's right they are edited and checked for accuracy.
• Korea is a "uni-polar society," meaning the entire country can be engulfed by a couple of issues, making the news guerilla approach particularly effective.
• Korean citizens were ready. They are young, many in their 20s and 30s, active and reform-minded.

And that young, smart, sophisticated and information-hungry population is now driving how news events are covered, in some cases actually participating in the coverage.

Now it seems there may be a citizen journalist site taking root here in the states by none other than Dan Gillmor, a veteran newspaper journalist and tech writer for the San Jose Mercury News. According to this piece on the recently launched OhmyNews International, Gillmor is leaving his post to start a citizen journalist venture. In his Dec. 9 blog he wrote: "I hate the idea of leaving (the newspaper). But I'd hate not trying this even more."

"I hope to pull together something useful that helps enable — and demonstrates — the emerging grassroots journalism that I wrote about in my recent book (We The Media, 2004). Something powerful is happening, it's in the early stages and I have a chance to help figure this out."

And we'll be watching closely.

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