Sunday, September 18, 2005
ASSIGNMENT: Korean online newspaper enlists army of 'citizen reporters'
Please read this story. We will be talking about "citizen journalism"
during October. Consider: Are these citizen reporters really "journalists?
Why or why not? Can readers "trust" their work?
POSTED: Sunday, September 18, 2005
By Vanessa Hua
San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Seoul -- The staff at OhmyNews fills only two floors of a small office building in downtown Seoul, but it edits stories from thousands of "citizen reporters" across South Korea.
The 150 or so stories posted on the site each day range from breaking news about huge protests to sophisticated political analysis, from hit pieces to tales of the daily ups and downs of people who feel ignored by established media.
OhmyNews readers can offer instant feedback online and -- if they really like a piece -- monetary tips. Readers poured nearly 30 million won ($30,000) into columnist Kim Young Ok's account in increments of $10 or less in one week after he criticized the constitutional court of South Korea last year.
"They're like street musicians or performers," Jean Min, director of the international news division, said of the citizen reporters.
OhmyNews is much more than a soapbox, though. It is a cross between an online news site and a sophisticated blog. Koreans flock to it. The site gets 1.7 million to 2 million page views each day, a number that shot up to 25 million during the December 2002 presidential election.
When reformer Roh Moo Hyun won the tight presidential race, he granted his first domestic interview to OhmyNews -- a slap to the conservative corporate daily papers that supported his rival.
The privately held Web site has been profitable since September 2003 and is projected to pull in $10 million this year, Min said. By contrast, Salon.com in San Francisco pulled in $6.6 million in fiscal year 2005 and had 1.1 million average daily page views in July, according to market research firm comScore Media Metrix. The DailyKos, a popular liberal blog written in Emeryville, had 96,774 average daily page views, and conservative blog Instapundit had 32,258 in July. The success of OhmyNews can be attributed in part to the high level of public engagement in this heavily wired, young democracy, where less than two decades have passed since military rule ended. Street protests are common, and citizens are eager to speak out online.
With the motto "every citizen is a reporter," 5-year-old OhmyNews has engaged its audience in ways that U.S. print and television news outlets, faced with a steep decline in readers and viewers, only dream of.
The site has a cultlike following, among both writers thrilled to see their views spread widely and readers who say they like getting an uncensored, if uneven, version of the news.
"It is composed of so many citizens. It's more free than other journals," said Kim Won Joong, 24, a journalism student at Chunnam University in Daejeon, in central South Korea. "But the opinions are scattered all over."
The site began an English-language edition in May, at english.ohmynews.com, and now has its sights set overseas. Several hundred citizen reporters have already signed up. So far, about 36 percent of English-language edition readers are from North America, 38.5 percent from Europe, and 16.7 percent from Asia outside South Korea.
For publicity, the company relies on stories in other media, word-of-mouth and the efforts of its reporters, many of whom are active bloggers, Min said.
"Our readers don't simply sit there and read. They interrogate each other," Min said during a slick hourlong presentation at the company's headquarters. One of his charts called OhmyNews a "post-modern 'we media' versus traditional 'elite media.' "
"People want to share their experience. It's more fun than simply watching television," Min said. Min and founder Oh Yeon Ho, a former alternative magazine editor and reporter, have traveled to Europe, Japan and North America for the past two years to talk about citizen journalism and OhmyNews' business model.
"So here we hoist our flag and declare war on the old media system. ... We are overthrowing the basic principles of news reporting, which for many years has been taken for granted by many of the world's newspapers," declares one of the company's brochures.
Similar to newspapers, about 70 percent of OhmyNews' revenue is from ad sales. But instead of the remainder going to subscriptions, as at newspapers, Min said OhmyNews gets 20 percent of its revenue from syndication sales, and just 10 percent from paid subscriptions for premium content.
In South Korea, OhmyNews has fast gained prominence and popularity, though critics say its reporting can be biased. OhmyNews uses emotional appeals rather than acting as a neutral forum for citizens, media observers say. Last year, the site began a reader drive to help fund the production of an encyclopedia of people who collaborated with the Japanese under colonial rule, after a columnist suggested the fundraising.
During huge protests against the impeachment of President Roh last year, 38 OhmyNews reporters fanned out into the streets and sent in photos, video and copy by various wireless connections.
The professional staff of 54 copy editors, editors and reporters -- which OhmyNews calls its "news guerrilla desk" -- reject about one-third of submissions. They fact-check and vet everything they post. For example, OhmyNews contacted Samsung for comment before publishing a Samsung worker's expose of how employees were forced to spend months of company time planning the vacation to Germany of the electronics company's chairman, Lee Kun Hee. It even considered sending a staff reporter to Berlin.
Just four lawsuits have been filed against OhmyNews over articles written by its staff reporters. None of the disputes has been resolved.
Citizen reporters receive $2 to $20 for each story OhmyNews uses, based on its merit. About 76 percent of the citizen reporters are men. Twenty percent are college students, 6 percent are small business owners, and 73 percent are 20 to 39 years old.
Min said reader response helps OhmyNews reporters improve over time. More than 70 staff and citizen reporters have landed book deals since the site opened, he said. Writer Kim Hye Won thanked her online critics for making her a better writer, even though she considered quitting after reading their harsh comments.
"I feel my limitations ... compared to professional reporters who specialize in particular areas or have accumulated tons of experience. I heard that my articles lack breadth and depth," she said in a speech at a conference of citizen reporters
in June sponsored by OhmyNews.
Harry Lee, an editor in chief of Korea Press International, an independent news service in Washington, D.C., who freelances for the English-language edition of OhmyNews, describes the site as the "Hyde Park of journalism."
"(It's) a forum where all kinds of people with all kinds of ideas and ideologies participate in all kinds of subjects."
E-mail Vanessa Hua at email@example.com.