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Monday, December 13, 2004

The OhmyNews Phenomenon

Since the last Korean presidential election, word of OhmyNews has been circulating for a while both on the Internet and in offline space. While South Korea's journalists and political leaders have been debating how to reform Korean media for decades, the hot new OhmyNews website has paved the way for a new type of democratic journalism with its thousands of 'Net citizens - netizens - as contributors. Readership is in the millions and netizens act when called upon. Broadband connectivity in South Korea, a country not much larger than the US state of Virginia, is rapidly transforming the lives of its 49 million citizens, and along the way serving up a populist and successful virtual news medium. Kim Soung-su, 33, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, takes pride in his role as one of the more than 35,000 new citizen-reporters or netizens; he writes film reviews and commentaries on US foreign policy for OhmyNews.com. "OhmyNews provides alternative views to Korean society, and I think that many young Korean readers want to see various perspectives on their society," Kim said in an interview with Asia Times Online.

Since its start-up four years ago, OhmyNews has shaken the very foundations of South Korean journalism. The popular website averages several million hits each day. As a result, South Korea's overwhelmingly conservative mainstream newspapers have been placed on notice that they had better become more relevant because of the increasing number of "wired red devils", the staid print media's reference to the rising influence of online Korean youth.Roh's victory and the virtual 11th-hour Internet appeal catapulted OhmyNews into a formidable news channel. After all, the most significant factor in the 2002 election was that seven out of 10 voters ranged in age between 20 and 40 and about 90% of that demographic uses the Internet, mostly domestically. And OhmyNews proved to be an instrumental channel in influencing the campaign for the South Korean 'Net citizens movement.

The young South Koreans are on the 'Net and not buying their daily newspaper to get the news. San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor wrote recently in his new book We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People for the People "OhmyNews is transforming the 20th century's journalism-as-lecture model - where organizations tell the audience what the news is and the audience either buys it or doesn't - into something vastly more bottom-up, interactive and democratic."The rise of websites such as OhmyNews is not startling given these impressive in-country connectivity facts: By 2005, eMarketer, a New York-based online research corporation, estimates that South Korea will have more than 34 million Internet users, accounting for more than two-thirds of the population. An eMarketer survey of users found that 88.2% of Koreans with access surf the Internet for information, another 79.2% use it for e-mail, 53.8% for news and 42.4% for online shopping. And instant messaging users in South Korea has jumped from 27.5% in 2002 to 45% in 2004.

The birth of blogs and participatory journalism explains the exponential growth at OhmyNews. The online traffic increase has enabled the company to become the website of "citizen journalism", as it is known, and its full-time staff has increased to 53, including 38 full-time reporters and editors, who often exchange tasks; about 15 people are dedicated to editing. The number of paid "citizen reporters" writing for the website expanded from 727 in the beginning to more than 35,000 today. According to Min, director of international development, OhmyNews is generating almost US$500,000 a month in advertising revenue."We broke even last year and since then kept generating a monthly profit of about $27,000," he said in an online interview with Asia Times Online. The website is ranked in the top 16 in South Korea. According to a website message from the founder, Oh Yeon-ho, after three years OhmyNews was breaking even, with 2004 anticipated to yield a modest profit. A close reading of the site's articles reveals that its young non-professional journalist contributors are anti-corporate, anti-government and often virulently anti-American. OhmyNews covers the topics found in the daily media, from sports and entertainment to politics, but always infused with a point of view.

If OhmyNews continues to grow, it will be based on the founding principle that all citizens are reporters.According to OhmyNews sources, only 20% of the site's copy each day is written by staff journalists. The balance is totally dependent on outside contributors, including professors, police officers, students, housewives, business people - everyone. A nationwide survey of media workers by Media Today, a South Korean trade weekly specializing in journalism, claims that 32% of the respondents cited OhmyNews as the medium whose influence was most likely to expand dramatically. The largest contributing factor to its impact is the website's interactivity.The website has established its own internal canon of news objectivity and accuracy through a simple grading or ranking system of articles submitted. Those articles submitted as straight news are fact-checked by the editors. Writers are paid small amounts depending on how the stories are ranked in quality and value using forestry terminology, from "kindling" to "rare species".
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