OhmyNews founder says citizen journalism can work everywhere

Oh Yeonho seems a bit out of place when we meet in the luxurious Grove Hotel outside Watford last week. The softly spoken 42-year-old Korean is, after all, a champion of citizen participation in the media. How strange to find him at an exclusive hotel for Zeitgeist 2006, Google's invitation-only gathering of Europe's media grandees.

OhmyNews, the website Oh founded in 2000, is arguably the most mature example of "citizen journalism" in the world. A staff of professional reporters and editors manage the site, but the bulk of its material comes from 42,000 citizen reporters.

It has established itself as one of the most influential media outlets in South Korea, playing a significant role in the 2002 presidential election, when Roh Moo-hyun was elected, thanks in part to the mobilisation of OhmyNews's readers. Roh gave his first post-election interview to an OhmyNews staff reporter.

An English-language version of the site, OhmyNews International, adds nearly another 1,000 contributors from 89 countries. Funded by advertisers interested in its millions of young readers, the company has been in the black since 2003.

Oh's audience at the hotel may have been anxious to learn more about how to harness "user-generated content", but he prescribes a more fundamental shift in thinking.

"Citizen participatory journalism is not about tactics — it's about philosophy. Professionals should change their mind. If they change only their tactics, it will not work well. The philosophy should change. The readers can be equal to professional reporters in news production because in my definition, a reporter is not some exotic species, some special person. The ordinary person can be a reporter. They have his or her own news stories and they can deliver it," he says.

OhmyNews's citizen reporters can expect no more than about $17 if their story is published at the top of the site — plus monetary tips left voluntarily by readers. But payment is not the point, Oh insists — empowering citizens to participate is.

"They are writing articles to change the world, not to earn money," Oh told his high-powered audience at Google's conference.

Oh insists media interest in OhmyNews has focused too narrowly on its use of citizen reporters.

"The virtue of OhmyNews is the combination of the citizen reporters and staff reporters," he says.

OhmyNews now employs 60 reporters and editors whose role is to "support" the citizen journalists.

The staff journalists are responsible for editing and fact-checking stories, occasionally going to the scene of events and supplementing citizen reporters' firsthand accounts. Staff reporters do in-depth reporting and train citizen journalists in reporting techniques.

Indeed, Oh's staff reporters initiate much of the site's reporting on major political and social issues, largely to overcome problems of access.

"The ordinary citizen cannot approach politicians, so staff reporters can cover that type of story," says Oh. It is in travel journalism, movie reviews and real-life human-interest stories that citizen journalists really come into their own.

This collaborative production process between media professionals and other citizens is OhmyNews's major selling point, which Oh says sets his site apart from blogs.

"Bloggers and online citizen reporters are different in some respects because bloggers are personal media. We are a kind of confederation or alliance of bloggers edited by staff reporters and fact-checked, so we have more credibility than the bloggers.

"We are a news organisation: the facts are very important; credibility is very important."

Oh also dismisses the idea that his site's journalists are mere amateurs: "It's not amateur; it's diverse.

Some users are professors, lawyers, or doctors — more professional than reporters, with more professional knowledge.

"Compared to 100 years ago, more than half the population has graduated from university. We are living in the intellectual society, and every individual citizen can get information easily through the internet."

The social and economic conditions that underpin traditional media have changed enormously in recent years, says Oh. "The playground has changed dramatically. For newspapers, space is limited; the pages are limited, so the players who can play in the newspaper are limited.

"But this online space is unlimited, so it can be enjoyed by the most diverse people — from elementary school pupils to professors."

Six years after its launch, OhmyNews remains exceptional. Citizen journalism on a national scale has been replicated nowhere else in the world.

In 2000, young Koreans' widespread dissatisfaction with the dominant conservative newspapers and the highest level of domestic broadband internet penetration in the world seemed to pave the way for Oh's website.

Perhaps, Oh suggested in a speech at a conference in Istanbul two years ago, OhmyNews is a "special Korean product" made possible by a unique confluence of conditions in contemporary South Korea.

But today, Oh sounds more optimistic. "I believe the possibility is everywhere," he says, pointing to the growth of blogging in many countries as a sign that greater public participation in journalism can work.

Others seem to share Oh's optimism. In February, Japan's Softbank invested $11m in OhmyNews to launch a Japanese version. For the past few months, Oh has been dividing his time between Seoul and Tokyo, preparing OhmyNews Japan, which he expects to launch in early September.

"In Japan, there are eight million bloggers active, so this is a good sign, to mobilise the energy of the citizen to adopt the OhmyNews model," he said.

"I believe blogs are personal media and traditional media are mass media, but OhmyNews is the middle of this. Where the mass media has problems; where the personal media is blooming, there is the possibility OhmyNews can work. For that reason, I think there are many countries where the OhmyNews model could work."

Such as? He grins. "In this forum I met many journalists from several countries. Some of them recommended Italy."

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