Korea’s OhmyNews has rewritten the rules of journalism, according to its founder, Oh Yeon Ho

Who could have imagined that the internet, first developed in America for military purposes, would cross the Pacific and sow the seeds of citizens’ journalism in Korea?

Yes, the internet originated in America. But citizen-generated internet journalism started first in Korea in 2000 with OhmyNews, and our slogan is: “Every citizen is a reporter.” This mantra is not just about changing journalism, but about changing society.

The citizens’ president

A clear example of the power of OhmyNews’ brand of citizens’ journalism came on the last day of the 2002 Korean presidential election campaign. Just eight hours before the start of voting, at about 10.30pm on the night of December 18, Chung Mong Joon, Roh Moo Hyun’s campaign partner, suddenly withdrew his support. Because the race between Roh, the reform candidate, and Lee Hoi Chang, the conservative candidate, was close, Chung’s withdrawal was a huge shock.

This news provoked a last-minute confrontation between the old and new media. The Chosun Ilbo, a conservative mainstream daily newspaper, changed its editorial and posed the following question to voters (I paraphrase): “Chung withdrew his support for Roh, will you?” But reform-minded netizens, (also known as cyber-citizens, those citizens who use the internet to engage in broader society), including our readers, mobilized overnight to fight Chung’s move.
OhmyNews reported Chung’s withdrawal and updated the story of netizens’ reactions every 30 minutes, all night. That breaking story got 720,000 hits in just 10 hours. Thanks to the non-stop reporting, we were the epicentre of reform-minded netizens.

When Roh’s victory was confirmed, I wrote on OhmyNews: “Today, the long-lasting media power in Korea has changed. The power of media has shifted from conservative mainstream newspapers to netizens and internet media.”

Each political scholar has his own definition of power. I say power comes from established standards. Those who have power set the standards and, in this way, are able to maintain their power.

In the media, too, established players say: “This is the standard, follow me.” The rules of 20th-century journalism were created and controlled by professional newspaper journalists. But these standards are challenged by new internet journalists or citizen-reporters.

They challenge the traditional media logic of who is a reporter, what is news, what is the best news style, and what is newsworthy.

Creed Black, an American journalist, defined news as “anything that happens to or near publishers and their friends”. But in this internet age, we can say: “News is anything that happens to or near netizens and their friends.”

Two levels of interactivity

When we opened OhmyNews in early 2000, we promised our readers that we would make it the first true internet newspaper in the world. For me a true “internet newspaper” is one that makes interactivity work.

There are two levels of interactivity in news production and consumption. Low-level interactivity is when professional reporters write, and readers respond by post or email or contribute comments to bulletin boards.

But in high-level interactivity, reporters and readers are equal. Readers can change themselves into reporters any time they want. So our main concept – that every citizen is a reporter – is not about tactics: it is about philosophy.

The concept of the citizen-reporter is not new. Before newspapers and professional
journalists, every citizen was a reporter and face-to-face communication was the only way to deliver news.
Power shifts

In 2000, we started OhmyNews with just 727 citizen-reporters. Now we have more than 40,000. Our citizen-reporters come from all walks of life, from elementary school students to professors. They submit between 150 and 200 pieces a day, more than two-thirds of our news content.

We do pay our reporters, but the fee is small. If the article goes up to Top News, we pay W20,000 (about $20). Many foreign correspondents do not understand why citizen-reporters enjoy writing articles for so little money. My answer is this: “They are writing articles to change the world, not to earn money.”
We give them something money cannot buy. We make OhmyNews a public meeting-place for the citizen-reporter and readers. The traditional paper says: “I produce, you read,” but we say: “We produce and we read and we change the world together.”
netizens can participate not only by sending articles but also by writing readers’ comments and by paying money to their favourite writers. We started the readers’ comment system for the first time in Korea when we opened OhmyNews. At the bottom of every article, there is a bulletin board for readers’ comments. When the issue is hot, the readers’ comments can easily exceed 100 and, at times, reach as many as 3,000. Now nearly all news-sites – including newspapers’ websites – follow us.

Pay what you think it’s worth

Anyone can read our articles for free. But netizens can also pay a voluntary fee. In November 2004, Kim Young Ok, a Korean philosophy professor, argued on OhmyNews that the Constitutional Court’s decision against the government’s attempt to relocate South Korea’s capital was undemocratic as the court was unelected. The article struck a chord with netizens and some 6,000 contributed between $1 and $10 (the maximum at that time). Professor Kim earned nearly $30,000, far more than the average annual wage in South Korea.

Why Korea?

Three years ago, a team of Japanese journalists visited OhmyNews. After their return, they started an internet news-site modelled on it, but so far it has not been successful. So why does it work in Korea?

Our nation, our society and our readers were prepared to welcome and support OhmyNews. Korean readers had been disappointed by the mainstream conservative media for a long time and yearned for an alternative.

Korea’s internet infrastructure is superior to most other countries. A broadband penetration rate of more than 80% makes an interactive news service possible. South Korea is small enough that our staff reporters can reach the news scene in a few hours to check whether a citizen-reporter’s article is correct.

The most important reason why it works is that Korean citizens were ready to participate. Korea has a young, active and reform-minded generation. A columnist at Yomiuri Shimbun once told me: “In Japan, OhmyNews’ model cannot be successful because Japanese youth are not as active as Korea’s.”

The children of Kwangju

How did Korea get such active netizens? Unfortunately, it is because our modern history has been marred by dictatorship and repression. The Kwangju massacre, where the Korean army killed hundreds of innocent citizens after an uprising against fascist rule in 1980, sparked widespread protests.

During the 1980s, students would demonstrate on the streets, shouting: “Perish military dictatorship, unveil the truth about the Kwangju massacre.” Some, including me, served time in jail or made the uneasy decision to sacrifice future job prospects by demonstrating. We can call them the children of the Kwangju Massacre.

Now the children of Kwangju are making their voices heard in cyberspace instead of on the street. Married, with children, they still believe: “If we participate, we can make a difference.” They are teaching the next generation to remember modern history and to struggle for a more vibrant democracy. The positive effects are incalculable. Participatory democracy is flourishing.

CV Oh Yeon Ho

Oh Yeon Ho is founder and CEO of OhmyNews. Launched in February 2000, OhmyNews now has more than 40,000 citizen-reporters and 54 full-time staff.