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New Book: 'OhmyNews Story'
OhmyNews founder Oh Yeon Ho recounts four years of his new media venture in his news book.
OhmyNews (jean)     Print Article 
Published 2004-08-12 12:00 (KST)   
©2004 Humanist
"Each political scholar has his own definition of power. I would say power comes from established standards. Those who have power set the standards, and it is through those standards that they are able to maintain their power."-- Excerpt from Oh Yeon Ho's WAN speech

This is the story of how OhmyNews challenged the old standard set by the traditional media and fought and won the battle. OhmyNews proposed a new standard in journalism by declaring "every citizen is a reporter." Traditional media says, "I produce, you consume and leave." whereas OhmyNews says, "we produce, we consume and stay."

Following is a sample translation of his new book OhmyNews Story. Oh Yeon Ho hopes to see his book translated and republished soon for the English speaking audience elsewhere. [Ed.]

Every citizen is a reporter!

Someone always raises a flag when the winds are strong.

In early 2004, a reporter from Japan's Fuji Television visited OhmyNews and asked me what had been the biggest exclusive since OhmyNews began. My answer was simple.

"Maybe it would be that 'all citizens are reporters.' In the special message I wrote to our readers on our first day of operations, we declared the idea would be our founding concept, so you might say the 'Editor's Message' I wrote at the time was our biggest exclusive."

Every citizen is a reporter.

Everything about OhmyNews is contained in those four words. The last four years have been our first success, but if OhmyNews continues to grow, it will be based on the founding principle that all citizens are reporters.

Media are created every day. But few survive. When a new medium is established, it succeeds only if it is based in core concepts that are unique, and on a global scale. OhmyNews has a unique philosophy that distinguishes it from other media the world over.

Where did I get this unique concept?

All I did was raise the flag. 20th century journalism, and specifically 20th century Korean journalism, had long been creating a situation demanding that someone declare that everyone is a reporter.

The idea that 'every citizen is a reporter' was not a forced one built for the purpose of launching OhmyNews in 2000. I first coined the phrase towards the end of 1989. I had been working for the magazine The Monthly Mahl since January of 1988, so by that time had been working as a professional journalist for two years. At the time the Coalition for a Democratic Media, the civic group that owned Mahl, had me giving lectures to university students about how to write the news. "Every citizen is a reporter" was the title of the lecture.

"Sorry sir. You can't come in here."

What led me to arrive at that idea two years into my professional life, and why had I sought to convey it to university students? It was a matter of survival and a way of defending myself in situations where I was covering the news.

Mahl was a magazine way out in the opposition and very anti-mainstream. Reporters from other media refused to treat Mahl reporters as fellow journalists. Needless to say, we were excluded from the pressrooms at various government agencies that were homes away from home for reporters from the large dailies and television broadcasters.

Once I went to the Seoul District Prosecutor's Office in pursuit of a story. Hoping I could obtain a printed press release I headed towards the pressroom. It said "Press Corps Only." I really wanted to get a press release, however, so I ignored the sign and opened the door. There were reporters at workstations and sitting on the some sofas, and they all looked at me like I had interrupted something, like someone who had walked in on the wrong party.

A low-level woman prosecution employee approached me. She was there as a hostess of sorts for the prosecution's press corps. "You're not allowed in here," she said.

Now all 30 reporters in the room were staring at me. I wanted to look back at them all and speak with a dignified voice. Something like, "I'm a journalist, just like all of you. I am here to receive the latest press releases."

Instead, my voice sounded like it was shrinking up inside me. "Uh I write for Mahl." But she floored me with what he said next.

"Mahl? What the heck is that?"

The Korean word mahl can mean "words," "language," "that which was said," or even "horse."

I was going to feel all the more pathetic explaining the magazine I worked for, standing there in front of a room full of journalists. So I just snuck away with a copy of the press release sitting on her desk.

I don't blame her. Mahl was never a popular publication, one you could find anywhere, and I often found myself having to explain what it was. Since the word mahl also meant horse in Korean, some would ask if it was a magazine about horse racing. My fellow journalists knew better, but none of them were going to lift a finger for me as I went through that ordeal, being as it was that I represented a publication so utterly far from the mainstream. They all just stared at me like a petty annoyance disturbing their peace.

Dignified, yet modest

I put a lot of thought into why I was unable to carry myself in a more dignified manner. And as the ordeals continued I desperately felt the need to arm myself with my own philosophy of reporting. That's how I arrived at the belief that 'every citizen is a reporters.

All citizens have the right to information. And therefore they should be able to carry themselves in a dignified fashion. Whether someone works for huge monoliths like the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) or the Chosun Ilbo, progressive publications like Mahl that aren't part of the establishment, or for school newspapers, he needs to stand up and cover his story to satisfy his readers' right to information. He needs to fight the discriminatory treatment, because he is there satisfying readers' right to know instead of fulfilling his personal curiosities.

But "every citizen is a reporter" would also have to mean that reporters also needed to be modest. Mahl may have been a non-mainstream magazine, but I constantly sensed the risk that I could become arrogant and acquire a sense of privilege, merely for being a journalist.

Reporters are people too, and as such have unlimited capabilities to understand the world around them. But they are also fatally arrogant. They meet with their readers under the premise that what they have written is the best representation of the essence of the phenomenon in question. Have you ever seen a news story with a note at the end saying, "Our apologies. The present article lacks much, so please be careful reading it."

Every expert has a different definition for "communication." I myself want to say every communication is a miscommunication. Whatever the communication, if it occurs between humans and not between gods, that which gets conveyed from one to the other can never be 100 percent of the phenomenon and its essence. Reporters need to recognize that you can't deliver 100 percent, and instead need to work to be close to 100 percent. This requires constant modesty.

The philosophy that all citizens are reporters ran on two wheels, dignity and modesty, and by 1998 was more fine-tuned. The Coalition for a Democratic Media was running a series of lectures titled "Oh Yeon Ho's 'Becoming a Reporter'" and my slogan was used as the school motto. Those lectures produced 30 graduates each session. There have been 20 sessions as of early 2004.

What defines a reporter?

The establishment of OhmyNews put this philosophy at center-stage. In the past it was about the need for dignity and modesty, but OhmyNews meant the implementation of all-out participation by regular citizens, based on this idea.

In the "Editor's Message" on our first day of operations, I defined "reporters" in these terms: "Reporters aren't some exotic species, they're everyone who has news stories and shares them with others."

We were declaring an end to the height of the era in which reporters put on airs, a culture that belonged to the 20th century. We were letting it be known that in the future, one would be judged not by the authority carried by one's news organization, but by the quality of what you write. We were also announcing an end of the era of one-way communication, an exchange where the reporter writes, and the reader reads. From now on, any reader can turn around and become a reporter.

In October 1999, we were looking for citizen reporters. By our launch date, February 22, 2000, we had 727 citizen reporters. We called them guerrillas. The dictionary definition of guerrilla is "a member of small, non-regular armed forces who disrupts the rear positions of the enemy." Citizen reporters can be called guerrillas because they are not professional regulars and they post news of their surroundings from perspectives uniquely their own, not those of the conservative establishment.

There were already guerrillas working here and there in secret. And they were frustrated with the one-way journalism of the 20th century and the haughty attitude common in the Korean media. As soon as OhmyNews appeared on the scene, they came out of the woodwork and shot out round after round of news. Initially we had planned to operate the site in weekly "installments" for the first six months, but we immediately changed to a daily format.

By February 2004, some 32,000 news guerrillas had registered as citizen reporters. OhmyNews publishes approximately 200 articles a day, and citizen reporters produce around 150 of these. The idea that all citizens are reporters is not just a motto, our official founding principle. It is made a reality each and every day, and that is the true strength behind Ohmynews.

The citizens of the Republic of Korea had long been preparing for a grand revolution in the culture of news production and consumption. All I did was raise the flag.
©2004 OhmyNews
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