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Korean Netizens Change Journalism and Politics
The text of OhmyNews founder Oh Yeon Ho's Harvard Internet and Society Conference Dec. 11 address
OhmyNews (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-12-14 14:57 (KST)   

Korean Netizens Change Journalism and Politics - The marriage of democracy and technology


Oh, Yeonho (Founder and CEO of OhmyNews)


Last summer, I published a book about the OhmyNews story. The book is titled "OhmyNews: A Special Product of Korea."

In the book, I look back at the last four years of our experiment to change traditional journalism. At one point I wrote: "Who could have imagined that the Internet, which was first developed in America for military purposes, crossed the Pacific Ocean to Korea, and bloomed flowers of citizen participatory journalism."

Yes, the Internet originated in America.
But citizen participatory Internet journalism started first in Korea, with the slogan "Every citizen is a reporter." The slogan is not only about changing journalism, but about changing all of society.
That's why, I believe, the Berkman Center invited me to share the experiences of OhmyNews and Korean netizens with you.

Questions from Americans

Before and after the 2004 U.S. presidential election, I met some famous Americans who were interested in OhmyNews. These included Donald Graham, CEO of the Washington Post, former vice president Al Gore, and a liberal NGO leader.

The meetings were respectively arranged at the request of the Americans.
When I met Donald Graham last summer in his Washington Post office, his main question dealt with whether the Ohmynews model is the future of 21st century journalism.

I met Mr. Gore last month when he visited Seoul. He asked me many detailed questions off-the-record, so I cannot reveal what was said. But I got the sense that he is really interested in how the Internet can change politics.

And a NGO leader, in a San Francisco meeting last summer, asked me "How should we use the Internet to see Mr. Bush go home?"

The three Americans all have different backgrounds and different purposes in meeting me. But they asked the same questions: "Does the political change that OhmyNews started only work in Korea? Can it work elsewhere? How about in America?

Right after I learned that Mr. Bush was reelected, my Korean friends asked me "Korean netizens changed the face of politics, but American netizens couldn셳. Why is that?"
I believe that many American netizens who are disappointed with Mr. Bush's reelection may have asked themselves the same question.

I cannot answer that question directly because I am not an expert in American politics. You, as Americans, may have the answers.
Instead, I셪l go into what OhmyNews has done in terms of "new journalism" in the serial drama of political change in Korea in recent years.

Oh Yeon Ho addresses attendees of the Berkman Center Internet and Society Conference at Harvard University on Dec 11.
©2004 OMNI
Confrontation of Old and New media:
The last day of Korea셲 2002 presidential election


Let's look back to the last day of the 2002 Korean Presidential election campaign. Just 8 hours before the start of voting, at around 10.30 pm on December 18th, Mr. Chung Mong Joon, Roh Moo Hyun셲 campaign partner suddenly withdrew his support. This astonished the whole nation.

Because the competition between the reform candidate Roh Moo Hyun, and conservative candidate Lee Hae Chang was too close to call, Mr Chung's withdrawal was a kind of atomic bomb.

Interestingly enough, the news provoked a last minute confrontation between Old media and New media. The conservative mainstream newspaper Chosun Daily changed its editorial and posed a question to voters along the lines of 'Mr. Chung withdrew his support for Roh, will you?'

But reform-minded netizens including OhmyNews readers quickly mobilized overnight to fight Mr. Chung셲 atomic bomb. They visited many Internet bulletin boards and posted urgent messages like "Mr. Chung betrayed his party, Roh Moo Hyun is in danger. Save the country, please vote for Roh." They even called their conservative parents to persuade them, crying "If Roh Moo Hyun fails, I will die."

OhmyNews reported Mr. Chung's withdrawal and updated the story of netizens reactions every 30 minutes, all night long. The number of hits for that main breaking story was 720,000 in just 10 hours. Thanks to the nonstop reporting through the night, OhmyNews was the epicenter of reform-minded netizens.

On the night of December 19th, when Mr Roh's victory was confirmed, I wrote on OhmyNews: "As of 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."

Some critics said I exaggerated. Maybe that셲 the case.
My declaration was made not by evaluating the last day's combat and the final results, but by 2 years of watching the Roh Moo Hyun campaign for the presidency.

When Roh Moo Hyun began his bid for the presidency only one congressman supported him. And almost all conservative newspapers ignored or undervalued his campaign.

But netizens were different. They strongly supported Roh because the young netizens, in their 20s to early 40s, wanted to reform Korean politics. Whereas conservative media ignored Roh셲 campaign, netizens set their own agenda and succeeded. The 2-year process was a very significant example of the shift of media power.

Here is another dramatic example. In March this year, president Noh was impeached by the conservative party controlled congress. The conservative press were waiting for the Constitutional Court's final decision, hoping to see President Roh resign. But netizens saved him. Let's see a video clip of how OhmyNews reported their online and offline demonstrations.

Power shifts: standards are challenged

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 in this way are able to maintain their power.

In the media market, too, they say "this is the standard, follow me." The standards of 20th century journalism have been created and controlled by professional newspaper journalists.

But these standards are challenged by new Internet journalists: the netizens 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.

An American journalist, Creed Black, defined news like this: News is 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.

The true internet media: two levels of interactivity

When we opened OhmyNews in 2000, we promised our readers that we would make OhmyNews the first true internet newspaper in the world. What does it mean when we say 쐔rue internet newspaper? For me it is about making true interactivity work.

There are two levels of interactivity in news production and consumption. The low and the high.
Low level interactivity is when professional reporters write, and readers send e-mail or post comments on bulletin boards.

Then what is high level interactivity? In this process, reporters and readers are equal. Readers can change themselves into reporters any time he or she wants.
So, our main concept, every citizen is a reporter, is not about tactics, it is about philosophy.

By the way, I didn셳 invent the concept "every citizen is a reporter." I just restored a long-forgotten concept. Just think back to the time when face-to-face communication was the only way to deliver news. Before newspapers and professional journalists, every citizen was a reporter. There was true interactivity. OhmyNews restored that.

We started OhmyNews with 727 citizen reporters, now we have about 35,000.

Our citizen reporters come from all walks of life. From elementary school students to professors. Citizen reporters submit between 150 and 200 posts a day, over 70 percent of the news content for OhmyNews.

We do pay our citizen reporters, but the fee is small. It is not in the same league as mainstream media. If the article goes up to Top News, we pay 20,000 won, about 20 dollars.

Many foreign correspondents who visited OhmyNews have said to me, "It is difficult to understand why citizen reporters enjoy writing articles for such small money."

I answered, "They are writing articles to change the world, not to earn money."

We give them something that money cannot. We make OhmyNews a public square and a playground 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."

So our main concept "every citizen is a reporter" is not only in the slogan. It is real. It is to change the world. That's the power of OhmyNews.

©2004 OMNI
The most profitable article in the world

Netizens can participate not only by sending articles but also writing readers comments and paying a voluntary subscription fee.

At the very bottom of every article, we provide a bulletin board for reader's comments. When the issue of the article is hot, the number of readers comments can easily exceed 100. Sometimes there are as many as 3,000.

We started the reader's comment system for the first time in Korean media market in 2000 when we opened OhmyNews. Now nearly all news sites -- including newspapers' web sites and portal sites -- follow us.

Readers can read every OhmyNews article for free. But netizens can also contribute to OhmyNews by paying a voluntary subscription fee using their mobile phone or credit card.

Several weeks ago, a famous philosophy professor named Kim Young Ok wrote an article for OhmyNews about the Constitutional Court's decision on South Korea's capital relocation. Kim argued that the unelected court's decision was undemocratic.

The article struck netizens. About 6,000 netizens contributed between 1 dollar and 10 dollars (the maximum). In the end, professor Kim earned over 24,000 dollars, roughly the average annual wage of South Korea. Kim's article may be the most profitable in the world. Netizens set that fantastic record.

Here is another example. A woman citizen reporter, whose small business was having financial troubles, wrote an article about her situation. Our readers were moved by her story. In just two days, 650 OhmyNews readers contributed about 3,000 dollars.

Why in Korea? The People prepared

Two years ago, a team of Japanese journalists visited our office and learned about OhmyNews. After they returned to Japan, they started an Internet newspaper like OhmyNews, but so far it is not successful.

Several journalists from other countries informed me that they are preparing OhmyNews style Internet newspapers, but I have not yet heard any success stories.

So, your question might be "Why in Korea?"
Our nation, our society, and our readers were prepared to welcome and boost OhmyNews.

First, Korean readers were disappointed by the mainstream conservative media for a long time and yearned for alternative media.

Second, Korea's Internet infrastructure is superior to most other countries. We enjoy over 75% broadband penetration. It makes multimedia, always-on service and interactive news service possible.

Third, 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 or not.

Fourth, Korea is a uni-polar society. The entire country can be quickly engulfed by a couple of issues.

But the most important reason is that Korean citizens were ready to participate. Korea has a young, active and reform-minded generation, those in their 20s and 30s and early 40s.

A Japanese columnist at the Yomiuri Daily once told me "In Japan, OhmyNews model cannot be successful, because Japanese youth are not as active as Korea's.

Here, let me point out this question: How did Korea get such active netizens? It didn셳 come easily. We Koreans have been paying dearly, since modern Korean history itself is the cost.

Struggling against military dictatorship to achieve democracy was the cost. Living in a divided nation is the cost. The Korean War in 1950, and The Kwangju Massacre in 1980 were the two representative events that Koreans paid in blood.

The Korean War taught people to keep silent in order to survive. The Kwangju Massacre too. But there has been an endless struggle for democracy and liberating form keeping silent.

©2004 OMNI
The children of Kwangju and 20s

Specially during 1980s, university students stood on the street yelling "perish military dictatorship, unveil the truth about the Kwangju Massacre." Some, including me, served in jail or made the uneasy decision to sacrifice future job prospects by demonstrating. We can call them the children of the Kwangju Massacre.

These historical experiences are the deep-rooted background of today's active Korean netizens.

Now the children of Kwangju are making their voices heard in cyberspace instead of on the street. Married, with children, they still have their enthusiasm: 쏧f 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.

The marriage of democracy and technology

Here, I would stress this: technology itself cannot change society, only prepared people who can use technology positively can change society more democratic.

Almost 2 years ago The Christian Science Monitor (31, Jan. 2003) covered OhmyNews. The first sentence was "The marriage of a fledgling democracy and broadband technology has spawned a precocious new media child in South Korea that would have been unimaginable 15 years ago."

The Christian Science Monitor was spot on. OhmyNews is a child of the marriage of democracy and technology. We have changed Korean media and Korean politics. And how might it affect others? How about America? That's the question for you.
©2004 OhmyNews
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