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Journalism As a Conversation
'Only as an afterthought did it dawn on us that the audience is the real content on the Web'
Jean K. Min (jean)     Print Article 
Published 2006-01-09 10:39 (KST)   
This article first appeared in Harvard Nieman Reports Volume 59 Number 4, Winter 2005. Jean K. Min at OhmyNews International provided the article for Harvard University.

In a surrealistic bout of fate, passengers on JetBlue 292 en route to New York were watching their aircraft broadcast live on the screens of the in-flight DirecTV. The pilot was attempting an emergency landing on the tarmac of the Los Angeles International Airport with its front landing gear, clipped at a wrong angle, jutting out of the fuselage.

While millions of viewers in America alone watched this nail-biting drama, 140 passengers aboard the Airbus A320 found themselves the subject of live television news unfolding before their own eyes.

"It was absolutely terrifying, actually. Seeing the events broadcast made it completely surreal and detached me from the event," said Zachary Mastoon in an interview with The Associated Press. "It became this television show I was inextricably linked to. It was no longer my situation, it was broadcast for everyone to see. It only exacerbated the situation and my fear."

A couple of NBC executives were also flying in the JetBlue plane and managed to set up a mobile phone call to report the situation back to NBC headquarters. What if the rest of the passengers were able to hook up to a high-speed wireless network and report the situation inside the aircraft back to a television station? Instead of watching their mile-high ordeal covered by someone else in a remote station, they would have been the ultimate producer of their own news, delivering the story to millions in real time, including on JetBlue's in-flight screens.

Oh Yeon Ho having a brief staff meeting in OhmyNews newsroom
©2006 Kwon W.S
"Honey, I'm on OhmyNews!"

Citizen reporters of OhmyNews, a unique news organization in Korea, now number more than 41,000 and are no stranger to the sensation that comes from producing their own news. It is this transforming and empowering experience that attracts thousands of "citizen reporters" to OhmyNews every day. Kim Hye Won, a long time citizen reporter of OhmyNews, described her excitement when she found her story published on OhmyNews for the first time: "As soon as I saw my article with my name, Kim Hye Won, attached to it, my heart fluttered. A housewife who for the last 18 years has been caught up in housework raising her children has now become a reporter. This was possible thanks to the OhmyNews spirit of 'every citizen is a reporter.'"

For lots of angry young Korean "Netizens" who felt their voice was perennially ignored by the overwhelmingly conservative Korean mainstream media, OhmyNews was a godsend when it was launched in February 2000. They were angry because the mainstream media constantly manipulated the nation's important agenda in politics, the economy and society for their own taste and purpose.

Oh Yeon Ho, the founder of OhmyNews, left his job at a monthly magazine to test his ideas about this new form of journalism through the Internet. He deeply sympathized with these young Netizens in their anger against the mainstream media. In an interview with The New York Times in early 2003, Oh hinted that a part of his motivation in launching OhmyNews was to fix this skewed Korean news market: "We have a real imbalance in our media-80 percent conservative and 20 percent liberal-and it needs to be corrected. My goal is 50-50." More recently Oh has written of his original vision that he "wanted to start a tradition free of newspaper company elitism where news was evaluated based on quality, regardless of whether it came from a major newspaper, a local reporter, an educated journalist or a neighborhood housewife.So I decided to make the plunge into the sea of the Internet, even though I feared that which was different from what I was accustomed."

Many young Koreans who were already sharing their thoughts on the Internet found that it made infinitely more sense to write for a news media with a strong national brand and formidable presence in the news market than scribble their anger in a puny blog. Goh Tae Jin, a citizen reporter turned cyber columnist shared his revelations about how he felt when his harshly critical piece appeared on OhmyNews in 2000. In it, he attacked one of the nation's top newspaper columnists for "factionalism and arrogance" that he'd exhibited in his column. "Unexpectedly, my article was chosen as the top story and suddenly sparked numerous heated opinions. It was an astounding experience for me to have for the first time in my life. On that day, OhmyNews transformed me from a reader into a reporter, true to its motto that 'every citizen is a reporter.'"

Typical citizen reporters write a story or two per week. After submitting a story, they can track their status. Stories remain as "Saengnamu" articles before being accepted by OhmyNews copy editors. Once accepted, citizen reporters can follow the status of their words in real time, observing the number of readers' clicks into each of the stories, the number of comments, or the money collected in the "tip jar."

The Audience is the Content

What happens on OhmyNews is an intensely interactive online conversation. Citizen reporters have to persuade OhmyNews' front-line copy editors to have their stories accepted in the first place. As much as 30 percent of daily submissions are rejected for various reasons such as poor sentence construction, factual errors, or its lack of news value. After stories are accepted and edited, then placed in a more prominent space, usually within minutes they draw scores of readers' feedback. When the story is controversial, as in the case of Goh's, the number of readers' comments can shoot up to hundreds and even thousands.

This feedback from readers, coupled with editorial advice by OhmyNews' copy editors, gives citizen reporters invaluable lessons in writing. A quick online search through the OhmyNews database yields 500 to 600 stories for some of our diligent citizen reporters and the difference of quality between their first and more recent writing is remarkable. Nearly 70 OhmyNews citizen reporters now have contracts to write books. If you believe, as I do, that an adequate level of writing skills is an important ability for citizens to have in a civil democracy, then OhmyNews' citizen reporters can proudly be named the most capable practitioners of "the Emersonian vision of an expressive society."

The New York Times-and many other prominent news organizations-appear to consider the Web as simply another format in which to sell their news content. They sold the news once in the paper medium, now they will sell it again to an online audience and increase the return on their investment. For OhmyNews, the Web is seen neither as a channel for information flow nor as a pipeline for news delivery. It is a playground for our readers, a cyberspace for Netizens.

In accepting this Internet vision, a whole new horizon opens for us. The readers, or news audience, are no longer passive consumers of news produced by a few privileged, arrogant reporters. They are active producers of the news they will consume at the end of the day. Participation in this great news sphere is realized for them either by joining OhmyNews as a citizen reporter or by participating in the online forum offered at the very bottom of every story we publish.

Only as an afterthought did it dawn on us that the audience is the real content on the Web. Like any nimble disk jockey in a cool nightclub in town would do, we gave them a place to hang out and mingle in with the brightest minds in Korean cyberspace. One survey by a major Korean portal revealed nearly 40 percent of users' daily mouse clicks on it were for user-generated content, such as readers' comments and blog posts. A similar result was also found for OhmyNews. OhmyNews readers generate on average somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of daily traffic on the Web site through their participation in various online forums (other than their reading of the news). This is surely a wealth of eyeballs that any shrewd advertiser would salivate for. The "audience as the content" model makes a lot of sense for our business as well.

Bloggers, Citizen Reporters and Journalists

For many, citizen participation on a news site seems identical to blogging. But while Weblogs stimulate colorful outpourings of citizens' voices on the web, most of time a blog is one-person operation and many bloggers are pursuing their journalistic passion at their own peril. Without adequate advice from trained journalists, they risk being ensnared into potential legal disputes involving, for example, a defamation case.

The OhmyNews model is fundamentally different. We believe bloggers can work better with professional assistance from trained journalists. On the other hand, we also believe professional journalists can expand their view and scope greatly with fresh input from citizen reporters. News media as a whole can offer more diverse and rich content to readers by tapping into the wealth of Netizens' collective wisdom.

Unlike Wikinews, which restricts their oversight role to a "janitor," OhmyNews works as a convener by actively promoting conversation among editors, citizen reporters and professional journalists. (We also, however, have a cyber janitor to clean up any mess that might be left in the aftermath of fierce online debate.) However, there seems to be a subtle division of roles between the OhmyNews staff reporters and citizen reporters. Citizen reporters understand that instead of copying the styles of trained journalists, they will shine brighter when they remain true to themselves. Citizen reporters excel when they write something they understand well and have a strong inkling for.

No story is published before it goes through an extensive screening and copy editing process. Citizen reporters realize their edited text looks better with snazzy headlines and sometimes eye-catching thumbnail pictures. They also find their stories more polished after proofreading and editorial retouching by professionals, even if they occasionally face frustrating rejections of their stories.

A recurring fear among journalists is that the coming age of citizen journalism would signal the end of "journalism as a serious profession." On the contrary, the OhmyNews experience shows that trained journalists will be in greater demand as an increasing number of "citizen journalists" start to produce explosive amounts of news themselves. Alas, if only journalists would understand how to reinvent themselves in this age of citizen journalism!

OhmyNews editors spend a lot of time educating aspiring citizen journalists. We regularly invite them to our news room and give them "Journalism 101" classes. We encourage them to keep keen eyes on things going on and give advice that, if properly applied, would enhance the visibility of their writing as a means of effective communication.

Harnessing Collective Intelligence

Recently, OhmyNews opened a new service feature in which our readers can participate in the editorial process by voting for their favorite writers or stories. OhmyNews servers collect the data and sort out the stories according to the number of votes each received. If we can define the first generation OhmyNews as "a massively distributed collaborative news operation on the Web," OhmyNews 2.0 can be described as "a massively distributed collaborative editorial participation on the Web." For example, when citizen reporters set up their personal blog site in OhmyNews, we encourage them to become an editor for their own edition of OhmyNews. They can drag and drop any of the few hundred stories available on OhmyNews each day to build their personal edition. Now every citizen can be an editor at OhmyNews.

In OhmyNews 1.0, we tried to bridge the gap between pros and amateurs by introducing "journalism as a conversation" as opposed to "journalism as a lecture." OhmyNews 2.0 will continue to evolve with the development of more Web tools that will help us to harness the collective intelligence of Netizens on a global scale.
Jean K. Min is director of OhmyNews International. He also contributed to the launching of seoprise.com, an influential political Web-zine in Korea that together with OhmyNews played a vital role in electing the current South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun in 2002.
©2006 OhmyNews

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