Is This the Future of Journalism?

Oh Yeon Ho is a lean, intense journalist who came of age during turbulent political unrest in Korea in the mid-'80s--and a media environment in which old-line and often conservative newspapers dominated the national scene. For a decade, Oh worked as a conventional magazine journalist, but in early 2000 he launched his own news site--just before the bursting of the Internet bubble. But unlike many startups, Oh's OhmyNews.com not only survived but thrived, based on the simple notion that "every citizen is a reporter." And now Oh's Internet creation has attracted the attention of media giants around the world who wonder: is this Korean start-up the future of journalism?

The initial premise is conventional: OhmyNews employs 25 trained reporters who cover the major news stories of the day. But the twist comes with another 10 editors who review and post as many as 200 articles written daily by nearly 33,000 "citizen journalists"--anyone who registers can submit a 750-word piece in exchange for a few dollars per story. If the article makes the "Top News" section, the payout is about $11.

"They are writing articles to change the world, not to earn money," says Oh. His contributors must agree to a code of ethics and eschew racism or pornography. Every story is posted instantly to the site. There is, however, an editorial hierarchy to the site's visual design. Hard news (by the site's professional journalists) and the most carefully edited citizen pieces are front and center, followed by softer stories like entertainment, quick community updates and finally, toward the bottom, stories not yet edited by OhmyNews. Most stories are also accompanied by rich and densely populated message boards.

OhmyNews has become one of the most influential news and information sites in Korea, with more than 750,000 unique users per day--this during a period when the leading newspapers' circulation dropped by a third. The site was widely credited with influencing South Korea's election of President Roh Moo-hyun; Roh granted his first postelection interview to OhmyNews. The later protest rallies that came with Roh's impeachment trial were covered in minute-by-minute detail, in text, photography and even video, by dozens of citizen reporters. Oh explains, "OhmyNews is a kind of public square in which the reform-minded generation meet and talk with each other and find confidence. The message they find here: we are not alone. We can change this society."

OhmyNews reached profitability last fall, driven primarily by advertising (ranging from small merchants to Samsung) with additional revenue from conferences, content licenses and voluntary donations from users. Although ad revenue is expected to grow 50 percent this year, Oh suspects that remaining profitable will remain a challenge. "I have to make money," he says, "but I am not an expert in that. Deep in my heart, I am still a reporter."

Critics from traditional news publishers in Korea charge that OhmyNews confuses message board posting with news, and that getting to the truth in any story requires painstaking reporting and editing by trained professionals. But OhmyNews's audience--primarily in their 20s and 30s--may not agree. When some Yonsei University students recently met with a visiting reporter to discuss the future of news, one psychology major put it simply: "How can you ever get truth from one source? The Internet allows us to check multiple sources, to explore message-board postings, to debate issues with others--that is the only way to find truth. And besides, what good is information if you can't react to it?" "We're not stupid," added a business student. "We know that there is a difference between a message board, a traditional journal and OhmyNews. But by putting them together, our understanding is better. We can piece together truth." Oh is quick to point out that in four years, Ohmynews has had to publish only four retractions and has never had any significant legal issues.

In some ways, Oh says, OhmyNews is a "special product of Korea." Koreans had relatively little public access to open and free dialogue and a large portion had grown dissatisfied with the mainstream conservative media. In addition, Korea's small size makes news coverage more manageable--one of Oh's professional journalists is rarely more than a few hours away from where a citizen journalist is reporting. Korea is also, in Oh's words, "a unipolar society, where the entire country can be engulfed by just a couple of issues." And finally, the nearly 70 percent penetration of broadband Internet access in Korea allows users to engage more readily; Oh can also experiment in multimedia offerings such as OhmyTV and Web radio.

Despite these unique factors in Korea, Oh strongly believes that there is a global need to broaden the definition of news consumption and has recently launched OhmyNews International in English.

Will he find a willing audience in the United States? American television audiences are already familiar with "citizen witnesses" supplying news footage, from Rodney King to September 11. Online, from eBay to Craigslist.org, individuals are self-publishing commercial enterprises, and Weblogs have become a national hobby. On a more organized scale, About.com offers how-to advice from hundreds of self-posting experts around the nation, and Wikipedia.com is a self-posting encyclopedia where more than 6,000 active contributors have submitted 600,000 articles on countless topics.

So is a more active participation and interaction with news far behind? Oh thinks so. But he is quick to caution: "Technology itself cannot change society. Korean citizens were ready to participate. Only prepared people, who can use the merits of technology, can make a difference."