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Citizens are the media in S. Korea

OhmyNews' populist approach, though risky, is widely emulated.

June 18, 2007|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Kim Hye-won's journalism career began when she decided to write about her teenage son fighting with his father. The elder Kim was pained by a long layoff; his 17-year-old son resented parental pressure to study and was carousing with a rock band. Caught between them, the Seoul homemaker posed a question to the world: "What can I do to help them overcome their struggles?"

Her article was posted online under the headline: "Daddy's Depressed, Son's Taking Tests, and I'm Worried." Readers poured in with empathy and advice. Since then, the 45-year-old's writings of ordinary life have become so popular that readers have clicked thousands of dollars into a cyber tip jar.

Kim is a writer for OhmyNews, a free online news service that has been held out by some as the future of journalism. Amateur reporters across South Korea submit some 200 news and feature articles a day, which are fact-checked and edited by a professional staff of about 65 at its newsroom in Seoul.

Although traditional newspapers and magazines around the world are cutting jobs amid declining circulation and a shift toward the Internet, OhmyNews continues to recruit. It currently has a reporting corps of 50,000. The company's motto, posted outside its crammed office in central Seoul, is a big help-wanted sign: "Every citizen can be a reporter."

The experiment has been lauded by the Economist and other publications. OhmyNews' founder and chief executive, Oh Yeon-ho, a onetime writer for a dissident magazine, has traveled the globe extolling the virtues of "participatory citizens' journalism" and offering a new business model for a struggling industry. "I find some universal applicability in the OhmyNews model," says the wiry 42-year-old.

But as the news service has matured, a bit of the sheen has worn off. The headline on OhmyNews' story could be "Business Is Depressed, Readership Is Down and Backers Are Worried."

After making a big splash during South Korea's 2002 presidential elections, the company lost money last year on revenue of about $6 million, most of it from ads. Its readership, as measured by page views on the Internet, has fallen to about 1.5 million a day, from a peak of 20 million five years ago.

Last summer OhmyNews expanded into Japan, with $11 million of financing from Tokyo-based investment giant Softbank Corp., but neither that site nor the English-language international site has come close to matching OhmyNews' performance in South Korea.

"My personal feeling is the future is not bright," says Yoon Young-chul, a journalism professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. "Its impact has been decreased."

In some ways, OhmyNews is a victim of its own success. It was a pioneer of citizen journalism, but its ideas of engaging readers, particularly younger ones, have been co-opted by rival news purveyors in South Korea and all the way to CNN and the BBC. Mainstream media websites, including that of the Los Angeles Times, now post videos, photos and comments from the public.

But OhmyNews has encountered other problems. It has faced questions of credibility, partly because of its liberal bent and its army of nonprofessional reporters. In one instance, an advertising agent and citizen reporter wrote a story promoting a company that, it was later discovered, was one of his clients, prompting Oh to issue a public apology.

Oh declined to comment about that incident, but in an e-mail reply he said citizen reporters were required to reveal their association with clients.

Reporters must also use their real names on stories and promise to abide by an ethics code similar to those of other news-gathering organizations. Thus far, the company says, only a few stories written by citizen reporters have been involved in legal disputes.

As a journalist a decade ago, Oh was a rabble-rouser struggling to make his voice heard under South Korea's authoritarian rule and a conservative media dominated by conglomerates. So on a shoestring budget, he began in 2000 with a staff of four, cranking out news and analysis.

Oh says the company's name is a play on "Oh my God!" a popular comic line here at one time.

Oh's populist approach to news found mass appeal during the heated 2002 presidential elections, especially among youths who had grown up in a society transformed by two simultaneous revolutions -- digital and political. South Korea is one of the world's most wired nations, with broadband connections in about 70% of homes. Blogging is a common form of communication.

Media pundits believe OhmyNews played an important role in the 2002 election of Roh Moohyun, but since then it has had few such powerful issues to galvanize audiences. After Roh, a former labor lawyer, took office, the news service has been like a rebel without a cause, some analysts say.

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