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James Borton eyes the media

OhmyNews and 'wired red devils'

While South Korea's journalists and political leaders have been debating how to reform Korean media for decades, the hot new OhmyNews website has paved the way for a new type of democratic journalism with its thousands of 'Net citizens - netizens - as contributors. Readership is in the millions and netizens act when called upon.

The urgency of these press reforms became a hotly debated issue inside South Korea's governing Uri (Open) Party and the election in February 2003 of President Roh Moo-hyun, who has since led a critical campaign against the well-known conservative bias in the country's print media. The Uri Party has introduced legislation to revamp what it calls South Korea's distorted media market, an estimated 70-80% of which is controlled by the "big three" mass-circulation dailies. Three reform bills are expected to be pushed through the National Assembly soon, and one reason is the alternative Internet media, especially OhmyNews.

Broadband connectivity in South Korea, a country not much larger than the US state of Virginia, is rapidly transforming the lives of its 49 million citizens, and along the way serving up a populist and successful virtual news medium.

Kim Soung-su, 33, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, takes pride in his role as one of the more than 32,000 new citizen-reporters or netizens; he writes film reviews and commentaries on US foreign policy for

"OhmyNews provides alternative views to Korean society, and I think that many young Korean readers want to see various perspectives on their society," Kim said in an interview with Asia Times Online.

Since its start-up four years ago, OhmyNews has shaken the very foundations of South Korean journalism. The popular website averages several million hits each day. As a result, South Korea's overwhelmingly conservative mainstream newspapers have been placed on notice that they had better become more relevant because of the increasing number of "wired red devils", the staid print media's reference to the rising influence of online Korean youth.

This was borne out when President Roh granted his first domestic exclusive interview to the 40-year-old founder and chief executive officer of OhmyNews, Oh Yeon-ho (naturally, Mr Oh's news site is called OhmyNews), a few months after his election in February 2003.

Of course, an interview was in order as a show of gratitude to the wired red devils. The new president owed his dramatic victory in 2003 largely to Korea's online next generation of "wired red devils". On December 19, 2002, a very cool election day in Seoul, exit polls had forecast that the 56-year-old reformist candidate, an early favorite among Korea's youth, was losing the election.

People's online media elected Korea's outsider president
Roh's tech-savvy liberal supporters sparked a tsunami of Internet chatter to drum up last-minute voting support. In a matter of minutes, more than a million e-mails were sent to mobile phones and online accounts urging supporters to go out and vote. This online rallying cry sent young voters to polling stations nationwide and delivered a narrow 2.3% election victory to the self-proclaimed political outsider Roh, who had been summarily rejected by South Korea's conservative media.

Roh's victory and the virtual 11th-hour Internet appeal catapulted OhmyNews into a formidable news channel. After all, the most significant factor in the 2002 election was that seven out of 10 voters ranged in age between 20 and 40 and about 90% of that demographic uses the Internet, mostly domestically. And OhmyNews proved to be an instrumental channel in influencing the campaign for the South Korean 'Net citizens movement.

"OhmyNews, as a progressive Internet news [medium], played a vital role in galvanizing netizens during the 2002 presidential election," Jean K Min, director of international development at OhmyNews, claimed in an Asia Times Online interview. Min's comments underscored OhmyNews pivotal role in mobilizing young Koreans to rush to the polling stations in 2002, but it did not endorse a particular candidate.

Both before and after his election, Roh had clashed head-on with the country's established print media, accusing them of distorting his political intentions and saying his election would mean disruption, even chaos. The influential print-media establishment is composed of the "big three" conservative dailies, the Chosun, Jong Ang and Dong-A Ilbos, that lead the nation in circulation.

Roh's zealous campaign for media reforms has succeeded in stimulating further support for online media, and that includes the development of, an Internet newspaper developed mainly by career journalists, giving impetus to the overall field of Internet news media.

Roh's over-arching purpose for these press reforms is a deliberate effort to overturn the privileges of the media chaebol controlled by powerful family-run business conglomerates. The president's office finally has democratized the daily press briefings, which in the past was often treated as a media fiefdom controlled by the three major dailies. Now more media such as OhmyNews are included.

At the same time, his reform moves have been criticized as efforts to stifle the media that criticize him.

Young Koreans get news from the 'Net
Korean media observers remain skeptical whether there can be a more democratic and new press order, but one thing is certain, the young South Koreans are on the 'Net and not buying their daily newspaper to get the news.

San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor wrote recently in his new book We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People for the People: "OhmyNews is transforming the 20th century's journalism-as-lecture model - where organizations tell the audience what the news is and the audience either buys it or doesn't - into something vastly more bottom-up, interactive and democratic."

The rise of websites such as OhmyNnews is not startling given these impressive in-country connectivity facts: By 2005, eMarketer, a New York-based online research corporation, estimates that South Korea will have more than 34 million Internet users, accounting for more than two-thirds of the population.

An eMarketer survey of users found that 88.2% of Koreans with access surf the Internet for information, another 79.2% use it for e-mail, 53.8% for news and 42.4% for online shopping. And instant messaging users in South Korea has jumped from 27.5% in 2002 to 45% in 2004.

"I know OhmyNews very well. I do not think that they have had any serious impact on South Korea's conservative print media, like Chosun llbo, the largest daily with over 2 million readers. However, OhmyNews does certainly appeal to the young people, and that is a global phenomenon, with more of the youth getting their news and entertainment online," Noh Wang-park, bureau chief of the South Korean Yonhap News Agency in Washington, DC, said in a telephone interview with Asia Times Online.

The birth of blogs and participatory journalism explains the exponential growth at OhmyNews. The online traffic increase has enabled the company to become the website of "citizen journalism", as it is known, and its full-time staff has increased to 53, including 38 full-time reporters and editors, who often exchange tasks; about 15 people are dedicated to editing. The number of paid "citizen reporters" writing for the website expanded from 700 in the beginning to more than 32,000 today.

According to Min, director of international development, OhmyNews is generating almost US$500,000 a month in advertising revenue."We broke even last year and since then kept generating a monthly profit of about $27,000," he said in an online interview with Asia Times Online.

The website is ranked in the top 15 in South Korea. According to a website message from the founder, Oh Yeon-ho, after three years OhmyNews was breaking even, with 2004 anticipated to yield a modest profit.

A close reading of the site's articles reveals that its young non-professional journalist contributors are anti-corporate, anti-government and often virulently anti-American. OhmyNews covers the topics found in the daily media, from sports and entertainment to politics, but always infused with a point of view.

In an address last May at the 2004 World Association of Newspapers Conference in Istanbul, Turkey, OhmyNews chief Oh Yeon-ho commented on his expanding "news guerrilla" organization: "By means of the Internet, OhmyNews created a two-way journalism. Our readers are no longer passive. They can be reporters anytime they want. The main concept of OhmyNews is 'Every citizen is a reporter,'" he said.

Oh, a veteran journalist and former director of the news department for Mal, an alternative monthly magazine, struggled initially in setting up his populist website but said that the "last four years have been our success. If OhmyNews continues to grow, it will be based on the founding principle that all citizens are reporters."

According to OhmyNews sources, only 20% of the site's copy each day is written by staff journalists. The balance is totally dependent on outside contributors, including professors, police officers, students, housewives, business people - everyone.

A nationwide survey of media workers by Media Today, a South Korean trade weekly specializing in journalism, claims that 32% of the respondents cited OhmyNews as the medium whose influence was most likely to expand dramatically. The largest contributing factor to its impact is the website's interactivity.

The website has established its own internal canon of news objectivity and accuracy through a simple grading or ranking system of articles submitted. Those articles submitted as straight news are fact-checked by the editors. Writers are paid small amounts depending on how the stories are ranked in quality and value using forestry terminology, from "kindling" to "rare species".

"OhmyNews citizen-reporters are paid from US$20 to as little as $5, depending on the place [each article] is assigned by our editors," Min said.

South Korea's major print media pay their reporters very well since they continue to monopolize the advertising market. It is known that Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest daily in terms of circulation, pays its staff an average of 70 million to 80 million won, or $60,000-70,000 a year" said Min.

The site was recently recognized at the fifth World Forum on E-Democracy hosted by PoliticsOnline, in a ceremony in France, as one of the global players instrumental in changing the world of the Internet and politics.

South Korea's youth culture is forcing the development of new participatory forms of online journalism and influencing innovative social/political configurations in media.

The emergence of citizen reporters is succeeding in breaking down the monopoly of information control and ownership by conservative economic media elites. Now mainstream news outlets are even adopting more interactive features in their online versions. There's a long way to go, but all of this has led significantly to the democratization of South Korea's new media, offering online voices from ordinary citizens such as Kim Soung-su, the philosophy graduate student writing on film and foreign policy.

The three proposed media reform bills would:

  • Limit the total market share of the three major dailies to 60% and any paper would be barred from holding more than 30% of the entire market; advertising would be limited to no more than 50% of a newspaper; of the market and thus can sway public opinion.
  • Provide redress for those harmed by inaccurate and damaging media reporting.
  • Amend the broadcast law to provide for more diversity of views.

    James Borton is an author and freelance journalist. He welcomes media news releases, tips about trends, story ideas and comments. He can be reached at

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