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Audience-led Web journalism taking root in South Korea

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) SEOUL Lee Bong-Ryul has a day job as an engineer at a semiconductor company. In his spare time, he's helping to shape tomorrow's journalism.

Lee is an active "citizen-reporter" for OhmyNews, an online news service. Only four years old, the publication has already shaken up the South Korean journalism and political establishments while attracting an enormous audience.

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 influence of OhmyNews is substantial, and expanding. It's credited with having helped elect the nation's current president, Roh Moo Hyun, who ran as a reformer. Roh granted his first post-election interview to the publication, snubbing the three major conservative newspapers that have dominated the print journalism scene for years.

Even taxi drivers who don't have time for newspapers have heard of OhmyNews. The site draws millions of visitors daily. Advertisers are supporting both the Korean-language Web site, www.ohmynews.com, and a weekly print edition, and the operation has been profitable in recent months, according to its chief executive and founder, Oh Yeon-Ho.

Oh is a 38-year-old former writer for progressive magazines. With a staff of about 50 and legions of "citizen-reporter" contributors - more than 26,000 have signed up, and more than 15,000 have published stories under their bylines - Oh and his colleagues are creating something entirely new.

"The main concept is that every citizen can be a reporter," he says. "We changed the concept of the reporter."

The old way meant becoming a professional journalist and getting a press card - a credentialed and somewhat elevated position in Korean society. The new way, Oh says, is that "a reporter is the one who has the news and who is trying to inform others."

The paper's citizen-reporters go into issues that the mainstream media haven't covered, says Jeong Woon-Hyeon, the chief editor. The site posts about 70 percent of the roughly 200 items submitted each day, after staff editors look at the stories. Postings work on a hierarchy corresponding to their place on the page; the lower the headline appears, the less important or interesting the editors consider it. The higher and more newsworthy the story, the more the freelance contributor gets paid.

The idea isn't entirely new. News organizations have long used stringers, who contribute freelance articles.

What's so different here is that anyone can sign up, and it's not difficult to get published. The Web means space for news is essentially unlimited, and OhmyNews welcomes contributions from just about anyone.

The real-people nature of the contributors lends further appeal to the site. The citizen-reporters do cover politics, economy, culture, arts and science - the usual subjects you'll find in newspapers - but they tend to focus more on personally oriented issues like education, job conditions and the environment.

The company issues staff press cards to some of the more active contributors, for short periods of time, to cover specific events.

Full-time professional staffers, meanwhile, work in a time-honored manner. They jockey with reporters from big newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets for scoops in government and business, then lobby for the best possible display of their work.

While the citizen reporters write about 85 percent of the online edition, the staff writes about 90 percent of the weekly print edition.

OhmyNews reflects its bosses' passion for going beyond the conservative papers' constrained view of the world. By several accounts, its coverage of events such as the death of two school girls crushed by a U.S. Army vehicle in an accident last summer has forced the hand of mainstream media that were downplaying the story. Protest demonstrations after that incident evolved into nationwide anger against America and a profoundly nationalist fervor that helped elect Roh.

Oh and Jeong reject the perception that OhmyNews is somehow linked to the new government. Clearly, though, they have vastly more in common politically with the semi-reformist regime than the one it replaced, just as they are poles apart from the mass media that were widely seen as supporters of Roh's predecessors.

Oh's rise from underground-magazine writer to powerful media figure has any number of ironies.

One is that the government he disliked was instrumental in wiring the nation for high-speed data access, creating the conditions that ultimately gave OhmyNews an opening. In this wired nation, more than two-thirds of households are connected to the Internet, most with high-speed links.

Then there's the way he came to realize that he should start OhmyNews. He went to the U.S. from 1997 to 1999 to get a master's degree at Regent University in Virginia. The school's president was Pat Robertson, the evangelist and right-wing political figure.

To know America, Oh says a journalist friend told him, you have to know how the conservative right operates. In Robertson's case, part of the operation was counteracting what conservatives saw (and continue to see) as a liberal-oriented mainstream press. Robertson's method was to start his own media outlets.

Regent offered media courses. "I learned their techniques," he says. "But my approach is quite different."

In one course, students' homework was to create a new media organization, at least on paper. Oh's imaginary company was the genesis of OhmyNews. ("I got an A-plus," he says wryly.)

The vision was to use the Internet, which was then growing like crazy, to tap the power of average people who, Oh strongly believed, didn't back South Korea's government and weren't represented by the conservative media companies that controlled about 80 percent of daily circulation.

OhmyNews' ambitions aren't limited to mere words. It runs video Webcasting services and plans to expand its multimedia presence. Someday, citizen-reporters could be contributing video reports, not just text, in a dazzling, multidirectional sharing of information.

Oh and his colleagues know that the interactive nature of the medium extends far beyond OhmyNews' appeals for contributions from citizen-reporters. Each story has a link to a comments page. Readers can, and do, post comments ranging from supportive to harsh, and they can vote on whether they approve or disapprove of specific comments.

Sometimes the journalists reply directly on the comments page. Lee, one of OhmyNews' most active citizen-reporters, says he's done that to clarify a point a reader apparently misunderstood, or to answer questions people have had about what he's written. He also gets plenty of e-mail responses to his work.

In about three years of contributing to OhmyNews, he's averaged about 100 stories a year, mostly on family topics, often mentioning his two daughters.

Before joining OhmyNews, Lee was posting politically oriented items to several online bulletin boards, getting little if any response.

OhmyNews, he says, changed the equation. Here, at last, was a publication that reflected some of his views on politics and society - and that was glad to publish what he wrote.

One topic that drew lots of responses was his vasectomy, he says. He's also written about larger societal issues, such as children's education, sex offenders who victimize teenagers and the rights of blue-collar workers.

Editors at the publication check spelling, he says, but not much else. Fact-checking by OhmyNews staff is reserved for news stories, not features like his.

He doesn't do it for the money. Stories that make the OhmyNews equivalent of the front page earn him about $20, the top rate. He gets commensurately less for stories that run lower on the page and figures he makes between $50 and $100 a month in freelance payments - not a pittance but hardly a fortune.

Lee has no ambitions to be a professional writer. "I don't think I'm qualified," he says. But he believes he gets, on balance, a greater response for the kinds of stories he writes - about regular people's lives - than some of the professional journalism that runs in the newspapers and on the site every day.

The easy coexistence of the amateurs and professionals will, soon enough, seem natural. Publications like OhmyNews will pop up everywhere, because they make sense, combining the best of old and new journalistic forms.

(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Peter Chang provided research and translation assistance in Seoul for this report.)

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