On These Sites, We're All ReportersImagine yourself as an editor about to select a story for the front page of your newspaper tomorrow morning. You have two options: a story about the Prince of Wales's visit to Korea or one about your mother who came to visit you from a rural village and got lost in the busy streets of Seoul. Which would you choose? Before answering the question, think of the considerations that pass through your mind. How would you distinguish "good news," or perhaps "important news"? What is your definition of "public" when you say that a story is not for you, but for public consumption?
A new medium in Korea challenges the newspaper culture and the role of the reporter by raising such questions. It consists of Internet-based news sites produced daily by ordinary Korean netizens. Both contributors and subscribers range from 13-year-old movie buffs to university professors.
"OhmyNews," which recently celebrated its first anniversary is a prime example of this trend. Styling its contributors as "life reporters" who bring stories from their own everyday life situations, this controversial cyber news site offers a unique editorial approach that suggests that "everyone is potential reporter."
The copy flow in this newsroom is rather simple. The more than 9,000 contributing reporters post their stories on a board. During an editorial meeting, staff members select stories and decide on the layout. The selected stories then are edited by staff editors and are uploaded to the site.
OhmyNews tends to focus on stories dealing with controversial socio-political issues. For example, the special report currently being featured examines the second-generation plutocracy in Korea. Titled "Why are they so different from us?" the collection of essay-style articles by contributing reporters raises provocative questions about company take-overs by family members and the legitimacy of the recent appointment by the Samsung Corporation president, Lee Gun-hee, of his eldest son as one of his company's executive directors.
Between 100 and 150 stories are posted daily. Currently, nine enthusiastic staff reporters work in the newsroom, and the ratio of articles contributed by life reporters to those written by staff reporters is about four to one.
Oh Yun-ho, the editor of OhmyNews, defines reporters as people who have the desire to share their stories with others. In the introduction to his company's homepage he writes that the success of the site comes from the idea that citizens should participate as active producers of public media rather than as passive consumers.
"We feature stories that are often dismissed in mainstream media because of either space limitations or simply for the sake of politics," Mr. Oh continues. "Most importantly, we focus on what readers want to read, rather than what reporters want to write about."
A former reporter himself who was renowned for his anti-American remarks while working for Mal, one of Korea's most progressive political magazines, Mr. Oh stirred a controversy in the paper's inaugural issue by holding an exclusive interview with Choi Woo-sik and Chung Woo-sik, two former Marine platoon leaders who were involved in the massacre of Vietnamese civilians in Phuhiep Village in South Vietnam in 1966.
It was the first testimony ever provided by South Korean veterans who fought in the Vietnam War.
Illustrating the success of the cyber news site, OhmyNews featured an exclusive interview in February with President Kim Dae-jung, and expects another exclusive with Lee Hoi-chang, President of the opposition Grand National Party later this month.
The idea of citizen-reporters is not new on the Internet. "Internet Hankyoreh," the on-line news site produced in part by the newspaper, Hankyoreh Sinmunsa, presented a similar concept a few years ago.
Called "Hani-reporters," the site continues to earn popularity among Internet surfers, verifying the power of lively news coming straight from the mouth of ordinary citizens. Inviting Korean expatriates throughout the world to contribute, the paper also features breaking news and stories that trigger cultural discussions around the globe.
Unlike Ohmynews, however, which allows basically anyone to become a contributing reporter, the Internet Hankyoreh has an evaluation process. Those who want to become official contributors are asked to submit an original piece of writing, which is then put through a selection process by the staff writers. Currently, there are 529 Hani reporters working for the site, and they change every year.
Though the idea of a citizen-made news site is alluring, it also has its drawbacks. The most frequently encountered problem is plagiarism. Because the contributors are not trained as professionals with reporting skills, they are less sensitive to the consequences of intellectual property crimes. There have been cases where the writing has been plagiarized from other Internet sites.
There is also a high risk for these sites of legal disputes, including actions for libel or defamation, because the way they go about confirming facts is inevitably less rigorous than the procedures of reporters in mainstream media. For this reason, among others, operators in this medium continue to refer to themselves as an alternative to the mainstream and have not registered for official publication licenses from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. According to a representative of the Internet Hankyoreh, if holders of this license are caught in an act of plagiarism, membership is automatically withdrawn.
Nevertheless, many people express praise of the news at these sites. Currently there are between 12,000 and 19,000 visitors at OhmyNews every day and between 30,000 and 40,000 at the Hani Reporters' Site.
Joo Dong-hwang, a professor of media studies at Kwangun University, says citizen papers are significant in terms of social experimentation. "They extend the citizen's cultural awareness," he said. "By being invited to participate in the production process, citizens go beyond simple monitoring. The medium gives them a chance to engage in different social issues. They have fulfilled the role that mainstream media should really be performing. In that sense, they have succeeded as an Internet model."
With any luck, these citizen papers will continue to challenge the territory of the mainstream media and keep them from getting complacent.
by Park Soo-mee