Brave news worldIn 1992, the presidential election was largely determined by the newspapers.
In 1997, television controlled the campaigns and the issues.
But in 2002, it was the online media that led the debate.
No area shows the power of the new online media in Korea as clearly as presidential politics. Four years ago, online media was pretty much nonexistent in Korea. But in the days leading up to his inauguration on Feb. 25, President Roh Moo-hyun granted only two interviews, one to OhmyNews (www.ohmynews.com), and the other to Radio 21, another online service.
Indeed, Internet news providers grew to prominence side by side with the president. OhmyNews, for instance, had about 1 million regular visitors to its Web site before last year’s primary elections. That number jumped to 3 million during the Millennium Democratic Party’s primaries, and peaked at a staggering 20 million views a day just before the presidential election.
But this is more than just the same old news on a different medium. OhmyNews claims to be more progressive than mainstream newspapers and television news, openly siding with Mr. Roh’s candidacy during the election, as well as pushing the candlelight vigils and demanding an apology from the United States for the deaths of two teenage girls crushed under a U.S. Army vehicle last year.
Radio 21, an Internet radio station, which launched on Feb. 21, also takes a progressive platform, challenging mainstream media positions and calling for an end to discrimination.
These new news services not only take different positions than Korea’s traditional and conservative press, but they also have a much more open and democratic structure. Thousands of volunteer reporters are encouraged to write and call in. Radio 21 claims it will soon have 10,000 volunteer reporters around the peninsula.
By tackling the long-standing biases of the stodgy mainstream media and opening up the news process, the online media are threatening the established power of the newspapers.
What lies behind this rapid growth of online media is not only the indefatigable work of Internet news providers. According to Kim Min-hwan, a professor of journalism at Korea University, the established press only has itself to blame. “Around the world, Korea is the only place where the Internet media is strong enough to take control of a presidential election,” she says.
The Internet media are breaking down what used to be a very narrow access to information that the newspapers used to monopolize. In addition, it’s much faster, able to be updated nearly minute-by-minute. Perhaps most importantly, the online media are able to build a mutual relationship with their readers.
Right after the presidential election last December, Oh Yeon-ho, president of OhmyNews, asked President Roh two things: to revise the law regarding periodicals so that Internet media can be fully accredited like the regular news media, and to open the pressroom of the presidential Blue House so that all reporters, whatever their background, can have access. In the past, media access to the Blue House was tightly regulated.
While the jury is out on the first demand, President Roh did at least comply with the second, considered to be almost a revolutionary decision. Now the Blue House runs on a briefing system, where all proper reporters are welcome, leaving Mr. Oh happy.
President Roh has also taken the initiative in reforming the government’s relationship with the nation’s newspapers, such as by stopping subscriptions to the preliminary “early editions” that come out the evening before. In the past, government employees would typically pick up the early editions, read through for negative articles, then call the newspapers and lobby to have the information massaged into a more pleasant shape.
The JoongAng Ilbo stopped issuing evening editions last year.
“The core of Internet media is the realization of direct democracy,” says Jo Gi-suk, a professor at Ewha Womans University. “The Internet is a good medium to fix the problems of democracy in the past.”
But it’s not easy to be a new frontier. There are no deadlines on the Internet, just a constant push to get the news out the instant a story occurs. It’s demanding work, and most Internet sites, while stocked with plenty of volunteers, don’t have enough paid staff to get the work done.
In addition, salaries are often lower than the offline work, and the lack of prestige can be tough on egos. A few notable exceptions aside, most Internet news sites are still not accredited.
Despite all these difficulties, a number of offline reporters have moved to online. For some, the freedom of the Internet far outweighs those other drawbacks. Sure, the pay stinks, but at least you get to write whatever you want to write, without some delete-key-happy editor leering over your monitor.
Kim Dang, the political editor at OhmyNews, is one such reporter. Mr. Kim worked at the Weekly Dong-A and Sisa Journal for more than 10 years before making the electronic leap. But he does not hold any regrets. “When I moved online in January 2001, I never felt uneasy about my decision,” he says. “I was fully aware of the potential to influence that the Internet media possesses.”
Mun Ju-yong with e-daily, an economics online media, concurs. “The established offline media tend to stop at reiterating what the government officials say,” he says. “But we focus on the demand from the market. Among those who moved from offline to online, many think that they could have stopped the economic crisis in the late 1990s if they had been more responsible at their newspapers.”
Another source of editorial freedom for the Internet news comes from its lesser reliance on advertising. But this makes turning a profit that much harder. Some sites have tried to become fee-based.
It’s a time of transition, but overall, most of these reporters are happy with the chaos, pleased to be on the forefront.
by Go Na-ri, Sin Mi-hui
The growing pains of going online
Yoo Hong-joon, a professor of art history at Myungji University, recently withdrew his application for director of the National Museum. Mr. Yoo was one of the leading candidates because of his thorough knowledge of Korea’s cultural heritage, and for his series of books about local historic scenes.
It was the power of Internet media that pushed Mr. Yoo out.
OhmyNews brought up the controversy, asking whether Mr. Yoo was really eligible for the job.
Let me tell you that I do not know Mr. Yoo in person. I don’t want to say whether I think Mr. Yoo is qualified or not. The important thing is that the argument was done online, and the process, from my viewpoint at least, lacked any common sense.
We’ve long lived this age without dialogue, not because we had nothing to discuss, but rather because there was nowhere to exchange different viewpoints.
Dialogue in any substantial sense began with democratization, but it was after the 1990s that Koreans started to show an interest in communicating various viewpoints. The process was slow in many senses, when suddenly a whole new medium began ― the Internet and the birth of OhmyNews.
Such online media, as often mentioned, have played a role in opening the window to a whole new form of communication, with vigorous interaction and amazing mobility. OhmyNews especially has become the frontier of the alternative press.
The problem, however, is that even though the door to communication is now wide open, the process is immature. In the case of the Mr. Yoo controversy, Internet users all had access to the bulletin board to exchange their views. But in the end, the discussion turned out to lack concrete facts and logical reasoning. There was unreasonable personal abuse heaped on Mr. Yoo.
That is no different from the established, offline newspapers attacking somebody for no good reason. Internet bulletin boards are bound to have some slander and abuse, but this was simply not right.
Unlike the offline newspapers with limited space and forms, Internet news providers are much freer, which is basically welcome. But the freedom given here does not always turn out to be ideal. It tends to take the form of sensitivity and subjectivity.
Offline and online media need to figure out how to survive together.
by Jeong Yun-su