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Published Date: 10 April 2008

In an interview in the New York Times in early 2003, Oh Yeon-ho, the founder and CEO of OhmyNews says his motivation in launching the website was to address the skewed Korean news market, where the media constantly manipulated the national agenda in politics, economics and society. Oh says that he “wanted to start a tradition free of newspaper company elitism where news were evaluated based on quality, regardless of whether it came from a major newspaper, a local reporter, an educational journalist, or a neighbourhood housewife… So I decided to make the plunge into the sea of the Internet.”

The Korean mass media was criticised for politicisation and commercialisation of the news which many argued was harmful for democracy. The inability of the established mass media to foster public discussions or publish divergent social opinions, may have stemmed somewhat from its technological limits. Established media in Korea were said to report commercially interesting issues, then abandon those issues when the interest of their audience waned. In contrast, Oh’s concept of ‘every citizen is a reporter’ and OhmyNews aimed to create an information database on political and social issues that pursued the evolution of a topic from its emergence and development to disappearance was seen as a means to counter this. But prior to the advent of the internet, Oh thought that taking his this idea to print would have been too expensive. Idea Before establishing OhmyNews, Oh had worked at a liberal Korean monthly magazine called Mahl from 1988, and it was during this time that he faced numerous rejections when trying to access major news sources. In many cases, Oh’s questions were not answered and access was denied. Oh felt this was not acceptable as he believed that all taxpayers should have access to public information held by government agencies. In Oh’s opinion, the web 1.0 era could be defined as a time when the internet primarily functioned as a source of information. Now, in the era of web 2.0, internet users can produce and exchange information so that the internet functions as social infrastructure. His idea was to combine the potential of the web 2.0 era for user-generated content and the desire of citizens to have open access to information and news (‘every citizen is a reporter’).

Oh developed the concept when he went to study at Regent University in the US. At Regent, Oh worked on a project for which he was asked to draft a plan of an imaginary new media start-up and created an embryonic plan for a citizen-produced online news medium. When he returned to Korea in 1997, it was this same plan that Oh persuaded investors to back. Oh left his job at Mahl and with a combination of start-up funding from investors and some personal funds, he launched OhmyNews in February 2000. OhmyNews citizen reporters are paid a nominal amount for their contributions and are supplemented by 35 staff reporters who cover issues that require more in-depth analysis and investigation. However, the bulk of the content is comprised of articles written by citizen reporters and contributions can reach 150-200 articles a day. Citizen reporters must be formally identified through a government authentication process before they can write for the service. Stories are edited through a two-tiered system whereby staff editors are responsible for checking and selecting stories from citizen reporters to be published online. If a story is accepted, the writer can track how many readers access the story online and also get feedback. If articles are rejected, the reasons are made public in order to ensure that no political or financial external pressure is influencing the selection. This process is regulated informally through the citizen journalism network. There is also an ombudsman committee, composed of citizen reporters and others, that monitors the OhmyNews main page on a daily basis and submits monthly reports. To ensure high quality information and participation, ten conditions for the quality of user-generated content were developed under four focal points: credibility, responsibility, influence and sustainability. The content has to be factually accurate, avoid plagiarism, be responsible in responding to the needs of readers as well as writers, and aim to improve the overall quality of the media. Content should have an influence online but also, crucially, in building public opinion offline. Interestingly, from the start, Oh’s aim for sustainability encompassed the desire to ‘become marketable and to contribute to establishing good and sound business models for the media’. The development of OhmyNews always looked beyond Korea and was intended to become an international model.

The success of OhmyNews and its growth cannot be properly understood without recognising the specific socio-political conditions that existed in South Korea at the time it emerged. Between 1961 and 1988 Korea was ruled by military regimes. Under these authoritarian regimes, the Korean press had accepted its role as a voluntary servant to government interests. Although censorship was abolished in 1987 and newspapers were no longer required to be licensed by government, conservative dominance remained with three papers accounting for 75 percent of newspaper circulation. These newspapers had accumulated capital under the military government before 1987, and had developed since then as quasi-political entities with distinct agendas. A 2004 survey found that 32.2 percent of 1,200 Korean respondents did not trust the mainstream media, while only 19.5 percent said they did. In the early 1990s, new activities for generating public opinion developed, capitalising on new means of personal communication that emerged with the internet. These included for example, bulletin boards and discussion groups where early ‘rebellious communities’ began to form. Building on this, prototypes for alternative forms of media were created online. Ddanji Ilbo developed as an internet newspaper that parodied conservative newspapers. Also, Urimodu was founded to catalyse a movement to close down the conservative media, Chosum Ilbo. In these ways, ‘netizens’ began to create their own online media as an alternative media movement. These websites succeeded in voicing criticism, however they failed to emerge as a substantive alternative media. OhmyNews was uniquely successful because it capitalised on citizen participation and interactive communications to forcefully challenge existing media. The emergence of alternative online news resources was also facilitated by Korea’s extensive digital telecommunications infrastructure, which was a result of government-led policies. During the economic crisis of the 1990s, the government had turned towards dotcom businesses as a solution. As a result, by 1997 Korea had established a broadband infrastructure linking 80 major cities. In addition, high housing and population densities made the cost of expanding infrastructure relatively low, and by 2000 the broadband network had expanded to 144 cities nationwide.

According to an International Telecommunication Union report released in 2003, one-fifth of Koreans subscribed to broadband internet services, the highest service penetration in the world. The broader socio-cultural conditions that anticipated the successful rise of OhmyNews, were reinforced by two specific events in 2002: the deaths of two Korean schoolgirls crushed by a US army vehicle; and the Korean presidential elections. The incident of the schoolgirls, which saw both soldiers acquitted of all charges, was downplayed in the mainstream media. However, citizen journalists participated in an online campaign that evolved offline into protest demonstrations, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to central Seoul. Widespread anger was directed at the US, and the profound enthusiasm of Koreans in their 20s to 40s and their support for reformist policies, culminated in a close presidential campaign between conservative candidate Lee Hoi Change, and reformist candidate Roh Moo Hyun. Voting was scheduled to start on the 19th December, but on the eve of the 18th, Roh’s campaign partner withdrew his support. OhmyNews citizens responded throughout the night, with the website being the epicentre of action for reform-minded citizens: 6.23 million visitors and 19.1 million page views occurred on this day alone. The OhmyNews front page was filled with reports and action plans from citizen journalists, urging readers to vote. Roh won the election by a narrow margin and immediately acknowledged the contribution of OhmyNews, granting the organisation an exclusive first interview as President. Yoon Young-Chul, professor of media studies at Yonsei University, argues that OhmyNews exerted “a formidable influence” on South Korean journalism and played a “significant role in mobilising the anti-establishment public opinion which certainly helped Roh win the last presidential election.” OhmyNews’ coverage on these political incidents greatly raised its profile and was very important to its growth. According to Jean K Min, responsible for international business relations and corporate communications at OhmyNews, this was not an accident. With only 20 to 30 reporters at the time, OhmyNews was not a big company and they simply did not have enough reporters to cover all the major events of the day. Given the strong political connotation of their brand and the fact that they were mainly attracting a young, highly politicised Korean audience, Oh decided to optimise their resource management and concentrate on the story he felt sure they would be most interested in.

A combination of strategic thinking and limited resources transformed a growing media resource into an influential, internationally known website. Given OhmyNews’ meteoric rise, other leading Korean newspapers have followed its example of reader participation. Chosun Llbo, one of the leading conservative dailies, allows its readers to leave comments at the bottom of every article. Daum, is encouraging its blogger reporters to submit their news to its new site, Media Daum. Over the last seven years, OhmyNews has now grown to be the world’s most successful and developed online citizen journalism website and one of Korea’s most influential news websites. In the fifth World Forum on E-democracy hosted by PoliticsOnline, OhmyNews was recognised as one of the key global players in changing the world of the internet and politics. By early 2006, the number of citizen reporters had grown to more than 41,000, including more than 700 overseas who report in English for the international page of OhmyNews. International Expansion An English news division was launched in February 2004 and has had some success. It is produced by nearly 1,500 citizen reporters from more than 100 countries and five professional editors based in the US and Korea. The OhmyNews English language edition is targeted at a global audience, however it is particularly strong in developing countries where the mainstream media is not felt to reflect popular views. In February 2006 OhmyNews secured $10-$11 million investment from Softbank Corp., a group which holds a controlling stake in Yahoo! Japan. In addition to the benefit provided by the finance, this investment paved the way for international expansion to Japan as well as the development of an OhmyNews international English Language edition. Jean K. Min suggests that Softbank’s involvement was not motivated purely for financial gain. He stresses that OhmyNews were singled out by Softbank because of shared values and Softbank’s belief that Japan’s media needed something similar to OhmyNews. In August 2006, the service launched in Japan, led by CEO Masayoshi Son, amidst much doubt about its ability to establish itself outside of Korea given the unique set of circumstances in which it grew.

Financially, OhmyNews has had difficulty developing a sustainable business model. Currently, 70 percent of its income comes from advertising, including the traditionally conservative family-run conglomerates such as Samsung and LG. Another 20 percent is generated through selling content to the likes of Naver and Yahoo Korea. Donations make up the remaining 10 percent of their funding. An article in Business Week in November 2006 suggested that the company has only made very modest profits over the last few years and was forecast to lose money in 2006, with predicted revenues of $6 million. Ideally, according to Jean K. Min, OhmyNews would like to have a business model that does not require advertising funding, but this is unlikely in the short term. OhmyNews planned to unveil a new business plan in late May 2007, which may include other ways of funding the organisation. Jean K. Min talks of various potential funding models including a cyber marketplace, where the strong community element of OhmyNews would be used to generate money, and a new way of organising the site which could involve giving readers some editorial rights enhancing user-ownership. While commentators have criticised its lack of financial viability, Oh does not see as the organisation’s primary aim. He claims, “I want OhmyNews to be sustainable, but my ambition is to spread citizen journalism around the world, not to make money.’ Addressing the challenges of moving into the Japanese market, Shuntaro Torigoe, the chief editor of OhmyNews Japan cited three crucial challenges that OhmyNews faced in transferring its news model:

• A different attitude towards politics. In Korea, many citizens are very involved in politics, often voicing their opinions and protests. In Japan however, politics is often seen as a horse race, and many people at the time were content with the then Prime Minister Koizumi. Those who were not were not vocal;

• Differing perceptions of mainstream media. Many Koreans mistrust the mainstream media, whereas in Japan the media was held in reasonably high regard.

• Cultural differences. Japanese citizens were said to be more reluctant to express their views or engage in heated confrontational discussions. So far the service has been slow to take off and Jean K Min puts this down to the need to understand the audience and its motivations better in the new market before launching an initiative involving user-generated content. As Min says “The audience is the content and they will decide what they enjoy reading.” The only way to encourage the growth of citizen reporting is to build from the bottom up. However, Min also notes that it took two years before OhmyNews took off in Korea.