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Citizens are the media in S. Korea

Times Staff Writer

Kim Hye-won’s journalism career began when she decided to write about her teenage son fighting with his father. The elder Kim was pained by a long layoff; his 17-year-old son resented parental pressure to study and was carousing with a rock band. Caught between them, the Seoul homemaker posed a question to the world: “What can I do to help them overcome their struggles?”

Her article was posted online under the headline: “Daddy’s Depressed, Son’s Taking Tests, and I’m Worried.” Readers poured in with empathy and advice. Since then, the 45-year-old’s writings of ordinary life have become so popular that readers have clicked thousands of dollars into a cyber tip jar.

Kim is a writer for OhmyNews, a free online news service that has been held out by some as the future of journalism. Amateur reporters across South Korea submit some 200 news and feature articles a day, which are fact-checked and edited by a professional staff of about 65 at its newsroom in Seoul.

Although traditional newspapers and magazines around the world are cutting jobs amid declining circulation and a shift toward the Internet, OhmyNews continues to recruit. It currently has a reporting corps of 50,000. The company’s motto, posted outside its crammed office in central Seoul, is a big help-wanted sign: “Every citizen can be a reporter.”

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The experiment has been lauded by the Economist and other publications. OhmyNews’ founder and chief executive, Oh Yeon-ho, a onetime writer for a dissident magazine, has traveled the globe extolling the virtues of “participatory citizens’ journalism” and offering a new business model for a struggling industry. “I find some universal applicability in the OhmyNews model,” says the wiry 42-year-old.

But as the news service has matured, a bit of the sheen has worn off. The headline on OhmyNews’ story could be “Business Is Depressed, Readership Is Down and Backers Are Worried.”

After making a big splash during South Korea’s 2002 presidential elections, the company lost money last year on revenue of about $6 million, most of it from ads. Its readership, as measured by page views on the Internet, has fallen to about 1.5 million a day, from a peak of 20 million five years ago.

Last summer OhmyNews expanded into Japan, with $11 million of financing from Tokyo-based investment giant Softbank Corp., but neither that site nor the English-language international site has come close to matching OhmyNews’ performance in South Korea.

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“My personal feeling is the future is not bright,” says Yoon Young-chul, a journalism professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Its impact has been decreased.”

In some ways, OhmyNews is a victim of its own success. It was a pioneer of citizen journalism, but its ideas of engaging readers, particularly younger ones, have been co-opted by rival news purveyors in South Korea and all the way to CNN and the BBC. Mainstream media websites, including that of the Los Angeles Times, now post videos, photos and comments from the public.

But OhmyNews has encountered other problems. It has faced questions of credibility, partly because of its liberal bent and its army of nonprofessional reporters. In one instance, an advertising agent and citizen reporter wrote a story promoting a company that, it was later discovered, was one of his clients, prompting Oh to issue a public apology.

Oh declined to comment about that incident, but in an e-mail reply he said citizen reporters were required to reveal their association with clients.

Reporters must also use their real names on stories and promise to abide by an ethics code similar to those of other news-gathering organizations. Thus far, the company says, only a few stories written by citizen reporters have been involved in legal disputes.

As a journalist a decade ago, Oh was a rabble-rouser struggling to make his voice heard under South Korea’s authoritarian rule and a conservative media dominated by conglomerates. So on a shoestring budget, he began in 2000 with a staff of four, cranking out news and analysis.

Oh says the company’s name is a play on “Oh my God!” a popular comic line here at one time.

Oh’s populist approach to news found mass appeal during the heated 2002 presidential elections, especially among youths who had grown up in a society transformed by two simultaneous revolutions -- digital and political. South Korea is one of the world’s most wired nations, with broadband connections in about 70% of homes. Blogging is a common form of communication.

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Media pundits believe OhmyNews played an important role in the 2002 election of Roh Moohyun, but since then it has had few such powerful issues to galvanize audiences. After Roh, a former labor lawyer, took office, the news service has been like a rebel without a cause, some analysts say.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s mainstream media have been boosting their online presence, and the rise of news on portals such as Daum and Naver.com -- the Korean equivalents of Google and Yahoo -- have further diluted OhmyNews’ ad revenue.

To broaden its appeal, though, OhmyNews is devoting more resources to reporting on the economy and other topics. Oh is offering Journalism 101 classes to citizen reporters and trying to improve collaboration between the company’s amateurs and professionals. OhmyNews has created a “panic button” online that citizen reporters can tap to talk with editors about what’s happened to their stories. About 30% of submissions are rejected.

OhmyNews has a small crew of professional reporters and multimedia specialists who work in a newsroom that calls to mind an earlier era in journalism. Desks are jammed together, sans partitions, with head editor Lee Han-ki, an industry veteran, issuing orders. News blares from televisions above.

When rioting broke out on the streets during recent free-trade talks, some dispatches and videos came from activists doubling as citizen reporters. That’s raised questions about objectivity and sparked criticism that OhmyNews reporters practice “guerrilla journalism.”

OhmyNews managers don’t see an inherent conflict in being both participant and reporter, so long as the reports are fair and accurate. In fact, they contend, that’s what gives citizen reporters insights and an insider’s perspective.

For example, Kim Yong-ruk, 35, who reports on legal affairs, works full-time as a clerk at a courthouse. Another popular OhmyNews writer, Song Sung-young, is a farmer in a mountain village southwest of Seoul.

Song, with a thick beard and the look of a naturalist, has written more than 200 articles about the simplicity of rural life, accompanied by photos taken by his wife.

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“I earn a little, eat a little and spend a little,” Song says in an OhmyNews profile about him. “I make just a little for each story. That’s why OhmyNews is the perfect fit for me.”

Little indeed. Citizen reporters can’t make a living working for OhmyNews. The company pays no more than $22 per submission, though readers can contribute as much as $54 at a time for a story they like through a tip-jar system, a la PayPal. Kim Young-oak, a Harvard-trained classics scholar, holds the record: More than $30,000 poured in after he wrote an article questioning the logic and wisdom of moving the nation’s capital outside Seoul.

“The established media refused my manuscript,” says Kim, 59, adding that he plans to donate the reader contributions to charity.

Kim doesn’t consider himself a citizen reporter, although he has written a number of articles for OhmyNews. Many other contributors have full-time jobs or are students or stay-at-home mothers, such as Kim Hye-won, who wrote about being caught between her husband and her son.

Kim had no training in journalism, nor had she worked outside her home. But her writings for OhmyNews led to her selection by Time magazine as a “person of the year” for her role in the changing face of media. Kim says she wrote her first piece after 18 years of living in obscurity as a homemaker in Seoul.

“Rather than say I’m a reporter, I prefer to just listen to the concerns of friends as if I were talking with neighbors,” says Kim, whose writings have included stories about neighbors helping disabled children ride sleds and street vendors struggling to make ends meet.

“I sometimes forget I’m doing an interview and get lost in the conversation, crying, getting off topic and exchanging jokes,” she says. “That’s possible because I’m a citizen, not a reporter.”

don.lee@latimes.com


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