In Other Words

Seoul Searching

OhmyNews.com, Seoul On election day in December 2002, the South Korean online newspaper OhmyNews began posting up-to-the-minute reports about how presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun was lagging in the polls. The blanket coverage by the Web site proved to be a blessing for the leftist candidate. OhmyNews‘s reform-hungry young readers besieged Internet bulletin boards and fired ...

OhmyNews.com, Seoul

On election day in December 2002, the South Korean online newspaper OhmyNews began posting up-to-the-minute reports about how presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun was lagging in the polls. The blanket coverage by the Web site proved to be a blessing for the leftist candidate. OhmyNews‘s reform-hungry young readers besieged Internet bulletin boards and fired off text messages, imploring their compatriots to go to the polls and vote for Roh. By day’s end, Roh had pulled off a come-from-behind political upset, narrowly winning the election by 2.3 percent. As for OhmyNews, the scrappy start-up became a part of global media lore overnight. In a nod to the site’s newfound political power, Roh granted it his first exclusive interview.

That a maverick Web site like OhmyNews could become a political kingmaker was unimaginable a few years earlier. South Korean media, in part because of the country’s early years as a military dictatorship, have long been controlled by a handful of elites. But in February 2000, Oh Yeon Ho, formerly a reporter with the left-wing magazine Mahl, was fed up with newspaper barons’ conservative bent. "The voice of citizens had been ignored for too long," says Oh. "I think progressive and conservative voices should be heard equally."

So, Oh bought some new computers and launched a Web site. He capitalized on his citizens’ affinity for communications technology — some 75 percent of Koreans have access to high-speed Internet — by encouraging ordinary citizens to sniff around the country for news stories to post online. He asked them to submit articles, commentary, pictures, and video via computers and cell phones, making OhmyNews the world’s first interactive online newspaper. Unlike Korea’s media elite, which Oh claims turned a blind eye to the concerns of ordinary citizens, OhmyNews enabled everyone from housewives to high school students to sound off on topics from politics to poetry. The site’s motto? "Every citizen is a reporter."

Oh’s experiment has been incredibly successful. Today, OhmyNews boasts nearly 42,000 citizen reporters throughout South Korea. Their work is vetted by a team of editors for inaccuracies and potentially libelous content. About 30 percent of the content is produced by full-time professional journalists. The six-year-old Web site has risen to prominence so quickly, it has been held up as an international symbol of modern journalism for the 21st century. Scholars at Harvard University and executives from Google have invited Oh to speak at their conferences, hoping to learn how the site combines the virtues of old media with the advantages of the new. OhmyNews has expanded internationally, too. An English-language site was launched in 2004 and currently has 1,000 contributors from 89 different countries. And the Japanese telecommunications and media giant Softbank Corp. invested $11 million in OhmyNews for a Japanese version, which was launched at the end of August.

OhmyNews may have won praise from media pundits, but it isn’t the darling it once was. Tough competition may be one of the reasons. OhmyNews‘s sudden success spawned a raft of imitators, which are now undoubtedly siphoning hits from its site. And Korean portals, such as the No.1-ranked Naver.com, have become hugely popular in the last few years for news and entertainment. Some 80 percent of Korean Internet users migrate to such sites for their media fix.

Another reason for the site’s slumping popularity is that readers are finding the content can be unreliable. It’s no surprise that its citizen contributors tend to write about issues that appeal emotionally. But these stories pose a problem for OhmyNews‘s credibility when writers fail to back up their reporting with facts. For example, in 2002, two American soldiers accidentally ran over two Korean schoolgirls with a tank north of Seoul. Some reports posted to OhmyNews suggested the GIs had intentionally killed the children, even though that was not the case. Other times, the Web site simply plays fast and loose with the facts. In 2003, OhmyNews posted an article claiming that Bush administration officials were considering a plan to launch an air strike against a nuclear facility in North Korea. The report turned out to be erroneous. "The Web site has tremendous social influence and is not necessarily careful in how it uses it," says Robert Koehler, a media pundit who runs a popular English-language blog about South Korea.

Ironically, what is hurting OhmyNews‘s reputation most these days is part of what originally made it such a sensation: its close relationship with President Roh. Critics allege that because the government grants news scoops to OhmyNews, the site is reluctant to criticize Roh on matters such as high youth unemployment, the ailing economy, and its diplomacy with North Korea. As the president’s own popularity continues to tank — his approval rating recently fell to below 20 percent — so does OhmyNews‘s. "It tends to be very supportive of Roh and doesn’t reflect the point of view of others," says Yoon Young-chul, a professor of journalism at Yonsei University.

More recently, OhmyNews raised a few eyebrows this summer when it agreed to take a government grant of $10,000 from a fund designed to keep ailing newspapers and other media afloat. Media analysts asked why Oh needed taxpayer money when he claimed that his company had been in the black for more than three years. OhmyNews‘s editors defended the decision to accept the money by skirting the question, saying that the process was transparent. They didn’t appear too concerned about the possibility of compromising the Web site’s independence, despite the fact that Korea’s elite conservative newspapers, which Oh rails against, are perceived to have been compromised by their political and financial collusion with past administrations. "That’s the beginning," warns Yoon. "From the people’s point of view, it will be extremely difficult for it to maintain its independence."

OhmyNews is holding out hope it can win back more readers in South Korea’s presidential election later this year. With legions of citizen reporters at its disposal, there’s no doubt that there will be plenty of campaign coverage. What’s unclear is whether or not people will be following it. The election may well turn out to be a vote of no confidence for the future of citizen journalism.

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