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Citizen Journalism, Past and Future
My experience at the 2006 OhmyNews Citizen Reporters' Forum
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-08-08 11:04 (KST)   
I recently returned from visiting Korea and attending the OhmyNews International Citizen Reporters' Forum 2006. It was the second such forum. (Read more here.) OhmyNews invited 60 citizen reporters or others who were involved with citizen journalism. The forum itself was held July 12-15.

The forum featured a range of speakers. Some like Timothy Lord of Slashdot.com and Craig Newmark of Craigslist.com are active in various online activities in the U.S., even if they are not directly connected with citizen journalism. Also, there were sessions of talks by citizen reporters from different countries around the world. All the formal sessions of the forum are online at the OhmyNews Web site.

The context in which OhmyNews was created is important to keep in mind when thinking about the forum and the trend of citizen journalism that OhmyNews has pioneered. South Korea leads the world in the spread of broadband Internet access to its population. Over 80 percent of households have broadband connections at home. Online discussion and activity play a prominent role among Korean netizens and are a catalyst for offline actions. (Read more here.)

The South Korean struggle for democracy continues after its relatively recent victory in the June 1987 democratic revolution over the military junta. The creation of the Korean edition of OhmyNews in 2000 was seen as a part of the struggle for more democracy and against the conservative forces that continue to be active in Korean politics and society.

When I arrived in Korea on Wednesday, July 12, there was a major demonstration in downtown Seoul protesting the Korean-U.S. negotiations over a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The demonstration is said to have included 50,000 protesters despite the heavy rains and despite the fact that there were approximately 20,000 Korean police surrounding the demonstration site.

A week later the FTA talks in Seoul broke down temporarily to the relief of many in Korea. Opposition to the FTA is strong due to concerns about the harmful impact many believe a free trade agreement with the U.S. will have on the Korean economy. (Read more here.) The large anti-FTA demonstration was a sign of the continuing struggle for democracy in Korea.

When the OhmyNews International forum opened on Wednesday evening, we were told that citizen reporters from 20 countries were attending the forum. And that the number of countries in which OhmyNews has citizen reporters increased from 50 the previous year to 91. There are currently 1,200 citizen reporters for the international edition, and the most recent who registered at the time were from Lebanon and Cuba.

An investment in OhmyNews International by the Japanese company Softbank, announced a few months earlier, was intended in part to make it possible to spread the OhmyNews model to other countries. OhmyNews is planning to launch an OhmyNews Japan on Aug. 28 as its first effort to develop a version of OhmyNews in another country.

I later learned from the editor-in-chief of the international edition, Hong Eun-taek, that there is a thought about increasing articles from little reported areas of the world and offering OhmyNews as a newswire to interested media. An announcement at the Wednesday evening session of the forum explained that the International Herald Tribune newspaper (IHT) will include feeds of three sections of OhmyNews in its online edition, the "sports" section, "entertainment" section, and the "technology" section. Also, 10 headlines from IHT appear on the front pages of OhmyNews.

On Thursday, the first full day of the forum, I was fortunate to have lunch with Professor Yoon Young-chul, a journalism professor from Yonsei University. He introduced me to one of his former students. She is a researcher doing her Ph.D. thesis on the role of the Korean edition of OhmyNews in initiating the candlelight demonstrations in 2002.(1)

The role that OhmyNews has played in the democratic struggles in Korea and similarly the role that the democratic struggles have played in the evolution of OhmyNews is an important factor in the origin and development of the online newspaper. This was the subject we discussed during the lunch breaks.

OhmyNews developed in Korea as an online media able to challenge the entrenched conservative press. What are the elements of OhmyNews that made it possible to succeed in this endeavor? One aspect I learned from the researcher, was the role played by Oh Yeon-ho, the founder of OhmyNews. When he announced he would start OhmyNews, she explained, he was already well known and respected by progressive people who were therefore willing to be part of the effort.(Read more here.) Hence he was a person who was able to get the needed netizen support for OhmyNews from its earliest days.

Oh Yeon-ho's opening remarks at the forum helped to highlight the democratic tradition of the Website. He explained that the key to spreading the OhmyNews model was to find citizen reporters who were "passionately committed to social change and reporting." It is these citizen reporters, he said, who "make our project possible."

This issue was again raised during Session 7 held on Friday, July 14. In this session, there were presentations about two citizen reporter sites which had been inspired by OhmyNews.

The Danish site Flix.dk was started in 2003 after its founder, Erik Larsen, a journalist and writer, read an article about OhmyNews in Wired magazine. This was before the English edition of OhmyNews. Larsen went to a Korean translator to learn as much as he could about the site. In November 2003 he started Flix.dk with two colleagues. Flix.dk functions on a nonprofit basis though Larsen constantly faces the need to raise adequate funds to keep going. But Larsen is also wary of being tied to a business model. He feels it is important to be able to learn and build on the actual developments as they unfold on Flix.dk.

Also during Session 7, Michael Weiss presented his Israeli Website Scoop.co.il. Weiss started Scoop.co.il after he returned to Israel from the OhmyNews forum last year. He was able to get funding from a venture capitalist for his startup.

Both Larsen and Weiss said they planned to open an English section of their online sites. As soon as Larsen returned to Denmark after the OMNI forum, a small English section was set up.

Probably the most critical issue facing the Korean OhmyNews, according to people I spoke with, was how the frustration among progressive people in Korea would affect OhmyNews' future. Low voter turnout in the recent local elections resulted in the victory of the candidates from the Grand National Party (GNP), a conservative coalition.

Many young people and other progressive forces were part of the democratic coalition that backed the relatively unknown politician Roh Moo-hyun for the presidency in 2002. OhmyNews played an important role in the successful election campaign. After Roh won the election, however, many of those who were part of his online election campaign were disappointed by the neoliberal policies of his administration.

For some in the progressive community in Korea, this disappointment may be translated into disillusionment with politics. Others, however, are actively considering what lessons can be learned from recent events.

The situation in Korea is dynamic. The widespread broadband internet access and cell phone use means that there is a vibrant online community. Previously many of the democratic forces utilized the Internet in their struggles challenging the offline institutions and their influence. More recently, however, conservative forces are more and more using the Internet. Thus some feel that the online environment is becoming ever more contentious.

Whether online media like OhmyNews can support and champion progressive news and opinion in the changing online environment is a question raised during some of the conversations I had while in Korea.

Another serious problem reflected at the forum was how to fund online media like OhmyNews or Flix and how the form of funding impacts the content and form. One of the strengths of OhmyNews International is that it pays a fee to citizen reporters. The fee is the equivalent of $20 an article if the article appears on the front page. How to fund this and other expenses as OhmyNews International scales to encompass a worldwide audience is a problem that was raised.

One of the speakers at the forum, Dan Gillmor, recently announced the end of Bayosphere, his experiment in citizen journalism. Bayosphere was initially funded by a venture capital investment. Gillmor wrote that one of the reasons for its failure was the focus on the business model before the development of a viable online site.

Though there were no formal references to what caused the failure of Bayosphere during Gillmor's presentation at the 2006 forum, some felt this subject would have been a helpful area of discussion.

The Korean edition of OhmyNews is funded in part by reader contributions, in part by advertising, and in part by the sale of content. Recently Softbank purchased a 12 percent share in OhmyNews in return for an $11 million investment. This investment gives Softbank a role in the development of OhmyNews. How this will impact the continuing development of the site is an issue for continuing attention.

After the forum, I had dinner with some of the staff of OhmyNews, Alex Krabbe, an OhmyNews International citizen reporter from Germany, and Larsen from Flix.dk. We spoke about what kind of alternative news media is needed to respond to the crisis that the mainstream press is facing in countries like the U.S. and Denmark. What are the issues that need to be covered? Would it be possible for citizen reporters working together to cover important stories, especially stories where the voice of the powerless and the victims are ignored by the mainstream media?

While at the forum I spoke briefly with Oh Yeon-ho. I asked what he had been doing to recruit citizen reporters in Japan, as I wondered if there were lessons to learn to make it possible to start a version of OhmyNews for the U.S. Oh described giving talks to students in Japan and getting a favorable response. Also, he asked me for my definition of "netizen." I described how the concept grew out of the pioneering online research by Michael Hauben in 1992-1993, namely that it was a way of describing those online users who had adopted a social purpose and practice to spread the Internet as a participatory environment to all who wanted access.(Read more here.)

In response to my question about how to start an OhmyNews in the U.S., Oh suggested writing a proposal. This poses an interesting challenge for those interested in creating a U.S. version of OhmyNews, the challenge to develop a proposal for what would be desirable as a form of OhmyNews for the U.S.

A recent article in the journal, Media, Culture and Society about OhmyNews helps to identify the salient problem facing OhmyNews International editors and contributors.(3) The article raises the question of how to view alternative media that are a hybrid of progressive and commercial practices. The authors caution against jumping to conclusions about whether a publication can maintain a progressive nature even if it is funded by a commercial mechanism like advertising.

Likewise they caution against automatically considering a publication progressive if it welcomes a broad range of content. Instead they note the tension experienced by alternative publications between the need to find a means of funding and the need to nourish progressive content and purpose.

An example of this problem was reflected in the talks given by different citizen reporters at the OhmyNews International forum. Ramzy Baroud, a Palestinian and Lily Yulianti from Indonesia, for example, gave talks describing the importance of accurate presentations in the media of the conditions of the Palestinians and of Muslims.

Baroud explained that he grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp. He told the story of his father who would listen to BBC radio whenever he could. It was very important to his father to hear what was being reported about the Palestinian struggle, though often the reports were inaccurate. Baroud explained how he had come to feel that having accurate reports of what was happening, of the situation, were critical to making it possible for there to be any improvement in the plight of those who try to oppose unbridled power.

Baroud also discussed the need for online media to provide a public sphere to oppose globalization and the crimes of globalization. These presentations provided a contrast to an earlier presentation by Gregory Daigle from the U.S. about how he was able to get over 50,000 hits on one of his OhmyNews articles when it was picked up by Digg.com and how citizen reporters should aim to gear their articles so they will get lots of hits.

The need for advertising dollars for alternative media like OhmyNews means that there is a tendency to focus on how to get more advertising. Yet there are already many publications focusing on getting lots of hits and lots of advertising dollars. If an alternative publication loses sight of the need to nourish its progressive content and purpose, however, it loses its reason for being.
This article was written for Telepolis.

NOTES
(1) The demonstrations were against the decision of the U.S. military court marshall that acquitted two U.S. soldiers whose armoured vehicle had killed two Korean middle school girls. Also the demonstrations were against the agreement that the U.S. has with Korea that means that crimes committed in the course of military duty fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. justice system, not the Korean.

(2) Several months ago there was an online struggle over the scientific work of a famous Korean stem cell research scientist Hwang Woo Suk. When questions were raised about his research in a televised investigative report, an online fan club to support him was formed. The advertisers of the TV program were pressured by Hwang's supporters to withdraw their advertising from the program. A wind in support of him was stirred up online.

But also online were those who discussed his research and demonstrated how it was fraudulent. And there were those online who spread the understanding of the fraud. Thus despite a harsh attack on those challenging the scientific work, the fraudulent nature of the work was uncovered.

(3) Eun-Gyoo Kim and James W. Hamilton, "Capitulation to Capitalism: OhmyNews as alternative media?", Media, Culture and Society, Vol 28, No. 4, p. 541-560.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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