TV News in a Postmodern World

The Genius of OhmyNews!

by Terry L. Heaton
In the heavens of the New Media world, no star shines brighter than that of OhmyNews!, South Korea's Internet-based experiment in citizen journalism. Actually, it's unfair to call it an experiment anymore. OhmyNews! is a stunning success by any measure, having turned the corner fiscally in 2003. But no measurement is greater than the influence this simple concept has had on the political process in South Korea, and it has ramifications that go far beyond Seoul.

"The Internet was the space where a few people who possessed nothing could bring about results using guerrilla methods."
Oh Yeon Ho
By providing a voice for what South Koreans know as the 2030 generation (people in their 20s and 30s), OhmyNews! blew apart the conservative news hegemony in the country and led the way for the election of President Roh Moo-hyun in 2002. And now, Roh's Uri Party has swept into power in Parliament by a victory in the National Assembly elections, also compliments of the steady voice of OhmyNews!.

Uri Party leader Chung Dong-young noted, "This election means that the old political forces that have dominated South Korean politics for 44 years are forced to leave the stage, and signals the beginning of new politics."

Every real journalist, at heart, is a social engineer, and OhmyNews! founder Oh Yeon Ho is no exception. But rather than approach change from the Walter Lippmann top-down, elitist model, Oh went the other direction and built his business model on the participation of citizen reporters. He explained it in an interview last fall with Japan Media Review.

In Korea, readers' dissatisfaction and distrust with the conventional press had considerably increased. Citizens' desire to express themselves greatly increased. Thus, on the one hand; discontent with the conventional press, on the other hand, citizens' desire to talk about themselves. These two things were joined together.

So, while I was a journalist for (the monthly magazine) Mal, I continuously thought about things like how I could change journalism — so that not only professional journalists, but also citizens participated in it. I thought of the idea for more than 10 years. However, because there was no Internet at that time, because there was no such concept as the Internet, it seemed it would cost too much if I made it with paper. Then the Internet came out and I thought, "Ah, I could do it through this space!"

I had confidence that citizen participation in journalism was something that citizens currently desired. But I could not imagine that the fire would spring into a blaze in such a short time.

And citizen participation via the Internet means youthful participation. In a pre-election story on the OhmyNews! International version, reporter Todd Thacker explained how youth was the new political power in South Korea.

One source of this youth solidarity can be traced to Korea's 2002 World Cup bid. The national team's supporter club dubbed the "Red Devils" was a focus for Korean youth (and later the entire country) to rally around their squad and play a part in Korea's final four showing. As a result, Korean young people got a taste of their collective power, which they have not soon forgotten.

Though apathetic in past elections, they have spent the last few months rallying in online Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards, debating the issues and encouraging other twenty and thirty-somethings (known as the "2030 generation") to turn out for the election.

This online solidarity is being recognized by all the political parties. The traditional conservative and liberal ratios of majority and minority potential voting blocks are being reversed, as the percentage of "2030s" outnumbers the "4050s" by 47 percent to 30 percent. Even if the traditionally conservative block of voters aged 40 or above came out to vote en-masse for one party, they would only have a 53 percent to 47 percent advantage over their younger counterparts.

As a result, all three parties are operating comprehensive Web sites and even offer their own downloadable mobile phone ringtones and slogans. These can be sent to the phones of friends and family. Meanwhile, candidates are left wooing older voters with less dynamic electioneering tools like traditional rallies and pamphlet distribution.

Whether it was genius, luck, timing or all three, OhmyNews! has become a very powerful media entity in South Korea, and the amazing thing is that its principal tool is a Website. OhmyTV is a very slick streaming online TV station, and their election night coverage would've stunned even the so-called "experts" at the network level in the U.S. The graphics and sound effects alone were enough to make any producer drool. OhmyNews! also publishes a Saturday print edition now, but its bread and butter is the Internet.

According to the UCLA Center for Communications Policy World Internet Report, there are two noticeable differences between U.S. and Korean Internet users. Seven in ten Korean users believe that most or all of the information on the Web is accurate or reliable. That's compared to a little over half of Internet users in the U.S. Secondly, Internet users in Korea spend considerably more time online and less watching television than their U.S. counterparts.

Updates and bulletins can happen at any time, but OhmyNews! "publishes" its content three times a day, 9:30 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. It is, therefore, targeting a largely working audience. It also provides news via cell phones and other mobile devices.

Staff reporters (80% of whom began as citizen reporters) now number over 50 with almost 27,000 citizen journalists contributing. The American-educated Oh has a history of rejecting traditional journalism, having worked for alternative media outlets before founding OhmyNews!.

We do not regard objective reporting as a source of pride. OhmyNews does not regard straight news articles as the standard. Articles including both facts and opinions are acceptable when they are good.

And "good" is in the purview of his editors. It harkens back to the days before the elite "professionalism" took hold in the early 20th century, and it's obviously resonating with the citizenry in South Korea.

OhmyNews! celebrated its fourth birthday on February 22nd, and Oh used the occasion to announce his goals for the coming year.

  1. Achieve qualitative development of citizen participatory journalism.
  2. Go beyond criticism of the existing social establishment to propose alternatives for a new society.
  3. Strengthen multimedia such as OhmyTV.
  4. Globalize OhmyNews, a native Korean product.
  5. Create financially stable and sustainable alternative for the news media.
Here in the U.S., the liberal radio network, Air America, is two weeks old, and Al Gore is readying to launch his new TV news network aimed at young people, presumably with a liberal slant as well. I have serious doubts about the viability of either and wonder why neither group has considered the OhmyNews! model. The answer is that Modernist thinking doesn't die easily, and the idea that influence is exclusively a top-down privilege is Modernist at core.

But OhmyNews! is breaking all of those rules and proving that real influence in a democracy lies with the people. John Dewey would've loved OhmyNews!