This is the first installment of an IJNet interview series that takes an in depth look at the operations of various online news platforms, shedding light on the future of global media as envisioned by thought-leaders around the world.
Amid a global shift from traditional print to new media methods of gathering, producing and disseminating news, South Korean online citizen journalism platform OhmyNews is standing by its chosen motto of "every citizen is a reporter."
Established in 2000 by Oh Yeon Ho, a former staff reporter at the liberal Korean monthly magazaine Mahl, OhmyNews has matured through its model of publishing vetted news stories submitted by citizen journalists in South Korea and around the world, and paying contributors.
The site has been lauded for the work of its citizen contributors, such as OhmyNews International's United Nations correspondent Ronda Hauben, the recipient of the 2008 Silver Elizabeth Neuffer Prize for Excellence in Journalism in print and online media.
OhmyNews has hosted journalism camps, forums and classes, and in November 2007, opened what can be regarded as the world's first citizen journalism school in a rural town 90 miles west of Seoul. The school provides opportunities for trainees to become independent content creators, through programs including "journalism 101" classes, writing workshops, and training in digital photojournalism and video.
According to Forbes Magazine, more than 70,000 citizens contribute to the Korean site and 6,000 write for its English-language sister site, OhmyNews International (OMNI).
Last week, IJNet writer Zul Maidy interviewed Todd C. Thacker, the senior editor of OMNI. Thacker was formerly an editor at The Korea Herald, and now resides in Seoul.
ZM: How do you maintain the overall credibility of your publication, given that it relies heavily on thousands of citizen reporters on the ground?
TT: We rely on people to be journalistically honest in their contributions. I've found that with over 6,000 citizen reporters from over 110 countries, we encounter different standards of journalism. In some regions - South America and South Asia, for example - professional journalism is less rigorous in fact checking and avoidance of plagiarism. The citizen reporters then model their work on this "standard." So the first few articles they send in tend to be rejected, and we take great pains to point out what to avoid in future pieces.
Over the past five years, nearly all of our citizen reporters have acknowledged our higher standards and have adapted accordingly. They also appreciate the feedback we give them.
Needless to say, OMNI editors must be on their toes at all times. Every article we publish is vetted, copy edited and double-checked before it's published.
ZM: What criteria do you give for the best reporting?
TT: If I receive a hard news piece that does as well as a (professional journalism piece) and yet has a unique voice and perspective, then I think both the readers and citizen journalism in general have benefited. Readers appreciate a more down-to-earth style of writing and reporting.
Hard news is difficult to do well, no doubt about it. As a result, most of our contributions tend towards opinion/analysis. This is fine too. OMNI doesn't have any staff reporters, so we emphasize that people should seek a balance of both professional journalism and our citizen journalism when they consume the news.
For example, in late November during the Mumbai terror attacks, we had a local citizen reporter named Rajen Nair who was on the scene and who did some reporting and interviewing. He's not a pro, but his style and perspective was interesting. That's a big strength for citizen journalism - complementing (professional) journalism.
ZM: How do the incentives work? Can an individual reporter sustain a living by contributing to OhmyNews?
TT: People tend to write for the pleasure or passion of the topic. It's not something you can make a living off of, except in rare cases where the Korean currency is strong with respect to the local currency. We used to pay 20,000 Korean won (US$15) for a main page story, but we've since had to phase that out due to financial pressures. Back in 2005 we had one citizen reporter from Cameroon (Emmanuel Njela Nfor) who was prolific and a good writer, and he was able to quit his job selling used mobile phones. But we don't encourage that.
Over the past five years I've seen plenty of our regular writers improve greatly, based on our input. A couple of names come to mind, including Will Pollard (UK) and Bhuwan Thapaliya (Nepal).
ZM: What is the extent of your responsibility over the safety of reporters?
TT: I'm pretty powerless, though if they tell me in advance they are going into a crowd or location that could get ugly, I give them all the advice I can.
ZM: Have there been instances in which you have to withhold the reporter's whereabouts?
TT: Yes. In Iran and China, citizen reporters tend to need that kind of protection. We only allow anonymous bylines (or pseudonyms) in extreme cases, and only if we know the citizen reporters well. They need to have a longstanding history of contributions to OMNI before we can agree to it.
ZM: Do you make suggestions as to what reporters should cover or how they should cover certain stories? Do you give out reporting assignments?
TT: Yes, I try to keep in mind the best writers, their locations and interests. Then I'll drop them a line by email or IM when something big comes up that I think they may enjoy writing about. Giving assignments for citizen reporters, where they are essentially volunteering to write, is a tricky business. I want them to have fun, at least, with a potential story... and they always can decline if busy.
ZM: What is the extent of the work carried out by the organization itself? Do you have in-house staff selecting and editing the material or is it fully automated?
TT: We do all the editing... no article is published without being vetted. This is an essential difference between OhmyNews and other citizen journalism outlets.
ZM: How do you run the process of verification for your news material?
TT: At first I'll check their registration information and get a sense of who they are. Then I'll check the facts through Google News and the like. If I find no problems, then I'll run it. Reader feedback is helpful too.
Over time, as I get to know the citizen reporter, I'll trust them more and check less.
ZM: How do you think the news media landscape will change in the future (short term, long term)?
TT: It's a tough question. In the case of the Korean OhmyNews site, we've seen readers and citizens rally around our coverage in the past... with financial donations to offset web-streaming costs of big political events. The US beef, anti-Lee Myung-bak rallies of last summer are a case in point - readers donated over $100,000 to OhmyNews to help pay for our livecasting bandwidth.
But the longevity of many news outlets is certainly in doubt. And we're not immune to downsizing. I think OhmyNews Korea will continue to help people get their messages out to the public.
As OhmyNews founder Mr. Oh Yeon-ho said in a recent speech in Tokyo: "In order for the new media to have a purpose, there must be an answer to the question: why do we need ‘new' media in light of the torrent of media choices for consumers? Would more media, more information and more citizen participation usher in more democracy and guarantee a higher happiness index? If we cannot properly answer these questions, then all that we're doing for new media is done in vain."
To learn more about OhmyNews International, visit http://english.ohmynews.com