OhmyNews: ‘Every citizen can be a reporter’

A tour inside the newsroom of the pioneering citizen journalism publication

Following is a Q&A with Jean K. Min, communications director of OhmyNews International, the trail-blazing citizen journalism publication in Seoul, South Korea. The exchange — with questions put to him by myself and Matthew Lee of the Center for Citizen Media — took place in January 2007.

The OhmyNews newsroom in Seoul, July 2006. (Photo by J.D. Lasica)

Please tell us about OhmyNews. How did the site get started, and what are its goals?

As a former journalist of a minority liberal magazine named Mahl since 1988, Oh Yeon-ho, the founder and CEO of OhmyNews, had faced repeated rejections while trying to access major news sources. Doors were shut and questions were unanswered.

As a taxpayer, he felt it was his natural right to demand government agencies to grant access to the vast reserve of public information. That was when the idea that “every citizen is a reporter” came up to him. The idea stayed with him for several years until he began his journalism study at Regent University in the United States.
During his graduate study at Regent University, one of his professors asked the class to draft a paper plan on an imaginary new media start-up. He drafted a detailed launching plan of an online news media, building its business model upon his long-dreamed idea that “every citizen is a reporter.”

After coming back to Korea in 1997, he began to persuade some angel investors with his business plan and eventually quit his job at Mahl. With the initial funds raised from these investors and an additional sum from his own personal coffers, he launched OhmyNews in February 2000. The rest of story is now history.

What sets OhmyNews apart from traditional media outlets such as the South China Morning Post?

In his memoir recently published in Korea, Oh has written of his original vision that he “wanted to start a tradition free of newspaper company elitism where news was evaluated based on quality, regardless of whether it came from a major newspaper, a local reporter, an educated journalist or a neighborhood housewife. … So I decided to make the plunge into the sea of the Internet, even though I feared that which was different from what I was accustomed.”

The Internet allows people to have two way communications and Oh wanted to make the most out of this new medium. Oh explains the difference of OhmyNews model as opposed to that of traditional media as such:

“Every citizen can be a reporter. Journalists aren’t some exotic species, they’re everyone who seeks to take new developments, put them into writing, and share them with others.”

And due to unique nature of participants, “OhmyNews does not regard straight news articles as the standard. Articles including both facts and opinions are acceptable when they are good.”

(Click to enlarge.)

OMN has been called the first citizen journalism site. True?

It is not sure if we are the largest CJ media but we are the first citizen journalism site that made a significant dent in the mainstream media’s lock on the national agenda setting. Since no CJ site in the world relies on original stories contributed by over 47,000 citizen reporters, we might be the largest CJ site in terms of number of contributors. Digg, Slashdot and other meta news sites do not require their users to submit original stories.

How has citizen journalism matured and gained mainstream acceptance since OMN launched?

Initially considered just an interesting phenomenon among young Netizens, the citizen journalism OhmyNews pioneered seven years ago has finally obtained mainstream recognition during the 2002 presidential election in Korea. Since then many features of citizen participation OhmyNews introduced have been widely adopted by other mainstream media. For example, Chosun Ilbo, one of the leading conservative dailies, allows its readers to leave comments at the bottom of every article. Daum, the 2nd largest portal in Korea, is encouraging its “Blogger Reporters” to submit their “news” to its dedicated news site names “Media Daum.” SBS, a top three Korean TV broadcaster, receives video news from “U-porters.”

Please explain how the editorial process at OMN works. How can citizen journalists post articles on OhmyNews? Does your editorial staff work with citizen reporters in the field who pitch story ideas and then get paid if they are accepted?

Typical citizen reporters write a story or two per week. After submitting a story, they can track their status. Stories remain as “Saengnamu” articles before being accepted by OhmyNews copy editors. Once accepted, citizen reporters can follow the status of their words in real time, observing the number of readers’ clicks into each of the stories, the number of comments, or the money collected in the “tip jar.”

OhmyNews citizen reporters are not allowed to write behind a fake identity. We verify their identities through government-sponsored authentication process before we grant membership.

What happens on OhmyNews is an intensely interactive online conversation. Citizen reporters have to persuade OhmyNews’ front-line copy editors to have their stories accepted in the first place. As much as 30 percent of daily submissions are rejected for various reasons such as poor sentence construction, factual errors, or its lack of news value. After stories are accepted and edited, then placed in a more prominent space, usually within minutes they draw feedback from scores of readers. When the story is controversial, the number of readers’ comments can shoot up to hundreds and even thousands.

How does your newsroom ensure and maintain a high degree of fairness, balance and accuracy from your citizen reporters?

OhmyNews citizen reporters are not allowed to write behind a fake identity. We verify their identities through government-sponsored authentication process before we grant membership. The stories submitted by them are then screened, fact-checked and edited before they are published. As many as 30% of the submissions are rejected for various reasons. Some sensitive stories that contain claims that potentially damage news makers’ reputation get more thorough fact-check and sometimes entail even on-site visits. We also retain the right to revoke membership of any citizen reporter who was found to have violated the agreement and code of ethics they signed on when they joined OhmyNews. See below for more details of the agreement.

What do you consider some of the main principles, or tenets, that form the basis of citizen journalism?

OhmyNews values news that is collected and written through the lens of ordinary citizens. The eye-level perspective of their stories stuffed with a rich array of personal anecdotes is what sets apart the content of OhmyNews from that of other news sites.

OhmyNews also encourages our citizen reporters to select stories they have a good understanding of and tell them in their own voice. We advise them that they don’t necessarily have to follow the logic and formula of professional journalism even though they can be useful sometimes. In short, we tell them to be themselves.

Lastly, OhmyNews puts great importance on the accuracy and credibility of their stories. We have trained internal editors who screen, fact check and edit the stories submitted by citizen reporters before publishing them. That is why we keep reminding them of the “responsible participation.”

To sum up, OhmyNews’ editorial policy is the perfect cooperation and harmony between the professional journalists and citizen reporters. To define the roles of each group and harmonize their diverse contributions in a single, powerful and coherent news package without losing iconoclastic flair requires the most sophisticated level of editorial acumen and gut instinct learned from the many years of journalism practices.

Do you consider independence an important hallmark of citizen journalism? If so, what does independence entail?

Independence from everything including even OhmyNews is the underlying guideline when it comes to the editorial independence of OhmyNews. Political power is not exerting as big an influence on the Korean media as it used to be. An increasingly grave concern among Korean journalists is the pressure from advertisers.

OhmyNews strives to listen to the voice of no one but our readers’ and citizen reporters’. OhmyNews, by design, cannot bend its editorial integrity because of illicit pressure from anybody. Our citizen reporters will submit whatever story they deem newsworthy and worth attention, and OhmyNews cannot reject them without first offering them publicly justifiable reasons. Should anyone find that we are rejecting some critical stories out of pressure from any one, OhmyNews will instantly come under great fire and public scrutiny by our own citizen reporters.

How does OMN maintain its editorial integrity instead of being a vehicle for its founder’s point of view?

Other than the said open structure of our newsroom design, we have an ombudsman committee composed of citizen reporters and other outside watchers. They monitor OhmyNews main page on a daily basis and submit a monthly ombudsman report, which is then published on OhmyNews.

However, millions of watchful eyes of our readers and citizen reporters might be the most effective defense for OhmyNews in preserving its editorial integrity against external force—even from its own founder.

Does transparency play a role in citizen journalism? How does OMN use transparency?

Absolutely. Since we are accepting on average about 70% of submitted stories by our citizen reporters, we have to be very transparent to our citizen reporters about our editorial guidelines and screening process. We have a public forum open to anyone, where people can pose questions and get answers from our editors. Without transparency, citizen journalism would exist only in name.

We are upgrading our editorial transparency to the next level recently by allowing our readers to decide today’s top stories for OhmyNews in the separate news folder. We named it “Netizens’ Edition.”

When it comes to accuracy, what is the track record of OMN citizen reporters?

About five stories reported by citizen reporters have been involved in legal dispute so far, an impressive feat for OhmyNews considering the fact that it has published a couple of hundreds of stories every day for nearly seven years. We believe we were able to maintain our reputation as a credible news source thanks to our unique editorial policy—“responsible participation.” Thanks to the internal screening and editing process, we were able to preserve our credibility as a news media all without alienating ordinary amateur citizen reporters.

Does OhmyNews screen for inaccuracies and fact check the work of its citizen reporters?

Yes, we do.

Are OhmyNews contributors allowed to include subjectivity and point of view in their work, or is “objectivity” the desired focus?

We value individual overtone contained in each story our citizen reporters write for OhmyNews. A degree of subjectivity would be tolerated or even encouraged depending on the nature of story. However, we put an extraordinary editorial effort in maintaining integrity of factual description in each story. Bottom line is: your personal interpretation is welcomed but no factual fallacy will be tolerated.

The OhmyNews Citizen Reporter’s Agreement

1. I recognize the editorial authority of OhmyNews’ in-house editing staff.

2. I will share all information about each of my articles with the OhmyNews editing staff.

3. I will not produce name cards stating that I am a citizen reporter of OhmyNews.

4. When an article I submit has or will be simultaneously submitted in another medium, I will clearly state this fact to the editorial staff.

5. I will accurately reveal the sources of all quotations of text.

6. Citizen reporters who work in the field of public relations or marketing will disclose this fact to their readers.

7. Legal responsibility for acts of plagiarism or unauthorized use of material lies entirely with the citizen reporter.
8. Legal responsibility for defamation in articles lies entirely with the citizen reporter.

The OhmyNews Reporter’s Code of Ethics

1. The citizen reporter must work in the spirit that “all citizens are reporters,” and plainly identify himself as a citizen reporter while covering stories.

2. The citizen reporter does not spread false information. He does not write articles based on groundless assumptions or predictions.

3. The citizen reporter does not use abusive, vulgar, or otherwise offensive language constituting a personal attack.

4. The citizen reporter does not damage the reputation of others by composing articles that infringe on personal privacy.

5. The citizen reporter uses legitimate methods to gather information, and clearly informs his sources of the intention to cover a story.

6. The citizen reporter does not use his position for unjust gain, or otherwise seek personal profit.

7. The citizen reporter does not exaggerate or distort facts on behalf of him or any organization to which he belongs.

8. The citizen reporter apologizes fully and promptly for coverage that is wrong or otherwise inappropriate.

This post originally appeared as part of the Knight News Network’s Principles of Citizen Journalism project.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT