OhmyNews forum discusses experiences in citizen journalism
Thursday, June 30, 2005
The OhmyNews International Citizen Reporters' Forum (see previous report) concluded on Saturday with several speeches and a visit to sponsoring companies in South Korea's technology sector. Some invited "citizen reporters" from around the world extended their stay by several days to tour the country. Since the conclusion of the conference, presentations and transcripts have been published on the OhmyNews web site. 
Wikinews and OhmyNews
The forum sessions took place in the conference center of the COEX Convention & Exhibition Center in Seoul. Interpreters provided translation services into English and Korean. Saturday began with a series of panels, each one consisting of three short presentations followed by a brief discussion with the audience. The first presentation was an introduction to Wikinews by Erik Möller (online copy). Möller described the history of the project and its relation to the well-known online encyclopedia Wikipedia, demonstrated a working copy of the wiki software MediaWiki, and showed some example Wikinews articles. He listed different possibilities for cooperation between Wikinews and OhmyNews, particularly content partnerships, shared communication channels and shared resource pools for citizen journalists. "I extend the hand of friendship to OhmyNews," Möller concluded.
A brief presentation of the history of OhmyNews by Jean K. Min, Director of the International Division, followed. Min cited media reports emphasizing the growing significance of the web site in Korea, and outlined the strategy of expansion to new markets. The English edition, officially launched in May 2004, is seen as a key project in this regard, a test for the feasibility of the OhmyNews model outside Korea. Contributors to both the English and the Korean version receive a small compensation for their work, and the Korean edition uses an integrated payment system that has led to donations ("tips") of thousands of dollars to some OhmyNews contributors.
In the panel discussion that followed, one audience member asked whether, given the for-profit nature of OhmyNews and the non-profit nature of Wikinews, there might be a potential for conflict. Möller responded that, in his view, it was the compatible philosophies of the projects that mattered, and that a for-profit endeavor did not necessarily mean that all competitors have to be destroyed. "I don't think Oh Yeon Ho wants to be a new Rupert Murdoch," he said.
Grass-roots journalism in the U.S. and "user-created content"
The first speaker of the next session was Clyde Bentley, Associate Professor for online journalism at the University of Missouri. Bentley introduced the project MyMissourian.com, which he has founded together with journalism students. As in the case of OhmyNews, editors vet stories submitted by "citizen reporters." Bentley's group organized several special reporting events, such as one centering around Earth Day, a festival about environmental awareness: "We set up a booth, and we set up some wireless computers and some other materials, and let people come in and just write about Earth Day. It was very successful." The most successful part of the experiment, according to Bentley, was to lend digital cameras to let people take and share photos.
Bentley argued that alternative journalism was less needed in the United States than in South Korea due to its long democratic tradition. He sees the usefulness of projects like MyMissourian.com in raising awareness of local issues and stories that might otherwise be ignored. The challenge, Bentley concluded, is to build a new "journalism of sharing." Instead of being storytellers, journalists in such a scenario would be "story guides", assuring consistency and quality.
The next speaker on the panel was Jeremy Iggers, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune who did not, however, speak as a representative of his newspaper. He gave a prepared speech  contrasting his early efforts promoting civic journalism with his latest endeavors in citizen journalism. "I can trace this interest in citizen journalism back to the early 90s, when I created a public journalism project called Minnesota's Talking for the Minneapolis Star Tribune," Iggers said. Readers were invited to join monthly issue discussion groups in private homes, community centers, libraries, and sometimes churches. "At the peak, we had around 100 meeting sites, with over 1,000 participants."
However, this and similar experiments in civic journalism were cancelled, which Iggers called "really unfortunate." As a revitalization of these abortive efforts online, Iggers has founded the Twin Cities Media Alliance, which he wants to use to bootstrap a "Community Newswire" following a similar model to OhmyNews. Beyond reports by citizens, Iggers also wants to make use of stories published by local community newspapers in Minneapolis. He emphasized that this project is independent from his work for the Star Tribune, and that it might be viewed as a conflict of interest.
The final speaker of this panel was Neil Thurman, Associate Professor at the City University London. Thurman has conducted extensive studies on how traditional media in the United Kingdom make use of "user-generated content" on the Internet: "The Guardian, for example, which is the most popular British news website, allows unedited and unselected comments on its pages; none of the other newspapers in the UK does." Thurman also argued that "the amounts of user participation that's archived on message boards varies a great deal, you can see with the Daily Mail, there's over a million posts, whereas the Financial Times has barely 10,000."
One of Thurman's key observations is that some user forums and feedback mechanisms were shut down or strongly restricted due to a perceived lack of control over the nature of the comments published in this way. Government-funded or 'public-service' efforts, Thurman observed, are generally more open to the idea of experimenting with user-created content.
Citizen reporters in their own words
The afternoon sessions focused mostly on the individual stories of OhmyNews citizen reporters from Korea and around the world. This included testimonials from:
- Kim Hye Won, who introduced herself as "a traditional Korean housewife who lives together with a husband, two children and an 86-year-old mother-in-law." She wrote many of the "life stories" that are typical for OhmyNews, such as "I Donated Blood to See a Movie for Free” and "Daddy’s Depressed, Son’s Taking Tests, And I'm Worried." These stories exist between the fields of traditional journalism and blogs, as they do not report significant events, but they are nevertheless edited by the OhmyNews staff like regular stories. According to many speakers at the conference, they embody Oh Yeon Ho's vision of "every citizen as a reporter." 
- Goh Tae Jin, a Korean business owner who mostly contributes columns to OhmyNews. He described his experience of joining OhmyNews, originally to rebut a column published on the site -- and suddenly finding that his rebuttal "was chosen as the top article and suddenly sparked numerous heated opinions." In spite of the many political columns he wrote since then, Goh Tae Jin emphasized that he felt that the key element of OhmyNews were "life stories" such as those written by Kim Hye Won. 
- Ana Maria Brambilla, an OhmyNews reporter from Brazil and a graduate student in communications. Brambilla contrasted the OhmyNews approach to citizen journalism with open source software development and referred to OhmyNews as an example of "open source journalism" due to the fact that anyone has access to the tools of publishing.
- Sung Nag-Sun, staff editor at OhmyNews and responsible for submissions by citizen reporters, described his job as polishing stories to get them ready for publication. In the question and answer session, he was asked whether OhmyNews would accept legal liability for stories written by citizen reporters, and took a clear stand in favor of that position: If his team approved a story, he argued, they had to do everything to make sure that it is correct, and would take a large part of the responsibility if it is not. Volunteer writers would be offered legal protection on a case-by-case basis.
Added to these and other perspectives from reporters for OhmyNews were independent views such as that of Omid Habibinia, an exiled Iranian living in Switzerland and an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime. Habibinia cited the famous case of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-born journalist who, many believe, was tortured and killed by Iranian officials. He criticized the extensive measures the Islamic regime had taken against press freedom: "Just days after the revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini banned newspapers critical of the new government, beginning 26 years of terror, torture, imprisonment, exile and mass killing in Iran. In the last 25 years more than 1,000 newspapers and magazines have been banned in Iran." 
A different story of citizen journalism was told by Ken Takeuchi, the CEO of JanJan, a Japanese citizen journalism site functioning similarly to OhmyNews. Takeuchi argued that the OhmyNews model faced different challenges in Japan than in Korea, particularly a reluctance to express strong opinions (which Takeuchi deemed a different "national character" from Korea), and a widespread feeling that the existing media are doing an adequate job. Due to these and other problems, Takeuchi argued, JanJan had not yet gained a foothold in the Japanese media landscape, receiving about 2 million pageviews a month in May 2005 and publishing about 15 to 20 articles per day.
Exploring Seoul's technology sector
After the presentations on citizen journalism, Yoo Hyun-oh, President and CEO of the SK Corporation, one of the sponsors of the conference, gave a presentation on Cyworld, a very popular online community operated by SK Communications. It offers visitors a so-called "minihompy", a homepage which can be custom-designed using animated avatars and background music. These additions can be purchased using a currency called "acorns."
Conference attendees had an opportunity to take a closer look at Cyworld in a visit to SK Communications in Seoul, including a step into the "monitoring room" where Cyworld staff observe the operations of the website. While SK Corporation (the chaebol to which SK Communications belongs) was one of the sponsors of the conference, international OhmyNews director Jean K. Min insisted that the technology company visits had no relationship to sponsorship.
Another technology company, NHN Corporation, also received a brief visit from the illustrious group of citizen reporters. NHN operates a search engine called Naver, which, according to its own data, is more popular than Google in South Korea. NHN attributes this in part to its user-created content: If the search engine does not supply an answer to a query, users are invited to write it. This model, perhaps similar to that of Wikipedia, has led to a large database of answers.
The International Citizen Reporters' Forum ended with a closing ceremony and Korean buffet sponsored by the Korea National Tourism Organization. Conversations that began here continued into the night while intoxication increased, and several attendees extended their stay in Seoul to continue socializing and to discover Seoul and the Korean peninsula.
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