Thursday, July 7, 2005

Open It Up, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle!

This week's article for my column was derived from my experience and thoughts while I was in Seoul for the OhMyNews conference a few weeks back. Anyway, check it out:

Open It Up, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle!
Taking a lesson from South Korea's OhMyNews, a horde of bloggers-turned-citizen journalists is about to storm the gates of traditional media.

It had been over a year since I'd left Seoul, South Korea, when I returned a couple of weeks ago to attend OhMyNews' Citizen Reporters' Forum. Upon arriving, I was immediately struck by just how ubiquitous technology is in that country—a fact that had faded from my memory in the interim. Wireless phones are everywhere, and PCs with broadband connections can be found in each mom-and-pop shop. At a conference to discuss, share, and learn about the global progress of online citizen journalism, I was reminded at every turn of the long tentacles of technology.

The most powerful reminder came in the form of OhmyNews itself. OhmyNews was born in the "Land of the Morning Calm," a land that also happens to be the broadband capital of the world. Begun in February 2000, by Yeon Ho Oh, the service -- which grew out of Oh's vision of every citizen as a reporter -- has grown to more than 38,000 citizen reporters, including approximately 600 international reporters and 54 full-time staff reporters. Since its inception, OhmyNews has also inspired countless other citizen journalism projects such as Dan Gillmor's Bayosphere.

The forum gave me an opportunity to reflect on how the internet has influenced the development of a conservative Confucian society and its even more conservative news industry. Bearing little resemblance to the media outlets portrayed on TV shows in this country (think Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant), the news culture in South Korea comes much closer to America's yellow press of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet it was within this cultural atmosphere that citizen journalism was born and that major newspapers began allowing comments on their online sites. How to explain this cultural left turn? Blame it on the broadband boom.

Despite its leadership position in broadband services, however, South Korea has lagged behind the United States in the development of blogging -- which didn't catch on there until 2003 (several years after it had taken off in this country). Even now, the vast majority of South Korean blogs bring to mind the early days of the American sites Xanga and LiveJournal (where people wrote primarily about their daily experiences in diary-like posts), and blogs about business and politics are few and far between. Is this simply a function of a more culturally repressed and conservative society? Or could it have more to do with the symbiotic relationship between blogging and citizen journalism?

As I pondered this, I began to wonder whether the rapid growth of OhMyNews had stunted the development of the blogosphere in Korea. And conversely, whether the booming U.S. blogosphere would stymie the development of online citizen journalism here. Given both options, would I devote my time to creating, promoting, and building traffic to my own blog, or would I become a citizen journalist for a site such as OhmyNews?

On the side of Citizen Journalism, OhmyNews' traffic is hard to ignore: At 750,000 unique visitors a day, the service pulls in more eyeballs than most blogs can even dream of attracting. And it pays: One citizen reporter received a few thousand dollars after a couple days, while a professor/citizen reporter received tips of more than $30,000 during the course of a week (for example, from 60,000 readers paying 50 cents each). Ah, the beauty of micropayments.

Even with BlogAds and Google's AdSense leading the monetary charge in the U.S. blogosphere, OhmyNews' incentive system seems more rewarding. Why go through all the effort of promoting, posting, and linking for a blog when most people get just a few hundred visitors a week (or less) for their efforts and a rejection from Google's AdSense program (which requires minimum traffic numbers)? And even if I were to get enough traffic to join AdSense, I'd still only receive less than $50 a month. I suspect most people would find an established citizen journalism site a more attractive option-more traffic, more money, but probably less personal recognition.

It's only a matter of time before micropayment systems become firmly established in this country, internet penetration reaches the furthest corners of America, and mainstream media finally cracks and opens the floodgates. Wouldn't it be cool, then, if a U.S. media company were to incorporate a citizen journalism system into one of its properties? If, say, 40,000 citizen journalists were to contribute half of the New York Times' online content?

Get ready, because it's about to happen. The internet and technology have spawned a new wave of citizen journalism. Now, the choice is yours: Either ride it in or watch it come crashing onto the shore!

UPDATE: Since the old AlwaysOn site was taken down and posts were not properly transferred, just read the copy at OhmyNews here.

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