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By Anna Fifield in Seoul

Published: November 5 2004 17:28 | Last updated: November 5 2004 17:28


When Oh Yeon-ho worked for the small leftwing magazine The Monthly Mahl in the late 1980s, he was regularly shunned by snobbish reporters from conservative papers and excluded from government pressrooms.

His annoyance gnawed away until he one day resolved: "Every citizen is a reporter" - the idea on which his pioneering news service is based.

Now Mr Oh is having the last laugh. His OhmyNews website is revolutionising South Korea's media world, taking on the traditional press and engaging swathes of young Koreans in politics.

"From that time I have felt Korea's media market is very conservative so I've been trying to make it equal," Mr Oh says at the website's modest offices in downtown Seoul. "Our readers have high loyalty because the mainstream media ignores their voices."

OhmyNews carries news as well as opinion pieces, film reviews and travel stories. It has 40 staff reporters, fact-checkers and subeditors but, unlike traditional news organisations, 80 per cent of its content comes from "citizen reporters" - ordinary Koreans writing about things that matter to them.

OhmyNews started with just 700 citizen reporters four years ago but now has more than 35,000. Three-quarters are male, while the same proportion are in their 20s or 30s.

"Reporters are not some exotic species, they are everyone who has news stories and shares them with others," says Mr Oh.

Politics is the site's dominant theme. There has been a sharp increase in citizen reporters after each election, and the website scored an unparalleled coup after last year's presidential elections, in which it strongly favoured underdog candidate Roh Moo-hyun. When he won, Mr Roh gave his first interview to OhmyNews.

Yoon Young-Chul, professor of media studies at Yonsei University, says OhmyNews has exerted "a formidable influence" on South Korean journalism. "It played a significant role in mobilising the anti-establishment public opinion which certainly helped Roh win the last presidential election," he says.

Although the tipping service has now been introduced and citizen reporters earn Won20,000 ($19, €14, £10) for top stories, money is not their motivation, says Jean K. Min, the site's international director. Instead, the OhmyNews format draws people to write, especially the instant feedback through blog-like comments under stories and "eyeballs" marking the number of clicks.

"Our citizen reporters are just crazy about eyeballs - there's a real sense of empowerment by participating," Mr Min says.

Lee Bong-Ryul, a 34-year-old semiconductor engineer in Kyongki province, started writing for OhmyNews four years ago. "As the readers of OhmyNews have grown, I've come to enjoy sharing my opinion with others and been motivated by the fact that my opinion can affect this society at least a little bit," he explains.

Eyeballs appeal not only to reporters' egos but to advertisers as well. About 70 per cent of income comes from advertising, including from the traditionally conservative chaebol - family-run conglomerates - such as Samsung and LG. Another 20 per cent is earned through selling content to the likes of Naver, the number one portal, and Yahoo Korea. Donations top up the rest.

"We saw last week [through the tipping frenzy] that revenues could dramatically increase," Mr Min says. Launched with Won100m from Mr Oh and his friends, OhmyNews moved into profit last year, making a modest Won200m, and that is expected to double this year.

With endless blogs and news sites crowding the internet, what is the secret of OhmyNews's success?

Korea-specific factors have a lot to do with it. As well as the overwhelming dominance of conservative papers, three-quarters of homes have broadband access and Korea is a homogeneous and unipolar society - one issue can engulf the entire nation in a day or two.

Global interest in the idea is growing. Last month Mr Oh spoke to the Oslo Editors' Forum and he has been invited to Harvard next month and the London School of Economics in January. Exporting the business model, not to mention the software, could bring in much more revenue.

But there are some doubts over whether this very Korean idea will work abroad. A Japanese website based on OhmyNews, Janjan, has been launched but has not been successful.

"What has been unique in South Korea for the past few years has been the three-way alliance between the ruling regime, movement groups and pro-government news media," says Yonsei's Prof Yoon."That is one reason we do not see sites such as OhmyNews in other internet-advanced nations."

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.