The Web Site That Elected a President
No self-respecting Korean news junkie can do without the Internet anymore. And these days, that usually means making regular visits to OhmyNews.com. The online newspaper is the brainchild of 38-year-old activist Oh Yeon Ho, whose goal was to create a news source that would cause readers to leap up and exclaim "Oh My God!" Three years ago, he set up the shoestring operation, which now has 45 full-time staff working alongside some 10,000 "citizen reporters"--who generate 80% of the site's stories.
OhmyNews built its credibility early last year by treating Roh Moo Hyun's presidential campaign as an important political event. While the three leading newspapers--Chosun Ilbo, Joong-ang Ilbo, and Dong-A Ilbo--were dismissing the candidate as a dangerous leftist, OhmyNews distributed unedited streaming video of the Millennium Democratic Party's provincial primaries and campaign events, including Roh's appearances and speeches. Established media missed the importance of the growing support for Roh, while OhmyNews gave it blanket coverage. "Netizens won," Oh says of the election. "Traditional media lost."
The real moment of glory for OhmyNews came on Election Day in December. On the eve of the voting, a former rival who had backed Roh unexpectedly flip-flopped and withdrew his support. While television and the newspapers carried spotty coverage of the defection, OhmyNews posted nonstop video and text reports, attracting a half-million visitors in less than 12 hours. The next day, OhmyNews' loyal readers followed the unfolding events online and via Web-linked mobile phones. When conservative candidate Lee Hoi Chang started edging ahead, many of those same readers sent out a blizzard of e-mails and cell-phone text messages encouraging friends to go to the polls, helping Roh secure a victory.
The Web site's reporters have won a coveted place in the press rooms of many government agencies, putting them in a position to break down the conservative journalistic cartel that has long controlled news coming from the government. Founder Oh's task now is to ensure the company's economic viability while preserving its hard-hitting news sense. Revenue last year totaled about $1.7 million, and Oh says the site is making a small profit.
What's the next act? OhmyNews must prove it can be as aggressive in covering the Roh administration as it was in following the high-octane campaign. That means continuing to challenge the Establishment, which now includes Roh himself. Already, OhmyNews is stepping up reporting on what could be dubbed Kimgate--the tale of how North Korea's Kim Jong Il allegedly wrung $500 million out of current South Korean President Kim Dae Jung before agreeing to meet him. Not a story either the outgoing or incoming administration wants to hear much of. But don't worry. You can read all about it on OhmyNews.
By Mark L. Clifford and Moon Ihlwan in Seoul