In a digital realm where social media serves to connect people from disparate locations, cultures, and backgrounds, the old adage “it’s not what you know but who you know” may not mean the same thing as it once did. But the same digital tools used to network also make it difficult to gain attention. The ease with which an individual can self-publish material on social media such as blogs means it is sometimes hard to be heard over the noise of the crowd. In fact, in a medium that relies heavily on sharing links from others, being connected to the right individuals (or not) can play a vital role in your success. Online publication without gatekeepers can also mean the dissemination of raw, informal, biased, or factually inaccurate writing.
The South Korean news website OhmyNews seems interested in alleviating some of these problems with online citizen journalism. The website allows any person to join and submit their own “citizen reports” to be published. Paid staff editors then review the submissions and decide which articles to promote (and by extension which articles to hide). Though the schema has changed, OhmyNews also paid writers small amounts for each story posted and had rewards for the more popular posts. Bringing together all the amateur writers into a single, professional style publication surely boosted the credibility and attention received than had they published individually. It also served to build a community to support citizen journalism as a whole.
OhmyNews is very popular, with over 70,000 citizen journalists and 2.5 million page views a day, but seems doomed to fail financially. As a free website, OhmyNews relies on advertising to generate enough income. Though it did report early profits, the website has had financial struggles since 2008. Their well-funded venture into Japanese media was a complete failure after only two years in operation. OhmyNews International, the English language version, now seems almost abandoned.
What went wrong?
OhmyNews represents an interesting hybridization between traditional mass media journalism and online citizen journalism. By establishing a “gate” through editors and a single publication space, they seemed to alleviate some of the inherent problems with amateur reporting. But what went wrong? Perhaps their sales staff has done a poor job finding suitable advertisers. The small staff had difficulty editing a huge (and growing) number of submissions each day. Though (our class guest speaker) Terry Heaton, writing in his blog in 2004, believed that OhmyNews was no longer an experiment – the website was a “stunning success by any measure” – it is clear that the verdict is still out. It also begs the question – should “professional” journalism have anything to do with “grassroots” journalism? Is this hybrid model suitable for the future of journalism, or will we have to rely on social folksonomy and aggregators to collect our news from various sources (blogs)?