When Korean university student Chang Je Hyung did a brief stint at Samsung's office in Berlin last year, it made him angry. He had to help prepare a holiday trip to Germany for chairman Lee Kun Hee and his family. According to Chang, dozens of Samsung employees spent two months sweating over details of the private visit, even going to fancy restaurants to try out food the chairman might eat. Instead of tipping off the mainstream media, Chang sent a first-person account to online newspaper OhmyNews earlier this year. It created a sensation.
Chalk up another scoop for OhmyNews, the feisty phenomenon that is rewriting the rules for Korean media and, if founder Oh Yeon Ho has his way, may soon be doing the same outside Korea as well. Part blog, part professional news agency, OhmyNews gets up to 70% of its copy from some 38,000 "citizen reporters" like Changbasically anyone with a story and a laptop to write it on. Editors vet the articles, rejecting nearly one-third. Launched in 2000, it has snowballed into a kind of raucous online mall for Korea's wired younger generationa place to get news, absorb the buzz or just hang out. It is also giving young Koreans a political voice, upending the conservative traditional media models of their parents' generation.
Oh isn't ready to stop there. An English-language edition launched last year draws on more than 300 "world citizen reporters," and he wants to have 10,000 by next year. He's getting ready to launch OhmyNews in Japanese this year and is eyeing a Chinese version. The vision: turn OhmyNews into the world's water cooler, where anybody can talk about issues like global warming and North Korean nukes. Says Oh: "OhmyNewsshould be the epicenter of world public opinion."
Sounds ambitious, but the website is already extremely influential at home. After two schoolgirls were crushed to death in 2002 by a U.S. military vehicle, OhmyNews provided blanket coverage, triggering widespread demonstrations against the U.S. troop presence. As South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun rode the surge of anti-U.S. sentiment to victory in the 2002 election, OhmyNews portrayed him as the voice of the younger generation. Roh gave his first exclusive interview as President to the online upstart.
With Wikipedia offering a similar citizens' news service, OhmyNews won't be alone in international cyberspace. But Oh has already pulled off a trick that has proved elusive for many other online media outlets: turned a profit. OhmyNews says it made about $400,000 last year, more than two-thirds from advertising. Mainstream media will be watching closelyas will big conglomerates with anything to hide. By Donald Macintyre/ Seoul. With reporting by Yooseung Kim/Seoul