Seoul is one of the world's largest cities, a bustling metropolis of huge apartment complexes, shiny office towers and canyons of neon signs, much of it built after the Korean War. More than a quarter of the country's population lives here.
We land at night, and the city's endless traffic slows our drive to the center. Snowflakes dust the windshield. I've come to one of the most wired countries in the world. I'm amazed by the giant video screens, with images sharper than those on my television at home, that light up the sky. In the 1990s, the government began to promote high tech as the future for South Korea.
I've come with a digital camera that can also shoot video, and, for the first time, I'm also bringing a digital sound recorder to create podcasts, or Internet radio shows. And, of course, a producer and cameraman are accompanying me from FRONTLINE/World.
Almost a quarter of South Korea's population lives in the capital, Seoul.
It's all part of the multimedia future of journalism. For most of my career as a print reporter, it's all been very simple. I dash off to cover stories, armed only with a notepad and pen. Now, in my newsroom and in many others across the country, reporters are learning how to do more -- to adjust and anticipate all the ways readers, viewers and listeners absorb the news.
During the 12-hour flight from San Francisco, I thought a lot about the state of journalism in the United States. An editor told me that most of his budget went toward salaries, so it's clear why cost-cutting newspaper owners would scrutinize pay. But it's not as if salaries for print journalists were ever generous. How much more can be cut?
I also realize that you get paid what the market will bear. And if people are willing to write practically for free, why shouldn't media companies take advantage of it? Just as they do at South Korea's OhmyNews.
There's a high level of public engagement in this heavily wired, young democracy, which, less than 20 years ago, was under military rule.
There's a high level of public engagement in this heavily wired, young democracy, which, less than 20 years ago, was under military rule. Nowadays, citizens are eager to speak out online. Is the success of OhmyNews unique to South Korea or can it be replicated elsewhere? That's what I'm here to find out.
Working for $2 a Story
November 5, 2006
On our first morning in Korea, we meet Jean K. Min, citizen journalism evangelist and de facto spokesman for OhmyNews. The headquarters are spread out across two offices on two floors, crammed with desks and a couple of glass-walled conference rooms. Nothing remarkable. No Aeron chairs, foosball tables or other dot-com luxuries. But it's from these modest offices that the company has declared "war on the old media system."
Mr. Min suggests I follow different types of citizen journalists who write for OhmyNews: a shopkeeper, a college student, a lawyer, a housewife, a fireman and a high school teacher. He's the first to admit that none of these reporters will quit their day jobs. Writers receive, on average, $2 to $20 per story, more if readers tip them online.
That night, the crew and I walk to the glitzy Myeong-dong shopping district. Despite the chilly weather, crowds throng the maze of pedestrian streets crammed with boutiques. It's quite a scene. A college student holds up a sign advertising "free hugs." Two young Koreans walk onto the balcony of a cosmetics store to sing a love duet, hoping to draw a crowd. Street vendors hawk squid and other seafood on a stick, and they fill the air with delicious smells. I notice how comfortable everyone here is using their cell phones and tiny digital cameras to capture the night's activities and share with friends.
It's my second time reporting from South Korea, and although it's not on the typical tourist itinerary for Asia, I'm once again captivated by the pulsing energy of the place and how the determination of a single generation has transformed the country.
Student and citizen journalist Lee Song Phil in the press box, reporting on the match between the Suwong Bluewings and the Goyang KB.
From Soccer Fan to Sports Reporter
Tuesday, November 6, 2006
Our first shoot is at a soccer match at World Cup Stadium in Seoul. Fans are singing and beating drums and throwing smoke bombs.
High above the fray, citizen journalist Lee Song Phil sits in the press box, covering the match between the Suwong Bluewings and the Goyang KB. He made the leap from soccer fan to sports reporter after one of his favorite soccer teams moved to another city. He wanted to know the story behind the story. Now, the young college student is covering the big leagues for OhmyNews. He'll file his story electronically to his editor straight from the stadium.
I also sit with the professional reporters covering the match for traditional outlets. They tell me that they admire the enthusiasm of citizen reporters but often find their stories superficial, lacking deep knowledge of the issues.
That night for dinner, we head to a noodle shop down one of the city's many side alleys. I ordered a bright red seafood soup, so fiery that no amount of tea or water could cool me down.
A Professional Takes an Amateur Turn
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Today, I am filming the reunion between Mrs. Kim and her son, who is stationed at Wonju Air Base, several hours outside Seoul. The government has already given us the runaround about filming on the base with Mrs. Kim, one of OhmyNews' most popular columnists.
But this is where "citizen journalists" have special access that professionals do not. I leave the crew behind and enter the base as a family friend and shoot the family picnic with my digital camera.
I watch the dynamic unfold without the aid of a translator. I can't tell if men-eating-first is a tradition of the culture or just of this particular family gathering. But what I could see is the deep bond this family shares, which is a reflection of the importance family has in Korean society.
Mrs. Kim shares a picnic with her son and other family members at a South Korean air base.
During the long car ride back, the producer, Pete Nicks, edits together a few scenes and sets the result to music on his Apple laptop. The clip is evocative and entertaining and makes me realize the power people now have to cover their lives and the events around them. The tools are becoming cheaper and easier to use.
The highway traffic coming in the opposite direction is a log jam. To qualify for carpool, you have to have seven people in the car. Everyone gets out of Seoul on weekends. We're exhausted by the time we return and stop off at McDonalds, Korean style. Though I pride myself on eating local cuisine while traveling, I love to stop at a McDonalds for two reasons. First, the overseas outlets still offer fried -- not baked -- apple pies and real soft-serve ice cream, not yogurt. The second reason is to check out the local offering, which in this case isn't all that imaginative: a regular hamburger doused in hot sauce.
Sunday, November 12, 2007
We're on our way to meet Song Sung Young, a farmer and citizen reporter. A decade ago, the documentary scriptwriter -- sick of the crowds and the fast pace of Seoul -- moved his family to an abandoned farm. He stays connected with high-speed Internet.
We've left behind the traffic and the high rises and are driving past terraced fields and rolling hills ablaze with color.
When I arrive, Song is cooking soybeans over an open fire to make soy sauce. He leads me on a tour of his small organic farm. He and his wife home-school their two young sons and survive on about $800 per month.
Song Sung Young lives on a small organic farm. He and his family live on around $800 a month.
For lunch, Song offers us pajun, small savory pancakes and soybeans laid on broad lettuce leaves picked fresh from his garden.
Song tells me that the difference between an amateur and a professional journalist is that the amateur can write whatever he wants. Professional journalists write what the owner of the newspaper company wants.
I tell him that I write to educate the public. If I had really climbed onto my soapbox, I would have said that our purpose is to expose wrongdoing, to tell untold stories. It sounds idealistic, but that's why journalism feels like a calling to me.
He gets my point and concedes that professional journalists can write "bigger" stories -- such as the one that brought me to South Korea. But all he is really saying is that professional journalists are better funded to report stories.
Like other Korean progressives, Song has a strong nationalistic stance and wants the United States to stop meddling in Korean affairs. American interference, in his opinion, forced North Korea to arm itself. He writes about topics like this a lot for OhmyNews.
A Korean American friend tells me that Koreans are the "Irish of Asia." What he means by this is that Koreans are emotional, passionate, outspoken -- and can hold their drink. But I can see why Song and other citizen journalists can "get their Irish" up by writing articles.
What OhmyNews has given Koreans is a space for their grievances and a place to express themselves besides street protests surrounded by police.
For the 10 days we were shooting this story, every day, on the streets of Seoul, we saw every kind of issue being protested -- in large and small gatherings. What OhmyNews has given Koreans is a space for their grievances and a place to express themselves besides street protests surrounded by police.
Monday, November 13, 2007
We're back at the OhmyNews offices and are told that we have 10 minutes and are allowed five questions with the company's founder, Oh Yeon Ho. We're flabbergasted. We've flown halfway around the world to interview him, and we only have 10 minutes? It feels like we're asking for an audience with the pope.
Mr. Oh is only in the South Korea office one day a week, spending the rest of his time in Japan at a citizen journalism spin-off, OhmyNews Japan. He's a very busy man, the company's spokesman tells us.
We've already spoken to citizen reporters who feel empowered by Mr. Oh, people whose lives have changed since writing for the site he founded. Now, we want to hear him defend himself against the criticism of his news site and explain his vision for the future.
We manage to corner him for much longer [than 10 minutes], though he spends the first five minutes on his cell phone. He comes across as confident and intense but becomes irritated when I ask him difficult questions.
Mr. Oh is planning to launch OhmyNews 2.0 this May, to attract more citizen journalists.
Since he started OhmyNews seven years ago, the press coverage has been mostly glowing. But as the company has moved into the mainstream, and traditional media has begun to catch up, OhmyNews is facing new scrutiny and new pressures.
The company slid into the red last year, after small profits for three years, but it aims to reach profitability again in 2007.
It's not unusual for Internet startups to lose money, Mr. Oh tells me. They've spent the money reinvesting in the company.
He's planning to launch OhmyNews 2.0 this May, to attract more citizen journalists. I wonder if a Web redesign will bring more people in. Or will it take a big news event -- like the presidential election in South Korea this fall -- to drive more people to the site?
I've talked to academics and media watchers about OhmyNews, and it's no longer the new-new thing in South Korea. There's competition from other citizen journalism sites, from traditional papers that have become more interactive, and from popular news portals such as Daum or Naver.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
After spending days listening to citizen journalists criticize my profession, it's a relief to visit Munhwa Ilbo, South Korea's biggest afternoon newspaper. Seeing all the editors, reporters and photographers committed to covering the news full time reminds me of why professional journalism still matters.
Journalists at South Korea's largest afternoon paper,Munhwa Ilbo.
The hustle of a newsroom on deadline, people running around, last-minute changes, the graphics, the photo, the layout, the stories, the full force of institutional knowledge and expertise and then -- bam! -- the newspaper hits the presses and then the streets by that afternoon. It's inspiring. They call it the daily miracle. And I feel right at home.
It's dead-tree technology. In times of crisis, people still turn to the electronic media to understand what happened -- no matter where they live. After 9/11, during the North Korean nuclear crisis.
I've learned that there are aspects of citizen journalism that traditional media should definitely try to learn from, not mimic, to better engage their readers and to create a place for people to convene online. Yet there are professional standards, too, that cannot be compromised -- not if journalists want to remain watchdogs and educators.
On my last night in Seoul, as I rode a bus to Seoul Tower, for a glittering panorama of the city, I thought about all that I had seen during the trip. I thought journalism could go two ways.
In the worst-case scenario, it's taken over by part-timers paid almost nothing, guided by their opinions.
For the second way, I'm getting behind the idea that we keep our most sacred journalistic values but also let the passion of citizen reporters help rejuvenate our industry.