Is the printed newspaper really moribund? Looking at the revolutionary impact of Oh Yeon Ho we might be tempted to think so. Oh, a former magazine journalist sickened by what he saw as the conservative bias of the South Korean media, decided to retaliate by leveraging the internet and set up Ohmy News – the most successful example of so-called “citizen journalism”. It has (at last count) no professional journalists on its staff and relies on the public to make contributions (constrained by a rule book, to give the articles credibility).Though not for profit in principle, it has – rather like Ebay – managed to develop an effective alternative commercial model. Its website gets an average of over 700,000 visitors and about 2 million page views a day. Not surprisingly, given such popularity, it has shaken up the South Korean media industry.
Idiosyncratic? Couldn’t happen here? To date Ohmy is certainly a lonely beacon of citizen journalism. But some of its lessons, and potential threats, shed an interesting light on what is happening to UK news organisations, particularly at the quality end of the newspaper market. Websites have long since been seen as a tactical means of containing news leakage online. Recently, however, there has been a significant change of attitude towards the value of such websites. The Guardian, The Times and the Financial Times have all publicly signalled that their Web services will no longer be an interesting accessory but part of the mainstream service, of an equal status to the core (from a commercial point of view) print product.
A significant catalyst in this uprating process has been the coming of age of the news blog – on this side of the Atlantic. In the US, its influence has long been apparent: it was pivotal in, for example, breaking the Monica Lewinski scandal (1998) , or exposing the fraudulent news story that brought down CBS anchorman Dan Rather. Here, it is relatively recently that we have had Salam Pax rising to prominence during the Iraq war. And, only last week, another milestone was achieved when John Prescott found the remains of his tattered reputation a hostage to blogger Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines).
According to BMRB, over 1 million people in the UK have now published a blog, and about 7.3 million people have looked at one. The vast majority will have no political or news impact whatsoever: their visitors will be in the hundreds, or even tens. Not the sort of thing to make major news organisations quake in their boots. But the significance of the phenomenon lies not in numbers but the increasing leverage of the model. As Staines himself says, if a little apocalyptically: “The days of the media conglomerates making the news in top-down Fordist fashion are over. Boutique news sources will proliferate. The news is no longer what Paxman says it is, the news is whatever is disseminated to a wide audience.”
Newspapers and, for that matter the BBC, have responded to this threat by creating their own blogs, usually authored by prominent correspondents or columnists as part of their increasingly important “internet package”. These will at least offer a guarantee of consistency, professionalism and accuracy over time. Whether they are sufficient to keep the genie in the bottle is quite another matter. Even so, we are still undeniably a long way from the world of Mr Oh.