Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Oh My! What is journalism worth?

At OhmyNews, the citizen-journalism Web site in Korea, it's apparently starting to be profitable.

Jean K. Min, director of international development, tells James Borton of Asia Times Online that the site is generating about $500,000 (US) a month in advertising revenue and is making about $27,000 a month. That's not a lot, but does show that citizen-journalism might have economic viability.

However, there are some observations here:
  • First, this is not the journalistic free-for-all envisioned in some quarters. OhmyNews represents the emergence of a new form of aggregator, but an aggregator nonetheless, just as newspapers and broadcast stations are journalism aggregators.
  • This does not answer the fundamental question: What is journalism intrinsically worth, if anything? OhmyNews is surviving on the backs of those who largely hold other jobs and have other sources of income. Min notes that contributors are paid from $5 to $20 (US), while rather scornfully noting that Korea's largest paper pays its staff $60,000 to $70,000 a year. I'd observe that journalism won't work well unless you have both. We need professionals with the economic underpinnings and the freedom those can produce to be able to pursue quality journalism. (I'm not saying the current system is that way; it isn't when people are scared for their jobs -- only that the potential is there if we can figure out whether emerging media make independent journalism economically viable.) But we also need citizen journalists who can peer into many more nooks and crannies, make some beer money, and counter the tendency we've seen among the professionals toward arrogance and insularity.
  • Will this work elsewhere? It's hard to say, yet. Korea is a small, tighly structured and rather homogeneous country with broad high-speed Internet access. Those parameters make it a special case, in my opinion. Yet continued word about OhmyNews' viability will most certainly bring those willing to try the concept in various forms, as Nortwest Voice has done in the United States (though without the editorial resources of OhmyNews).
  • That most important thing about OhmyNews may be that it is potentially changing the fundamental relationship of citizen and journalist. OhmyNews has a staff of 38 full-time reporters and editors who produce maybe 20 percent of the site's copy. Its power comes from its 32,000 citizen-journalists. As such, staff members can no longer be gatekeepers but instead become guides. While those editors determine placement (and thus payment) and help ensure a certain level of quality, I think it would be difficult to function in the traditional role of gatekeeper that keeps shrouded most of the news flow and lets through only a trickle. Were that to happen at OhmyNews, you can bet word would get out quickly and the contributions would dry up.
This presents some interesting fodder for journalism educators as well. The skills of a gatekeeper and guide are significantly different. A gatekeeper can function by a set of internalized "rules" in selecting what he or she deems important for the reader. That lends itself to teaching institutional traditions and practices, sometimes without checking their relevance to the outside world. A lot of mistakes can be hidden in the role of gatekeeper. After all, if the readers are going to be there anyhow ...

The role of guide requires much more critical thinking and environmental surveillance. No longer are you deeming what is important for the reader. Instead, the reader/user is signaling that importance to you and expecting you to integrate that into producing rapidly relevant content. Your "institutional knowledge" is subject to change at any time based on shifting reader/user needs and responses. Yet you also must have some anchoring philosophy and purpose, lest you descend into pandering.

How we teach that may be one of our most challenging tasks.

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