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Citizen-journalism Web sites struggle to attract reporters

Net movement that shook up South Korea yet to do same here

by Tony Mcnicol

Most people would probably consider park benches an unusual target for journalistic scrutiny, but Yumiko Hayakawa was determined to get to the bottom of the matter. She interviewed over 100 people, spoke to park officials, gave out a questionnaire and took photos in parks around Tokyo.

Her article was about the replacement of ordinary park benches in the capital by queer and uncomfortably shaped seats. The reason, she soon discovered, was that officials didn’t want homeless people sleeping in their parks. But is that fair? she asked. And what about other park visitors, like a mother who might need to change her baby’s diaper?

When the article was published, more than 80 comments from readers fueled a lively online debate.

“It was a good article,” says Hayakawa’s editor, Hideki Hirano. “She learned about something that not many people know about and highlighted it.”

But Hayakawa isn’t a professional journalist, and nor is the publication she wrote for a conventional media outlet. Her article was carried on the Japanese-language version of OhmyNews, a “citizen journalism” news and opinion Web site. Originally launched in South Korea in 2000, OhmyNews now has 47,000 registered amateur journalists from 100 countries. It is the world’s largest citizen journalism site, accessed some 700,000 times a day.

The site is big news in its home country, famously credited with helping Roh Moo Hyun win the presidency in 2003. It has attracted attention abroad too, and is often cited as a leading example of “Web 2.0,” the new “bottom-up” Internet where content is created not by large firms but by surfers themselves.

OhmyNews Japan rolled off the virtual presses last August. By the end of the year, 2,600 citizen journalists had registered and, funded with an $11 million cash injection from telecommunications corporation Softbank, the site was publishing 25 to 30 new articles a day. Shuntaro Torigoe, a well-known journalist and TV anchor, was appointed to head the site. Professional editors and journalists were taken on to proof-read and fact-check articles, while contributors were paid up to 2000 yen for their articles.

At the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last August, OhmyNews founder and CEO Oh Yeon Ho described the new Japan site as a “bridge” between professional and amateur media.

“Until now, Japanese have been passive consumers of news. Now we invite them to become its producers,” he said.

In fact, Oh isn’t the first Internet entrepreneur to attempt to shake up the Japanese media scene, nor is OhmyNews Japan’s first citizen journalism site. In February 2003, an Internet daily newspaper called JanJan was launched by Ken Takeuchi, a former reporter and ex-mayor of Kamakura. Not long afterward in 2004, Livedoor CEO Takafumi Horie set up PJ News, a public journalism project within Livedoor’s popular Internet news site. He apparently had ambitions to force change on news providers, at one time famously vowing to “kill” the Japanese media.

Yet, for all their ambition, neither Horie, JanJan nor OhmyNews seem to have landed a blow on the mainstream media as yet. The sites have communities of dedicated contributors, but they are little known and have relatively little influence. While the South Korean OhmyNews has tens of thousands of citizen journalists, the Japanese sites have only a few thousand between them. The number of active writers is probably more like in the tens.

Why hasn’t citizen journalism taken off? One reason sometimes suggested, in Japan at least, is that people simply don’t have time to research and write articles. Working hours are long, and Japan has fewer activists and volunteers than many other countries.

Another problem is that potential citizen journalists are shy of using their real names. Surfers cherish their anonymity on the Internet in Japan, notoriously on the gargantuan, chaotic and frequently libelous 2Channel Internet forum. OhmyNews, on the other hand, won’t allow anonymous articles, although the rule can be bent for special cases such as whistle-blowers.

In any case, Japan isn’t the only country where citizen journalism has failed to make its mark. No other site with anything like the profile of OhmyNews has emerged. And it’s arguable that citizen journalism is old news in countries where the mainstream media have already stolen some of its thunder.

In the U.K., for instance, readers regularly contribute to news Web sites with photos or post comments to online discussions. At the time of the 2005 London terrorist attacks, The Guardian ran a rapidly updating blog with information supplied by members of the public. In the past few weeks, the BBC Web site has carried vigorous online debates, asking, for example, “Should Harry go to Iraq?” and, “What will Tony Blair’s legacy be?”

It’s a different story in Japan, where the media have given citizen journalism a distinctly cool reception. Professional journalists are chary of sharing column space and airtime with amateur competitors.

After all, the Japanese public appears relatively satisfied with the media they have, says PJ News editor Mitsuyasu Oda, who oversees 400 registered citizen reporters as the site’s sole full-time staff member. In South Korea, citizen journalism was fueled by a deep distrust of the national media, he explains, but in Japan people basically believe what they read in the papers and see on the news.

“I think citizen journalism will grow slowly in Japan,” Oda says. “It’s not going to explode like in Korea.”

All the same, he stresses that his site offers perspectives that the mainstream media can’t (or won’t) provide. Unlike other media, PJ News doesn’t have a fixed editorial stance; they aim for as wide a variety of views and experiences as possible. A recent article was by a schizophrenia sufferer who wrote about his illness. In another, a man with Hansen’s disease wrote about 70 years spent living in the same sanitarium.

“As writing it’s not that good, but it has reality,” says Oda. “The existing media can’t do that kind of thing.”

Few people expect sites like PJ News and OhmyNews to revolutionize the Japanese media any time soon, but they do give citizen reporters an otherwise unobtainable chance to reach readers all over Japan, and even abroad. Yumiko Hayakawa’s article on homelessness was translated and carried on the English-language OhmyNews site. Shortly afterward she was e-mailed by a reader in the U.K. who wrote that a similar thing was happening there too.

“That was a big discovery for me,” she says. “At first, I thought it was only happening in Japan. It made me realize how the Internet can connect me to the world as well as Japan.”

This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in The Japan Journal

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