It’s not every day that one gets an e-mail from “Special Delegation—DPR of Korea.” Mr. Alejandro Cao de Benos—a Spanish-born North Korean citizen and Special Delegate to the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—regretted to inform me that I was not welcome to visit his adopted country.
Mr. Cao de Benos is a gatekeeper of sorts for people who want to get into North Korea. (Why this Barcelona native decided to become a North Korean citizen and representative of the North Korean government is another story.) The door into North Korea has been shut to American journalists since mid-2002, thanks to tense relations between Pyongyang and Washington. While it is possible for non-American journalists, tourists and businesspeople to visit, American visitors are generally not welcome.
Hoping for an exception, I had emailed Cao de Benos to ask if I might apply to join an international group of peace activists and journalists that he planned to take to North Korea in July. I introduced myself as a former CNN reporter with experience covering North Korea, now a freelance journalist running a Weblog on North Korea at www. NKzone.org. His response: “I decided to allow the possibility of ‘fair journalism’ to those individuals and companies with a clean record on information about North Korea. Unfortunately the line you decided to take is the same like many others that talk and comment so much about our government and system without real knowledge. NKzone is contributing to the jungle of lies sponsored by Washington.”
His main beef: NKzone had recently featured an interview with the German doctor and North Korean human rights activist Norbert Vollertsen, as well as other information provided by him about activities condemning the North Korean government for its human rights abuses. In the view of Cao de Benos, “fair journalism” about the DPRK requires omitting the perspective of such human rights activists.
Creating an ‘Information Community’
Despite the fact that a North Korean government official labeled my Weblog a “jungle of lies,” North Korea zone aspires to be a new form of alternative media. It aims to provide a place in cyberspace for the exchange of information, opinion and analysis on North Korea—one of the most badly covered countries on earth, thanks to officials like Cao de Benos. If North Korea did not possess nuclear weapons, the implications of this lack of coverage might not be so dire. But as the United States faces difficult options in its efforts to disarm North Korea, the lack of knowledge—or even basic verifiable information about that country—could have serious national security implications.
NKzone was launched in February 2004 as part of my project for the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, & Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, examining how online, interactive, participatory forms of media might enhance or improve the ways in which international news is consumed and reported. For commercial reasons, American newspapers, magazines and TV news outlets have limited space for international news. The Internet provides an opportunity for people who want more information about what is going on around the world to find it—and a cheaper way for news organizations, interest groups, or amateur enthusiasts to deliver it.
But the Internet does more than provide a new, more cost-effective and convenient vehicle for news and information. New interactive techniques and Weblog software tools are changing what used to be a one-way “lecture” given by the broadcaster or publisher to the passive reader or viewer into a two-way conversation. In fact, as a Weblog author I have ceased to use the word “audience” to describe the people who read my blog posts, add their own comments in reaction, send me e-mails with information, and link their own Weblogs and Web sites to NKzone. Instead, I call them my “information community.” They are by no means a passive audience.
As a foreign correspondent who has long been concerned about the mainstream media’s shrinking appetite for international news, it is my hope that new forms of participatory media such as Weblogs can enable the public not only to have greater access to information and debates about international events, but also to become more directly engaged with news from faraway places. By building a worldwide information community of people interested in learning more about a particular place or issue than is possible through the mainstream media and then engaging in a conversation with that community, Weblogs may be an effective new tool for making events in distant countries more relevant and interesting.
The NKzone Weblog
NKzone was created using TypePad, a Weblog-software and hosting service. It is one of many commercial Weblog tools available that require no previous Web design or HTML coding skills or programming knowledge. Using this service, I was able to quickly and easily post daily updates to the Weblog. These updates included hyperlinks to sources of news about North Korea elsewhere on the Web: primarily English-language articles from non-U.S. specialists, and obscure media sources with more extensive information and analysis about North Korea than one would generally find in The New York Times or on CNN.
Often I added my own analysis of North Korea-related news developments, based on my experience as a journalist who has worked in northeast Asia for more than a decade. (I covered the North Korea story as part of my beat and had the opportunity to visit North Korea five times.) Most importantly, I invited anybody who has traveled to North Korea or who has engaged in the study of that country to share their information and analysis. I quickly began to receive daily e-mails from people around the world with links and documents they hoped I would include on NKzone.
Because of the lack of Western media access to North Korea, many nonjournalists have greater insights to that secretive country than journalists do. No single journalist can hope to adequately shine the light into North Korea’s vast information black hole. The idea behind NKzone is that the collective effort—a combination of professional journalists, other experts, and informed amateurs—might do a better job. My goal was to tap into these people’s knowledge and expertise by inviting them to contribute in one of three ways: by e-mailing information that I could then post onto NKzone; by joining an online discussion in the Weblog’s “comments” section following each post (type text into a “comments” box and hit a button that says “post”), or by becoming a “guest author” with pass codes enabling them to post information directly onto the main column of Nkzone—a status granted only to those who I determine are in a position to contribute original and clear insights on North Korea.
Opinions posted in the “comments” sections have ranged from extremely pro-engagement to hard-line pro-regime change. Occasionally there are strong online arguments. I’ve had to admonish people who trade personal insults in the comments section, but have not censored a single comment or post. (That is, except for “comment spam,” solicitous and off-topic comments aimed at promoting other people’s Web sites or products, similar in nature to e-mail spam.)
As of this writing, NKzone—which is not advertised or commercially promoted in any way—receives an average of 500 unique visitors per day, according to a software program that helps monitor Web site traffic. Approximately 200 more people receive daily updates of NKzone’s content through an e-mail subscription list, and an unknown number receive the updated content through RSS (Really Simple Syndication) aggregator programs—software tools that distill updated content from large numbers of Weblogs and news sites onto one Web browser page.
With the help of a software tracking program and a voluntary online survey of nearly 200 people, I found that about half of NKzone’s community is in North America, with about one quarter in East Asia and a substantial number in Western Europe. Roughly 25 percent of those surveyed claimed that some aspect of their job relates to North Korea. Others indicate a range of professional or personal reasons why they feel a need to become better informed about North Korea.
How do people find out about NK-zone? According to both the voluntary survey and the Sitemeter tracking program, the majority of NKzone’s community initially came to it in one of three ways. One very common way is through a Google search. In mid-July, “North Korea zone” was item number eight on the first search results page for a Google search on the term “North Korea”—beating North Korea’s official news agency, which was number 10. The second most common way that people come to NKzone is through the growing number of other Web sites and Weblogs that link to it. Third is essentially “word of mouth:” for instance, when one respected scholar who writes about North Korea sends out an e-mail recommending NKzone to a list of other scholars and journalists interested in North Korea.
The NKzone community appears to be quite loyal: 30 percent of survey respondents said they access the site daily, while nearly 28 percent visit “a few times a week.” What do they like about NKzone? One respondent wrote: “I like the policy of allowing people of all viewpoints to have their say. NKzone allows me to access news on NK that otherwise would take a lot of digging. Given the small amount of time I have for reading news, it’s likely that I would get very little news on NK if it wasn’t for NKzone aggregating it for me.”
In response to the question, “What does North Korea zone do for you that you’re not getting from newspapers, magazines, TV or conventional news Web sites?” One person replied: “A lot! In fact, most of the media sources are too busy ignoring one of the most repressive regimes in the world.” Another wrote: “Conventional media has next to nothing about the DPRK beyond mentioning that Kim Jong Il is a madman or that they’re starving but have a very big army. I want to know what makes them tick, and I pick some of that up via NKzone.” Yet another respondent hit upon the value of media listening to and conversing with its information community, as opposed to just talking at the audience: “You can see nonexperts’ views here. Of course, it’s experts and politicians who make all the policies regarding North Korea. However, they have to persuade those nonexperts first before they do anything about North Korea. In that sense, we have to pay more attention to nonexperts’ views.”
This is a niche community, not a mass audience. But the hope is that NKzone can serve as a resource and public service for those who want to go beyond what they’re getting from their usual media diet.
Weblogs and Journalism
Writing for a Weblog is different from reporting for a news organization. I can, of course, post anything I want, with no editors to argue with about relevance or coherence. This has good and bad aspects, as everybody’s work can be improved by an editor. However, publishing editor-less to the Web does result in a much more direct, personal voice than one tends to have in conventional news reporting. This is something that many in NKzone’s community have said they appreciate.
I can also be completely transparent about my successes and failures, and this also seems to be a subject of great interest to my community. If I had made my query to Cao de Benos as a journalist with a conventional news organization, my community most likely would never have known about my attempt to get into North Korea. Audiences of conventional news media hear only about our successes—not our failures. As a consequence, I think that audiences generally are not aware of the effort required for journalists to cover certain kinds of stories.
With a Weblog, it was easy for me to recount my exchange with Cao de Benos and his rejection of my efforts to join his group to North Korea in full, including my reply in which I invited him to supply his information and analysis on North Korea, which I was happy to reproduce in full, unedited, on NKzone. Not only did visitors to the site leave a lively series of comments to this post, but one commenter brought our attention to something I was not aware of—a link to a segment of streaming video on a pro-North Korea Web site in which Cao de Benos proclaims his love for North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il (and at one point even sings about it). This provoked more reactions and discussion. More importantly, the whole exchange provided insight into the nature of the North Korean regime and the people who support it in a very different way than a conventional news report could have done. Members of the NKzone community were able to experience and participate in the process of discovery. They also helped me uncover facts I would not otherwise come across: One member dug up the identity of the chairman of a pro-North Korean organization in the United States. This man, quoted with great fanfare by North Korean media, is a homeless person living in Oregon.
Is this journalism? I believe it is—albeit a raw, unvarnished form that still makes many professional journalists uncomfortable and gives most of their editors goose bumps. NKzone is not fact-checked or subedited, although as a trained journalist I make a point to credit my sources and fully disclose their biases and backgrounds. I try to be careful with my facts as any journalist is trained to be and certainly don’t make things up—NKzone’s visitors must trust me on that, despite the fact that I do not have the credibility and weight of a major brand news organization behind my work. However, if members of the NKzone community detect error, bias, or omission of important information in my blog posts, they quickly inform me in the “comments” section at the bottom of the offending post. In some cases I’ve then engaged in discussions with them about the facts of a situation. The online format makes it very easy to correct and acknowledge errors and thank people who point them out. Judging from NKzone community feedback, how Weblog authors handle errors is key to building credibility.
For now, NKzone is primarily derivative journalism—drawing upon the firsthand reports of professional news sources and accounts from people who have been to North Korea more recently than I. Am I trying to compete directly with conventional mainstream media? No. There are kinds of investigative and life-threatening journalism that I believe will always be difficult if not impossible to do well without the deep financial pockets, legal staff, and reputation of powerful media companies. There are some kinds of stories that will always be best told by long, well-crafted, highly edited and fact-checked pieces of text, audio or video—not by blog posts.
Still, after a semester of blogging I believe a Weblog like NKzone can fill a niche demand that mainstream media organizations are not filling in their current formats. I have received numerous e-mails from journalists who find NKzone to be an invaluable source of leads for stories, academics who find it a useful way to keep abreast of developments and debates, and many others working in a range of other fields who are appreciative of the free information and discussion that NKzone provides.
But is the NKzone model sustainable? I’ve been able to spend a substantial amount of time working on the site every day thanks to several fellowships at Harvard University. When those end, NKzone faces a problem typical of many dot-com projects: A significant number of people find it valuable and useful, yet there is no clear business model. NKzone is unlikely ever to become a profitable enterprise. Turning it into a fee-based service would run counter to the idea of an open, information-sharing community. A more likely route is as a nonprofit public service funded by grants and donations or as a service sponsored by an organization or academic department with an interest in promoting more enlightened discussion of the North Korea issue. The NKzone model—building an information community around a particular issue—may perhaps be most effective and sustainable when used by an organization or group that has an interest in filling specific “holes” in mainstream news coverage and that already has sources of funding to pay a few people to run the project.
There is also no reason why mainstream newspapers, TV companies, and newsmagazines with online editions can’t also try to fill some of these niches themselves by utilizing the techniques and technologies of Weblogs. In taking this step, there will be fears—and real risks—of losing control over information and brand image. Many major American media companies such as CNN do not allow their reporters to blog. Others— including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and MSNBC—have begun to experiment with Weblogs and Weblog-like forms of journalism.
It is a new media frontier waiting to be occupied by whoever gets there first.
Rebecca MacKinnon is a fellow at the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She was a spring 2004 fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics & Public Policy. Her paper on interactive participatory media and international news can be found at www.ksg.harvard.edu/presspol/Research_Publications/Papers.shtml. MacKinnon was bureau chief for CNN in Tokyo and Beijing. She is the founder of a Weblog about North Korea at www.NKzone.org.