Referendums are everywhere. We'll soon find out whether Tony Blair will be asking us to vote on the euro; meanwhile, it's a full-time job these days watching television and deciding which celebrity to eject, which poem is finest or whether surfing horses make a better advert than potato-eating Martians. We can email, text or phone our choices in from the sofa, while the government is dead keen on introducing similar electronic voting for less important decisions such as national and local elections. Truly, the voice of the people is loud across the land.
Yet we've never felt more detached from the mechanisms of state. Everyone knows that the euro vote will only happen when Tony's sure of the outcome, and the biggest demonstrations the country has ever seen made not a scrap of difference to the Iraq adventure. It's a commonplace that democracy doesn't work without an informed electorate, so perhaps some of this cynicism is reflected in the slow demise of the newspaper industry -- felt most keenly by those parts of the press that take themselves most seriously as organs of truth. People don't trust journalists, and it's hard to escape the feeling that a lot of the media repays the compliment.
Our new technologies were supposed to remove these sorts of barriers, but attitudes harden instead: online media discussion groups turn into cliques, suspicious of outsiders and proud of their prejudices. In the US, the world's poster child for the glorious Internet revolution, it's even worse: patriotism and sectarianism are the order of the day, while the old leaders of the traditional high-tone press are in spasms of self-doubt. The New York Times' recent public self-flagellation over its rogue reporter has been met with raucous laughter, while huge stories go unreported. For anyone who believes in the necessity of a healthy, diverse and sceptical press as a guard against abuses of power, these are worrying times. But where to look?
Try South Korea. A phenomenally successful experiment in new media -- it actually makes money -- called OhmyNews has been blossoming for four years. As an exclusively Korean-language publication, it's remained beneath the radar in the Western media (Thanks to Dan Gillmore of the Mercury News for pointing it out) But it's making the agenda in its home country, where it is widely held to have helped the election of a reformist presidential candidate. Like all good news sources, it comes as both a weekly paper and constantly updated Web site, with the weekly publication using the best parts of the site. But unlike any other news source, it's largely written by its readers or 'citizen-reporters' as they're known. Anyone can submit contributions to the Web site; the articles the people write are scrutinised by the permanent staff and rated before publication. Of the 200 or so submitted daily, around 140 make it onto the site.
The more the editors like a story, the higher its position on the site, the better its chances of making the paper and the more money the contributor gets -- although since the top payment is around £15, nobody's retiring early yet. That's good enough for the 15,000 people who've got their bylines into OhMyNews, a pool of contributors hundreds of times bigger than any paper you'll read. And while the paper version is mostly written by the staff journalists, the leads they get from their contributors are invaluable. With hit rates as high as 20 million -- in a country of 40 million -- the readers who don't write seem just as keen as those who do.
Some of the credit for the publication's success goes to the South Korean policy of aggressively introducing broadband across the nation. It's also been helped by the lack of diversity in newspapers prior to its launch. But it's also earned its spurs by running with serious stories the other outlets didn't cover, as well as creating that bond with its readers that all newspapers need by the simple method of printing things that matter to them on a personal level. OhMyNews doesn't abdicate the important editorial principle of filtering and ranking the news -- somewhere that other online quasi-journalistic phenomena such as blogs fall down -- rather, it underlines the unfashionable idea that the best quality news comes from the widest possible input. People trust it, and use that trust to take part in the national debate that has to be at the heart of democracy. Not bad for an organisation with a staff of 50.
We desperately need to repeat the experiment, here and in the US. Pure grass-roots activism is too easy to ignore, while the mainstream media still sees its readers as circulation fodder -- demographics to be placated or inflamed. Whoever takes on the task can take pride in their role in reinvigorating democracy at an important time, in helping to recreate a vibrant national community and in demonstrating the strengths of new technology -- and did I mention that it makes money? I'd vote for that.