By Martin Stabe
Bloggers are now the real competition for national newspaper columnists, according to the editor of the Guardian’s new website Comment is free, which launched on Tuesday.
Former Guardian deputy editor Georgina Henry is in charge of the site, which hosts a roster of more than 200 writers, academics, politicians, activists and bloggers who have been invited to contribute. It will also publish Steve Bell’s cartoon "If" online for the first time, along with photography by Dan Chung and an "Editors’ Blog" giving an insiders’ view on how The Guardian is produced.
Numerous bloggers have been asked to contribute, but they will only be paid when specially commissioned or if they feature in the "Editor’s Picks" section.
Henry said: "Traditionally, you think ‘who are the rivals to our best commentators?’ and it was probably true to say that they work on other papers."
But she pointed out that some blogs are attracting enormous online audiences that rival those of major publications and added: "If you look at the number of people visiting those things and you look at the popularity of them, you have to have your own people in that forum."
Henry maintained that the website and its contributors would remain free to readers, citing the New York Times’s recent experiment as an example of how difficult it can be to charge.
"I think you can see it at the New York Times where they have put their best commentators behind the subscription wall and you see what’s happened to the traffic on that — it’s very, very low. It just shows that however brilliant you are — and they have some of the most brilliant columnists in the world — people will go elsewhere.
"Being brilliant just because you’re carried by a mainstream newspaper is just not good enough. You have to be in the same forum as the competition."
The external contributors have received passwords allowing them to add material directly to the site, although Henry has a team of four to sub-edit all the content and check it for legals before publication.
She said: "It’s really hard when they then send stuff in that’s something that you wouldn’t necessarily publish in the paper or which you would have raised eyebrows about if you published it in the paper — very opinionated stuff. You just have to gulp and stick it up, unless it’s libellous."
On the day the blog launched, those commenting on the developing Jericho prison siege included MP George Galloway, Azzam Tamimi of the Institute of Islamic Thought, Israeli writer Yossi Alpher and retired Guardian foreign correspondent Martin Woollacott.
Among the site’s many contributors are: New African columnist Cameron Duodu; American law professor and prominent blogger Glenn Reynolds; novelist and playwrite Ariel Dorfman; former adviser to President Clinton Sidney Blumenthal; and author of anti- New Labour blog Chicken Yoghurt, Justin McKeating.
The website’s address is: www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree