Comment is free, correct? Well, only up to a point ...

In an age when every other person seems to be a blogger, the value of high-quality commentary to established outlets is having an impact that is economic as well as journalistic. James Geary reports

It's almost like a football signing," says Michael Wolsey, comment editor for The Irish Independent in Dublin. "We're expecting reprisals." He's referring to his paper's recent poaching of a top columnist from The Irish Times, and his expectation that the Times will start raiding the Independent's commentators in return. Bidding wars for comment and opinion writers are nothing new. But as newspapers battle for readership, the strategy seems to be the paper with the best columnists wins. Is that how comment editors see things, too?

Wolsey cites the usual suspects - the web, TV, radio, mobile technology - for pushing papers away from straightforward news and more toward opinion. "We're not instant reporters of news any more," he says. "Comment is replacing that." For Wolsey, though, the best commentators need to be more than simply provocative and entertaining. "They must also bring a depth of knowledge and expertise to their subject," he says. "People will be willing to pay for the wisdom of commentators like that."

Whether people will pay for their favourite columnists is still an open question. Last autumn, The New York Times launched TimesSelect, an online service that offered access to the paper's columnists and some other web-only extras for $7.95 a month. As of the beginning of June, TimesSelect had just over 480,000 subscribers, more than 60 per cent of whom received the service for free along with their subscription to the print version of the newspaper.

The Guardian has pursued a different strategy. Its recently launched Comment Is Free site is, well, free and includes exclusive online contributions from its opinion writers. The New York Times is hoping the additional revenue will make up for the loss of influence that's sure to result from the invisibility of its top op-ed writers to the overwhelming majority of web readers. The Guardian is doing the reverse: it's betting that buzz from the Comment Is Free site will eventually rub off financially on the newspaper proper. What both strategies have in common is this: comment is the draw.

"A good commentator is worth their weight in gold," says Barbara Gunnell, comment editor for The Observer. "They bring fantastic experience to whatever subject they are writing about. Whether you agree with them or not, you know they are not going to let you down on the facts. It's like watching a football match on television. You already know the score, but you still can't wait to read what the commentators have to say about it the next day. It's the same with politics."

And with business. The Financial Times faces the same challenges as other papers - business news has become just as much a commodity as regular news, if not more so - but its status as one of the must-reads for the financial sector gives it a competitive advantage. According to Gwen Robinson, the FT's comment editor, commentators are key to maintaining that edge. "There's probably not another Martin Wolf or Lucy Kellaway in the world," she says. "People turn to Wolf for an interpretation of economics they can trust, and to Kellaway for a laugh and to get a straight take on management issues. They give readers something they can't get anywhere else."

But is incisive comment enough to keep readers informed and engaged? Michael Oreskes, executive editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, argues that "analytic journalism" is the corollary of comment. "Commentary has become an increasingly important part of the package," Oreskes says. "The reason for this is not that audiences crave opinion as such; it is because in a world awash in information, readers are searching for meaning. Real value lies in giving readers the facts plus the history, background and context to help them make sense of those facts. Opinion pieces are one way to do this. But just as important are pieces of analysis, judgement and even well-written news stories that don't tell readers what to think but allow them to see the world for themselves."

Arthur Miller once described a good newspaper as "a nation talking to itself". Thanks to the web, the whole world is talking to itself now, with commentators - on blogs and through established news organisations - raising some of the most distinctive voices. The conversation looks set to get a lot more interesting.

This article appears in the latest edition of 'e.i.', the editorial intelligence journal on media comment ( www.editorialintelligence.com). James Geary is editorial analyst at e.i., a former editor of 'Time' magazine (Europe) and author of 'We Are What We Think', a history of the aphorism

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind"

News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
football

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Ad Sales - UK Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: An award-winning global mul...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel your sales role is l...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Vendor Services Manager (IT) - Central London

£50000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Vendor Services Manager (...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album