Comment is frequently bad-tempered

The following brief article has just been published in Freelance, the newsletter of the National Union of JournalistsLondon Freelance Branch. It was written just before the rumpus surrounding Maddy of the Sorrows, and my resignation from the CiF writers’ roster. I include it here just for the record.

We appealed for information on newspaper blog commissioning practices and rates in September’s Freelance. Francis Sedgemore, a regular contributor to the Guardian’s Comment is Free web magazine/blog, explains how it works. See here for our earlier article on blogs at the Guardian and other publications. [Matt Salusbury, Editor of Freelance]

I am a freelance science journalist, and also write for Comment is Free (CiF). I started out by submitting articles on spec, and was then given login rights to the CiF system.

For a while I wrote around one article per week for CiF, and some of these were promoted to the Editors’ Picks section, which automatically triggers a payment of £75. I was also on occasion commissioned by the editor to write on particular topics, and paid whether or not my pieces made it into the Editors’ Picks.

Is Comment is Free a blog? No, it is an online current affairs magazine with full editorial control over published articles. Subs write most of the titles and standfirsts, and often tweak the text. Controversial articles are “legalled” before publication, and rights are governed by the Guardian’s freelance agreement.

Some months ago I decided to stop writing on spec for CiF. I told the editor Georgina Henry that she was welcome to commission me, but I would otherwise decline to provide content for the site. Time is money and I need to make a living. These days I float ideas, and if Georgina likes them I dash off 500–700 words.

As for the rates paid for CiF “blogs”, my attitude is that they get what they pay for: about two hours’ work, which does not facilitate quality control.

My biggest problem with “new media” journalism such as CiF is that while it opens up wealth of creative possibilities, it can also work against good writing, reading and debate. The way in which CiF operates encourages writers to focus on topics that are guaranteed to result in a “lively” and often bad-tempered discussion in the comments.

Sometimes it works, but when it doesn’t the discussion can get very ugly. One well-known blogger of my acquaintance describes CiF as a “moral and political cesspit”.