‘The Economist’ makes room for social media

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In an experiment that may pique the interest of b-to-b media companies, The Economist, the venerable newsweekly that dates back to 1843, last month started to publish letters to the editor in the form of a blog. While the publication typically runs six to 10 letters in print, it is running online all the letters it receives, except those that are "patently offensive," said John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist.

Micklethwait said the reason for embracing social media is twofold: to give The Economist's editors a broader sample of what readers are thinking and to get a better grasp of the entire panoply of what is happening on the global stage.

"We went into blogging a bit nervously," he said. "But what impressed us quite quickly was that the standards [among people posting comments] were very high and gave us a greater comfort level to publish stuff."

Micklethwait stressed that he is more likely to publish comments that take the magazine to task rather than praise it. "We'll give greater prominence to the ones in which we disagree, but but nevertheless will run all letters," he said.

The letters to the editor page includes a comments section for each letter—registration required. This enables the letters to serve as a way to spark conversation.

Registration is not required for those who send in letters in response to articles in The Economist, which do not carry bylines.

"Not having bylined articles is an inherent conflict with blogs because blogs are human," said Jeff Jarvis, who blogs on and is an associate professor at City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism.

Jarvis said The Economist has the right idea but the wrong execution. "The good news is they're exposing all of their letters," he said. "The bad news is there's still essentially a one-way conversation, and that's not enough."

He added: "They need to open it up to a wider discussion. The Economist has a very wise crowd, and the challenge is how can [the magazine] enable the audience to share ideas among themselves." One way of expanding the conversation is to run reader forums with links to bloggers, he said.

In addition to morphing the letters to the editor into a form of social media, The Economist has rolled out two traditional blogs to which its reporters contribute: "Democracy in America," which focuses on U.S. politics, and Free Exchange, which covers economics. Each has a section in which readers can respond.

"The printed form every week never feels like it's enough," Micklethwait said. "Once you accept the fact that the Web is different from print, and that the needs are different from print, it allows you to do things differently."

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