Why Economist readers still write letters to the editor

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From brief witticisms to weighty responses, our readers always have something to say

Image: Bodil Beckman / Nationalmuseum Stockholm

The Economist’s letters page has a long pedigree, stretching back to the first issues in the mid-19th century. We recently trawled through the archive to put a collection of letters together for the “heritage wall” in our new offices and came across correspondence from a host of illustrious names. A few weeks after Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, John Maynard Keynes wrote in the August 29th issue that the position of the British banks was “perfectly sound, and that nothing but a little courage and public spirit is required for them to carry on much as usual”. Milton Friedman took us to task in January 1953 for our “plan for an Atlantic Payments Union…if indeed your vague suggestions deserve to be called a plan”.

In early 1979 Friedrich Hayek, then pushing 80, picked a fight with an 84-year-old former British prime minister on our letters page: “How uninformed does Mr Harold Macmillan wish to appear when he allows himself to be quoted…as having spoken of Darwinism as one of ‘those vague and very, on the whole, unprofitable dreams’?”. More recently we have published letters from Bill Gates, Amartya Sen and Gary Becker. The head of Britain’s intelligence services, “C”, wrote to us in September with his thoughts on the comparison between spy fiction and real-life espionage.

In 2008 Techdirt, a technology-news website, carried a piece titled, “Do people still write letters to the editor?”, arguing that the “concept seems pretty antiquated at this point”. Almost a decade on, however, The Economist receives roughly the same number of letters that we did back then; around 900 letters a month. The Techdirt article pointed to the fact that most letters these days arrive by e-mail, rather than the handwritten or typed-on-paper sort. We still get physical letters, especially from older readers (some of whom have been loyal subscribers for decades), but Techdirt’s assertion that people are less likely to think carefully when shooting off an e-mail doesn’t hold water. Most letters we receive express strong opinions about what we have written (some of our readers have added to our vocabulary of swear words), but most are also heartfelt, and a good portion of them are incredibly erudite.

Readers pick us up on all manner of things, from the use of grammar, to technical points in the science section. Academics, politicians, businesspeople and representatives of NGOs jostle with readers from Yorkshire, Yuma and Yokohama to point out the error of our ways. The most emotive topic just over a decade ago was the Iraq war. We printed one letter from a father whose son was killed in action, lamenting the futility of the war and criticising our previous support for the invasion of the country. In 2009 we ran a lengthy letter from Jean and Barrie Berkley, whose son had been killed in the Lockerbie bombing, demanding a full independent inquiry into the atrocity. This was soon after the release by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who had been convicted in the plot.

A somewhat technical piece on investment vehicles can prompt a full mailbox from those in the industry, including regulators

We get correspondence on all kinds of topics, some of them offbeat. Responses to our low-key tribute to Tom Petty (by using his song titles as crossheads in the United States section) offer a recent example. Our readers are often extremely well informed about the subjects they are writing on, and their views are taken seriously at The Economist. Each letter we receive is passed on to whichever journalist was primarily responsible for writing the article that the letter is responding to, and is often copied to the editor of the section as well. The letters editor chooses which letters to publish after talking to colleagues about what merits consideration.

That pile is then sifted again so that the letters page in any given issue reflects a range of issues, from weighty formal government or company responses to witty sign offs, or “funnies”. The influence of The Economist is often displayed in the letters we get from governments and organisations. A somewhat technical piece on investment vehicles in the finance section, for instance, can prompt a full mailbox from those in the industry, including regulators. This is a different way to measure The Economist’s reach and impact than the metrics we generally use, such as how many print editions are in circulation or how many people see an article on their Facebook feed.

Generally, we prefer letters that are crunchy, that get to the point and take head on an argument that has been made in an article. We don’t tolerate rudeness. Some letters have made some very fine points, only to be thrown onto the scrapheap for signing off with a tirade of abuse. But we do like witticisms pointing out our mistakes. One recent favourite: “I was surprised that your review of a book on puns characterised ovine puns as ‘egg-specially eggs-cruciating’… I rather think of them as ewe-niquely lamb-entable”.

Mark Doyle is Letters editor at The Economist

Why Economist readers still write letters to the editor was originally published in The Economist on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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