Dear readers

How The Economist is using Medium to foster debate

Bo Franklin
Feb 21, 2018 · 3 min read
Jeff Eaton via Flickr

As our letters editor, Mark Doyle, pointed out recently, The Economist’s readers still love to write to us. So why do we not write letters to them? Over the past few months we have been doing so, sending them straight to the inboxes of our subscribers on Medium.

For us, Medium has always been a venue for experimentation. With the option to send Letters (the format is upper-case on Medium), the platform has proven an ideal place to connect with a receptive and communicative audience. We already offer a glimpse behind the scenes of the publication, with our “Inside The Economist” and “Correspondents’ Notebooks” strands. We also appeal directly to readers, with writers seeking experiences, questions and information that they can feed into their reporting.

In our experience readers crave more interaction, though. The Economist’s Facebook group that focuses on American democracy has revealed an appetite for debate based on the principles for which our paper is known: rational argument, statistics and analysis. When we considered how to bring this approach to Medium, The Economist’s leader articles seemed an obvious place to begin.

Every issue of The Economist contains a series of editorials, our definitive and often prescriptive take on a current topic. The Economist’s readers are not the type to accept all of our coverage without question, however. They are just as invested in the severe contest as our writers.

In October 2017 we sent our first Medium Letter. On top of updating readers with what we are publishing on Medium, we asked recipients “What do you think?” about one of that week’s leader articles, on Amazon’s increasing dominance in consumers’ lives. The Letter summarised the arguments of our editorial, offered analysis and posed challenging questions, such as “Will our solution of improved regulation and stronger antitrust rules help to curb the dominance of major online retailers?” We kept the style conversational, and in subsequent Letters we have included a selection of readers’ responses to the previous topic, closing the feedback loop between us and our audience.

Two readers’ responses to our Letter on social media’s effect on democracy

The response has been positive, if not overwhelming. Our first letter was opened by 16% of the 30,000 people who received it. Of these, 21 chose to respond. This isn’t a particularly high response rate, but the thoughtfulness and reason of the comments was substantially greater than we’re used to seeing on other platforms, and more akin to the traditional letters The Economist receives. Readers did not always agree with our assessment, but they took the time to consider the subject, and in many cases reply with their own experiences and knowledge of the subject.

Since then we have sent five more letters. The open rate has risen slightly, with our most popular letter to date—concerning the influence of social media companies on democracy—opened by 26% of recipients and generating 35 responses. We’ve explored ways to encourage responses, for example by giving away books from The Economist’s shop to some of our favourites, but ultimately we hope that readers will feel compelled to reply simply to add to the debate around a topic. Our findings are feeding into work on redeveloping our official newsletters.

Is Medium a perfect forum for debate? No. The fact that readers’ responses exist as separate posts does not encourage a back-and-forth dialogue, and like many comment systems, there is a risk of valuable contributions languishing unloved “below the line”. Readers’ responses are also split between replies to the Letter itself, and responses to the separate editorial post. But Medium does offer another way to engage with our readers in a forum known for open debate and comment, unconstrained by the brevity of social media platforms. When that puts us in touch with more globally curious readers it is worth writing home about.

Bo Franklin is a Social Media Writer at The Economist.

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