The Atlantic published its first letter from a reader in 1877—that’s 141 years ago, and 20 years after the magazine was founded. It was about the sculptor William Wetmore Story and the busts he created of Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. Regarding Keats’s sculpture, the anonymous author wrote:
[Mr. Story] has made a singularly interesting and striking bust; the head, turned slightly towards the right shoulder, gives a three quarter view of the face to one standing directly before it; it is idealized just in that degree which one desires for a living memory, not for the likeness of a living person. All the details, the loose coat and open collar, are managed with judgment, skill, and a very agreeable absence of elaboration.
The letter appeared in the January 1877 Atlantic Monthly, under the rubric of “The Contributors’ Club,” the magazine’s first iteration of a letters-to-the-editor page. The section welcomed responses to articles, as well as any new ideas and facts that were “worthy [of] the reader’s consideration”—like Story’s busts, for instance. The editors explained:
In the 14 decades since, The Atlantic has culled letters from stuffed mailboxes and overcrowded inboxes to publish in the magazine and, more recently, online. Like the rest of the publication, the section now known as “The Conversation” has evolved to reflect shifts in aesthetics, technology, and culture. We set out to track that evolution: What do the changes in reader correspondence tell us about history—the magazine’s and our world’s?
Under the guidance of then–editor in chief Edward Weeks, “The Contributors’ Club” was eliminated in 1942 and replaced with “Atlantic Repartee.” Rather than survey any topic, published letters were strictly replies and counterarguments to Atlantic articles, placed near the back of each issue. It was the height of World War II, and Weeks explained that “the magazine ends with that give-and-take which is very characteristic of democracy.”
1942: Atlantic Repartee
The section relocated to the front of the issue the following March, and to this day remains there. The style and branding, however, continue to morph. In 1967, “Atlantic Repartee” became “Letters”:
1968: The Mail
1981: Letters to the Editor
Then came the World Wide Web. In November 1993, The Atlantic was one of the first print publications to debut on America Online (AOL), before launching its own website, “The Atlantic Monthly on the Web,” in 1995. Cullen Murphy, who served as The Atlantic’s managing editor from 1985 to 2006 and is now editor at large, told me that at the time, it wasn’t natural for writers and readers to be online; however, staff members were “intrepid and curious” about the possibilities of the internet, if careful not to cheapen the brand. The site was subject to changes right off the bat: It relaunched in 1996, and again in 1997, when it became known as “Atlantic Unbound.” At the helm of this exploration was Wen Stephenson, who held the title of editorial director of new media from 1996 to 2001, and was responsible for creating this original online journal as a complement to the print publication. He explained in a 1998 interview that the greatest challenge in this uncharted territory was “steering a steady course” given the ever-changing medium: “The temptation is to jump at every opportunity to do something new—to be at the cutting edge.” As for hearing from readers, feedback in the digital age came in many forms.
Stephenson wrote in an editors’ note that the website was “an offspring of the magazine, an experimental—but far from tentative—venture into a new medium,” and invited readers “to become participants in [the new media] project.” The Atlantic’s interactive message-board forum, Post & Riposte, encouraged just that. Free and open to all, it allowed registered users and staff members to create discussion threads in response to print pieces, on everything from arts and culture to politics and society. While there were “moments of connection between readers—and, occasionally, between readers and authors,” Stephenson noted at the time, engagement was “rarely what you’d hope it to be be.”
The novelty of conversing in real time, while simultaneously being able to hide your identity behind pseudonyms, allowed commenters to write candidly without consequence. In the early stages of Post & Riposte, it was unclear how much editorial responsibility the magazine should assume in order to maintain its character. “You didn’t want to be the one [publication] that was asserting censorship,” Stephenson told me recently. While many threads were thoughtful and substantive, Sage Stossel, a longtime Atlantic web editor, and the site’s executive editor from 2005 to 2008, told me that it took work to keep this forum from devolving into “a cesspool of flame wars and offensive commentary.” She, along with a few others, patrolled the site for bad behavior, issuing warnings and occasionally banning problem users. “We learned to avoid even starting threads on certain provocative topics, and to patrol some extra carefully,” she said. (A commenting policy was eventually put in place in 2002, a year after the site’s name was formally changed to TheAtlantic.com.) As the veteran Atlantic writer—and frequent reader correspondent—James Fallows put it, “The late ’90s to the early 2000s was the Wild, Wild West era.”
2001: Letters to the Editor
In 2007, the editors introduced a blogging platform to TheAtlantic.com. Starting with Andrew Sullivan, the well-known blogger behind The Daily Dish, the platform soon grew to include personalities such as James Fallows, Megan McArdle, Jeffrey Goldberg, and (later) Ta-Nehisi Coates, who posted freely on subjects that were important to them. During a time when the site’s staff was quite small, blogging allowed for thoughtful, timely content from writers who held a range of views. To many of the site’s early fans, Coates’s blog epitomized the golden age of comments, attracting thousands of loyal followers. The tight-knit community dedicated to scrupulous and thought-provoking rhetoric called themselves “The Horde,” and Coates “The Khan.” One regular “Horder” was a doctoral student named Yoni Appelbaum (known then as “Cynic.”) Today, Appelbaum is The Atlantic’s ideas editor. His Atlantic origin story is well known inside the newsroom: After years of writing on Coates’s blog, he was recruited to become a correspondent.
2011: The Conversation
By June 2011, platforms such as Twitter, WordPress, and Tumblr had taken off as new arenas for public discourse. In an attempt to “more fully express the widening range of reaction to [The Atlantic’s] work,” James Bennet, then the Atlantic’s editor, decided to alter the printed letters-to-the-editor section once again; feedback could now include criticism, praise, and narrative from web, radio, and television. This expansive approach, which we still use today, led to the section’s rebranding as “The Conversation.”
Finally, at the beginning of this year, The Atlantic introduced a new forum for online Letters. Now editors give readers the same prominence that the magazine’s writers get, with each curated collection of responses published as a formal post, accompanied by artwork, and no longer relegated to a bottom-of-the-page comments section.
“Dear Editor …” is a time-honored address in journalism. Although this type of formality comes more rarely now, its sentiment represents the backbone of any publication: the readers. At their best, it’s their words that amplify ours.
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