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A History of <em>The Atlantic</em>’s Reader Correspondence

1942: Atlantic Repartee

The section relocated towards the front of the issue that following March, and to this day remains there. The style and branding, however, continues to morph. In 1967, “Atlantic Repartee” became “Letters”:

1967: Letters

1968: The Mail

1981: Letters to the Editor

1993: Letters

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 – 2006 and is now an 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 – 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 unchartered 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, registered users and staff members could create discussion threads in response to print pieces, and 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 flamewars 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 veteran Atlantic writer—and frequent reader correspondent—James Fallows put it, “the late 90s to the early 2000s was the wild, wild west era.”

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