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Saving Reader’s Digest… (and RD’s Jackie Leo’s response)

July 11, 2007

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I know what people say about free advice, but while recovering from sinus surgery the news about the two million cut in circulation at Reader’s Digest and the plan to sell the back cover of the magazine to advertisers sent me back to the early years of Reader’s Digest and to the prototype issue and first issue of the magazine. I do not know whether it is the hospital connection that brought to mind the link with Reader’s Digest beginnings (DeWitt Wallace conceived RD on his hospital bed in France) or the recent news, but in any case I went to my magazine collection and pulled out the prototype issue and first issue of RD from Jan. 1920 and Feb. 1922 and guess what? I found the cure for all the ills of Reader’s Digest today. DeWitt Wallace referred to RD in his prototype issue as the “Pocket University” which “will enable you to keep yourself educated in the truest sense; it will yield immeasurable satisfaction in giving you a sense of being well-informed and well-read.” Wallace’s plan for the magazine was to be “of 100% Educational Interest– no fiction, no advertisements, no articles on purely transient topics and no articles of limited or specialized appeal.” His wife Lila defined the nature of such articles in the introduction to the first issue. She described the articles in RD as such: “Each article of enduring value and interest — today, next month, or a year hence; such articles as one talks about and wishes to remember.” Elsewhere in that first issue the editors wrote, “No articles of purely momentary interest — every article a worth while one, worthy of a permanent place in the storehouse of the mind.”
It is amazing as I flip through the pages of Reader’s Digest today I can’t but ask, Is there anything left from the magazine concept that the Wallaces created? Is any of the articles “worthy of a permanent place” in the reader’s mind? To save Reader’s Digest one only needs to go back and read those two issues from the 20s… the concept is still applicable today as it was then… The problem is not with the circulation or the advertising. Reader’s Digest problem is in its content. Be true to that mission statement of the past and bring back that “Pocket University” and you may see the cure of most of the ills of the magazine. John Travolta and the cures of back pain will not do it. Almost all the articles in the July issue of the magazine are of “purely momentary interest.” Once more it is the problem with the content and not the medium. I hope someone is reading, because I know the Wallaces are turning in their graves as they see what happened to their beloved magazine. It is not too late to save “The one magazine that is preeminently worth keeping– and binding– for future reference and enjoyment.” So says the words of the founders in their prototype issue. They are worth repeating.

Jackie Leo, Reader’s Digest editor-in-chief, responded to my blog with the following e-mail (I have asked Ms. Leo’s permission to publish the e-mail since it is my policy not to publish any e-mails sent to me unless I receive permission from the sender)… What follows is Ms. Leo’s response to the blog:

Samir: For someone as enlightened as yourself to publish such a naïve and inaccurate blog about RD was really stunning. We’ve known one another for a long time, and I can assure you that this rate base cut has everything to do with magazine economics and nothing to do with the magazine’s content (I challenge you to name another publication that has 8 million paid subscribers). I also wonder why you think the Digest didn’t cover the same subjects we now cover. They did–the only difference was that they condensed other magazine’s writings in most cases instead of creating original pieces, which is what we do now, for very obvious and good reasons.

You also seem to forget that the Wallace’s drove their extraordinary circulation through the use of the famous Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes, a practice that is no longer followed.

Had the Wallace’s lived to see the explosion of television channels, the Internet, the rise of Google, the speed with which information and ideas travel, they would have had two choices: Reflect the cultural shifts in the society by evolving the magazine and staying in the center of the mass market, or, reduce the circulation to that of, say, The Virginia Quarterly and hope that people would still want to read it.

One more point: if you don’t think that an outstanding medical breakthrough report on the causes of and the solutions to back pain does not have enduring value, then you’ve never bent over to pick up your i-phone and felt the unbearable agony that millions of Americans suffer every day.
If you’d like more information about RD, please call me.

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10 comments

  1. I’m curious. Did the editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest really write “Wallace’s,” with an apostrophe, in that e-mail? Twice?


  2. What a pathetic response from a (Reader’s Digest!) person who can’t get punctuation right. No wonder they’re deep in it.


  3. Incredible, and supposedly the chief editor too. Year after year their business collapses and their response is to serve up more trivial rubbish and blame lack of sweepstakes.


  4. Dear Jackie Leo,
    I have a fantastic story which is both inspiring and motivating. I had my book published by IUNIVERSE.Itis called “I Do It The S.A.F.E. Way.”safe standing for support, attitude, faith, and exercise. It is howi stay ahead of Parkinson’s disease. Endorsed by two doctors and two priests it is a powerful short book easy to read and easy to understand.,I also am on HemoDialysis awaiting a transplant. I aalso have MERSA. But i am 60 years old and am in better physical condition than most people half my age. I have much more to say. On September 6 orland park and Homer Glen will feature me and my book in the front pages. Nothing can brinng me down. I know how to keep Parkinson’s disease from progressing. My book tells it all. My telephone number is 708-301-3030

    address: 14317 S.Pebble Creek Dr. Homer Glen Illinois 60491


  5. I would like to put my story in readers digest. It will inspire and motivate milions. I am now awaiting a kidney transplant. I had 23 operations and procedures for fistulas, catheters, angiograms, and angioplasties. I was hospitalized 5 times with mrsa of the blood since February. The last time it almost killed me.


  6. well, hi there. i am now a retired librarian and still active. where are u now? ebba (currently no e-mail) tel # 3217231590 (no abns machine) keeping a low profile.v ebba


  7. I just wrote an article on RD and got to this post through the related posts feature (finally, the one time, wordpress was able to find a good related post!).

    I guess I can understand Jackie’s problem-when you have been steeped on the “inside” for too long, you don’t really understand what is happening overall. Every single step seems to be the “right” step in itself, you often fail to view what you have done to the beloved product as a whole.

    The simple solution? Just ask, just ask the readers if they really truly like what has changed over the years. I remember reading somewhere that RD had a huge readers’ poll on whether or not to start advertising. Now would be a good time to do a poll!

    I guess the circulation numbers are themselves crying the story out loud, but they don’t want to listen. Now that they are bankrupt, I do hope they do some soul searching at last.


  8. Outstanding new seven book on the block by former Reader’s Digest Editor-in-Chief

    Number seven has fascinated me for years. As a fellow author and septaphile, I am delighted about the publication of “7, the Number for Happiness, Love and Success,” by Jackie Leo. I may be one of the first seven people in the world to comment publicly about Leo’s seven book which is an intriguing and thought-provoking literary exploration of the wondrous world of seven.

    I applaud Leo and her publisher TWELVE for recognizing the cultural, mystical and scientific influence of the number 7, as I did in my book “7: The Magical, Amazing and Popular Number Seven,” which Aventine Press published this past March. http://www.theSevenBook.com . I was in touch with Jackie Leo a couple days ago for the first time and her kind words of praise about my 7 book mean a lot to me. The feeling is mutual x7 for me. It’s a pleasure to be her new 7 friend.

    Here are my seven favorite things about Jackie Leo’s collection of sevens: 1. “Seven Siblings” story about Kristin van Ogtrop’s (editor of Real Simple) father as one of seven children 2. Striking book cover with a royal gold image of my favorite number seven 3. Feast of the Seven Fishes celebrated in Southern Italy 4. “Odds on Seven” piece about dice rolls 5. Walter Anderson’s “Seven Steps to Self-Fulfillment” 6. Delightful “Counting on Seven” piece by Washington Post writer Sally Quinn 7. “Seven on Seinfeld”-a 7 factoid which I also enjoyed including in my book about seven which describes Seinfeld’s “The Seven” episode #123.

    I wish Jackie Leo huge success with the launch of her book on 7 December. I regard our two books as complementary because they each document and validate the significance of the number seven throughout recorded history. If you’re a septaphile-a fan of the popular number seven-no book collection about the number 7 would be complete without buying both “7” by David Eastis ( thesevenbook.com ) and “Seven” by Jackie Leo ( http://www.seventhebook.com/ ).

    Seven cheers to Jackie Leo from David Eastis, author of “7”-“7:The Magical, Amazing and Popular Number Seven” published by Aventine Press in March 2009.


  9. A Digest reader and watcher for decades, I happened to see this old blog today while searching for an image of the first issue of Reader’s Digest. I’ve said pretty much the same things as the writer. Actually, what happened at RD in the late 1990s led to all the problems by 2007. Until then there was a continuity of longtime editors, and editors-in-chief, who could trace their lineage back to the Wallaces directly or indirectly. But RDA management slowly forgot the value of good editors and the need to retain those trained for years at RD, where editorial practices can be quite different from anywhere else. After 1998, RDA got rid of their very best (based on a formula that factored in years of service) editors, since they were there the longest and possible paid the most. The newer editors were often trained in celebrity magazines and the like, and could never understand what the Digest stood for, Leo, dangerously, being one of them. Only months after this blog in 2007, Leo was replaced. But, looking back, the harm she did to Reader’s Digest and its content, albeit with the best of intentions, could never be healed. And hindsight is usually 20-20.


  10. In 15 years of using the internet I have only replied to a blog post once or twice, this time being one of them. Something struck a chord with me here. Around 1985, as a five-year old with pretty good reading skills, I began to read my grandfather’s old issues of RD and it was such a formative experience for me. I was so eager to read the stories of adventure, heroism, and inspiration, and learned so much useful information (even as a grade-schooler!). I loved RD.

    I picked one up about 15 or 20 years later (as a then-journalism major in college) sometime in the early 2000’s, and I was really disappointed. It seemed to have lost all its magic and its purity… just catering to its audience, I suppose. It didn’t stand out to me among the other rag mags, sorry to say; it was just catchy headline after catchy headline; nothing too substantial or “worthy of a permanent place” which my grandfather’s had been, and which I then had the good fortune of picking up with my tiny fingers….

    Anyway, I am introducing an older friend of mine, a lifetime non-reader of any sort of writing, to RD and wanted to give him an intro; I am glad I found this blog post. Also I am happy to have read on another site that RD has begun to lean on a more conservative slant; I think that’s what made me fall in love with RD in the first place as a child. It wasn’t all fluff. I hope my hopefully renewed relationship with RD, and my attempt at getting a non-reader to read, lasts!



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