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Setting straight the “paper of record”: Reader’s Digest Northrop tells Husni RD has not changed its editorial direction

July 2, 2009

In my blog yesterday I wrote about the “more conservative” Reader’s Digest. I and many others in the media world based our comments on an article that appeared in The New York Times. Well, I guess we assumed that “the paper of record” had their facts checked and checked again. In a phone conversation with the folks at Reader’s Digest, followed by a written response from the magazine’s editor in chief Peggy Northrop, we learn a different set of facts. For the record here is Ms. Northrop e mail letter to me regarding The New York Times’ story and the future direction of Reader’s Digest.

Peggy Northrop, RD eicAs editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest since November, 2007, I am happy to clear up the confusion generated by the New York Times article, which has been picked up, quoted, and spun out into the far reaches of the blogosphere. To be perfectly clear, Reader’s Digest has not changed its editorial direction to a more conservative approach. What we have done over the last year is modernize our look, sharpen our voice, and add new sections that hark back to our roots as a ‘digester’ of valuable content—all while maintaining our focus on the “hometown” values that our millions of readers share.

The Times’s characterization that “the publishers are pushing [Reader’s Digest] in a decidedly conservative direction” is both misleading and puzzling, considering the pains we took to describe what’s we’re up to. Our real push is strategic: We are now creating a host of new products that will be available on multiple media platforms under the “Reader’s Digest Version” banner, taking advantage of our historic reputation for delivering concise, authoritative information to a mass readership.

The misleading impression was only compounded by the podcast interview with reporter Stephanie Clifford that accompanied the Times story online. In it she described us as “choosing sides in the culture war, and that side is to the right.” Certainly, our readers value community service, family and, often, some form of faith. But the “culture wars” and the divisive political posturing evoked by that phrase do not interest our readers in the least. I know this from extensive reader research, and I shared a summary of it with Ms. Clifford. There is an interesting story in how regular folks define their values and their needs; unfortunately the Times chose not to tell it.

A glance at a recent Reader’s Digest table of contents would reveal that while yes, we do cover aspects of military life (from stay-at-home dads dealing with the long deployments of their wives, to mothers caring for their severely injured sons), we also continue to cover healthcare, jobs, the environment, finance, and other topics that don’t fall onto any particular spot on the conservative-liberal values continuum. I would wholeheartedly agree with the author on one point she made about our magazine’s transformation in the past year: “Out are generic how-to magazine features.” Indeed, the American Society of Magazine Editors recognized Reader’s Digest with a National Magazine Award for General Excellence this year—a first for us, and a fact that was omitted from the story.

I can’t really blame the Times for the blogospheres’ reaction to the report, which has ranged from The National Review online welcoming us back into the fold while questioning our conservative bonafides, to the examiner.com headline “Reader’s Digest Takes Aim at Obama, Shoots Self in Foot.” I would urge readers who are curious about our magazine’s strategy—and who wonder about what truly appeals to a mass audience—to look past the chattering classes’ fixations and pick up a copy of the new Reader’s Digest for themselves.

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