How is this still a thing? Reader’s Digest curates ‘articles of lasting interest’ for nearly a century

Lila Bell and DeWitt Wallace

Ninety-seven years ago, the first edition of Reader’s Digest hit shelves in the United States on 5 February 1922. Half a decade earlier, founder DeWitt Wallace had discovered the need for a periodical rundown of the best articles magazines could offer while he was convalescing in a French hospital after suffering wounds in WW1. 

When Wallace returned to the United States, he spent the next few years refining and honing his idea, including spending months at the Minneapolis Public Library researching and condensing magazine articles.

Launched during a boom period of print, the idea was originally for the magazine to have 31 stories, one for each day of the month taken from the best publications. Originally Wallace did the cutting himself before he went to publishers and asked for a regular supply of content – the starting point for the periodical’s now-global platform of syndication rights.

His vision was simple, a single resource of articles on a wide variety of subjects, abridged so they could be easily read. While over the next century the product has fluctuated as print rides the changing tide, that vision has remained intact, and Wallace and his wife Lila Bell Wallace remained editors-in-chief of the periodical from the first edition until 1964.

Staying afloat

Australasian group editor Louise Waterson joined Reader’s Digest as an editorial assistant on the English language version of the Asia Reader’s Digest in 1997. In the time since she has risen through the ranks and has become the self-appointed magazine historian, with access to all the New Zealand and Australian editions back catalogue – which are carefully archived in-house.

Throughout its long history, the international editions of Reader’s Digest have been on the front lines of some of the key breakthroughs of the 20th century. From publicising the dangers of reckless driving in the 1930s to being one of the first publications to expose the link between cigarette smoking and cancer – Reader’s Digest has seen it all.

“It’s a little magazine, but it’s done things very calmly to affect change,” Waterson says. “Even before the smoking story, the owner knew people were dying in cars because there were no seatbelts. So they did a big article and survey about death behind the wheel.

“That’s a legacy we’re very conscious of, our role is to inform and entertain in an accurate way.”

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. In 1990, the magazine’s parent company, The Reader’s Digest Association (RDA), became a publicly traded corporation and reported an annual net loss from 2005 to 2010. 

In 2009, RDA filed for bankruptcy protection due largely to a deal three years earlier that saw an investment group led by private-equity firm Ripplewood Holdings agreeing to buy Reader’s Digest in a NZ$4.8 billion deal. The company got back on its feet with lenders exchanging debt for equity, and Ripplewood’s equity investment being extinguished. 

By 2013, RDA again filed for bankruptcy, with the company then being purchased for £1 by venture capitalist Mike Luckwell. In 2017, Australian direct marketing holding company Direct Group acquired the Australian and New Zealand Reader’s Digest business. 

Global sights

Since 1938, when the first international edition was launched in the United Kingdom, Reader’s Digest has continued to enter new markets throughout the world – most recently in China in 2008 (although operations were discontinued in 2012).

From Cuba in 1940 and Austria in 1952, to Russia in 1991 and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2007, Reader’s Digest has pretty well circumnavigated the globe. Despite the ebb and flow of the print world, Reader’s Digest is currently available in 21 languages in 42 countries. 

After WWII, there was an internal push for Reader’s Digest to seek a wider international market. Waterson says part of that was due to the post-war American values.

“America was occupying Japan and other parts of Asia, and they thought Reader’s Digest demonstrated core democratic values. In some places, the magazine has had a tough time shaking that image.”

A New Zealand edition

The post-war era also brought with it a global shortage of paper, which delayed the New Zealand edition’s development. When the Australian edition launched in 1946, its popularity had already been proven due to US troops bringing the magazine in their kits while on leave during WWII.

The first edition: New Zealand Reader’s Digest December 1950.

When the first New Zealand edition finally launched in December 1950, it included a welcome from the Prime Minister at the time, The Rt. Hon Sidney Holland. Holland apologised for the delays customers had previously endured with imported international editions and happily announced the monetary restrictions that had “drastically curtailed its circulation in New Zealand” no longer applied. 

Holland also linked Reader’s Digest to New Zealand’s ‘role’ of protecting neighbouring Pacific nations from forces in opposition to the democratic way of life. Reader’s Digest, Holland wrote, could be “an excellent vehicle to help us all to keep in tune with the great possibilities, as well as the great problems of our times”.

“To fulfil this role her peoples must have constant and easy access to the thoughts of our allies and colleagues in this struggle for the minds of men.”

Holland signed his testimonial with: “I wish the New Zealand edition of The Reader’s Digest all success”.

Sixty-seven years later, the New Zealand Reader’s Digest is still in print – and unlike many of its long-term counterparts which have reduced issue-counts to become economically viable, Reader’s Digest still releases 12 issues a year. 

Waterson is part of the team that runs the New Zealand and Australian editions of the iconically pocket-sized magazine. There has been talk off and on within the team about whether the size should change, but Waterson says the small size has become synonymous with Reader’s Digest.

“During my time, we’ve considered changing the size, but ultimately it has become our unique offering.”

The two editions are separate but similar, with content and stories sometimes overlapping while the Australian edition has 12 extra pages to accommodate the additional ad sales market there.

Louise Waterson

Worldwide network

The Australasian team is part of the international bureau, which has seven editors, including Waterson, at its helm. Waterson’s team can access articles and content in the British, United States and Canadian publications. The international editions account for about 50 percent of the magazine’s trade volume.

Editors commission or purchase articles in their own market, which can then be syndicated by the wider Reader’s Digest network. 

“We come across an enormous amount of articles, and when we publish originals we give global rights so we can syndicate. We pay our writers above market rate because we own it forever.”

Along with original content syndicated throughout the Reader’s Digest network, the publication also sticks to its tradition of abridging articles from other sources that readers might not otherwise get access to.

The model has always been built on “sharing the load”. While some new markets work a treat, as with Russia, others have quickly developed into a total failure. 

“The mainland China edition was a disaster. We now do a traditional Chinese edition for Hong Kong and Taiwan out of the Australia office.”

Commercial model

Advertising is significant for Reader’s Digest, and, unlike other editions, the New Zealand edition has always included advertising. The first issue featured a lot of high-end adverts for airlines and products such as fountain pens. At the time, the magazine was printed mostly in black and white with red accents to highlight drop tabs or for headlines.

By 1952, the New Zealand magazine had a full-colour illustration on the cover, and full bleed front and back. That went on for decades and was complemented by colour advertising in the 1960s and eventually full-colour for editorial in the 1970s. 

Traditionally, the advertising in Reader’s Digest was printed on glossy stock, while editorial was not, and for most of its history advertising was not permitted to break up an editorial piece within the magazine. 

“We were all about reading pleasure. There was an agreement that there would be a 48-page section that was immune to advertising. That has been relaxed in the last two years.”

Lila Bell Wallace was a patron of the arts and for decades she curated the US back cover with artworks, while encouraging international editions to be patrons of their local arts scenes. When Waterson worked for the Asia editions, she received submissions for the coveted spot from artists in Malaysia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

But Waterson says the commercially-driven editor-in-chief in the early 2000s decided to stop the programme in order to make space for ad sales. 

“You have to change to survive. Editorial and advertising are now on the same wavelength and we have to work as a team to produce commercially viable, yet still creative products.”

According to the latest Nielsen Magazine and Newspaper Readership Toplines for Q1 2019, Reader’s Digest has an average monthly readership of 210,000, with a circulation of slightly more than 45,000.

Distinct style

The network’s sophisticated database is the reason why the New Zealand Reader’s Digest is able to publish a ‘classic reads’ edition each year. The classic issue features articles from deep within the publication’s archives, giving light to stories and opinions otherwise lost to the sands of time.

“It reminds our existing readers that the styles and values are still the same. We cover negative and heartbreaking issues, but we do it in a way that can be interesting and hopeful.”

The Reader’s Digest team pride themselves on a consistency of style. The formula for the ‘perfect read’ is fairly simple: all stories open with word pictures and active voice and feature a strong narrative arc – and do without the jargon that can bog down science or health-based news. 

“There’s an economy of words,” Waterson says. “It’s a really economical and fast-paced way of writing.”

Part of Waterson’s role is to find and source local stories that will also interest international audiences, to add to the global bank of interesting articles. While other publications might not see the value in a hyper-local story to a European or North American audience, Waterson says an amazing story will be interesting no matter where you live. 

“In some ways, having too much content based in New Zealand can be boring for our readers. Reader’s Digest is a window to the world.”

New Zealand stories also have a wide appeal to an international audience who want to learn more about travel opportunities in the Southern Hemisphere.

The balance of international and local is part of what makes Reader’s Digest so appealing to its New Zealand audience, who are active with their contributions to the magazine each month. Reader’s Digest staples and the reader submission programme are well populated by New Zealand voices. 

There is a rigorous editing process on all syndicated and condensed articles to ensure they work for the New Zealand audience.

“Whenever we do a scientific or research-based article we localise statistics, otherwise the information is useless to readers. We also fact-check everything in syndicated articles, we’ve very careful about that. 

“We need to the best statistics and the relevant helpline so we can make it a seamless experience for the local reader. Fact-checking is very important. You’ll never see us say ‘cure’ and ‘cancer’ in the same sentence because it’s simply not true.”

The broad appeal of Reader’s Digest is reflected in its readership, which Waterson says is not one-size-fits-all. The magazine is popular among men, and the editorial team is careful not to skew much towards gendered content. It is also popular with families as young readers tend to enjoy the quirky sections and joke pages, Waterson says. 

“Tempting pieces of titbits and laughter have always helped the magazine be read.”

Diversifying product

But if DeWitt Wallace believed people in the early 20th century were overwhelmed by too much information and needed help sifting through the filler, imagine what he would think of our current instant news age. 

In recent years, Reader’s Digest has worked to increase its online audience by utilising its content relationship with Microsoft News to drive page views back to the Reader’s Digest website. The Microsoft audience look for quirky articles, such as those about conspiracy theories and people who believe in ghosts. 

“Mythbusting is huge and we love doing that,” Waterson says. “We’re probably the only magazine that will actually go out there and get those stories.”

Nearly all versions of Reader’s Digest have a long history of utilising direct marketing, and it has always been a subscription-based business. But Waterson says they stopped pushing direct marketing about two years ago. Within its subscription model, Reader’s Digest is careful with its renewable process and tries to incentivise customers to renew rather than tricking them.

“We’re always looking to reinvent ourselves but not forget who we are. We’ve diversified with digital iPad versions, websites and social media. Readers now expect an online version and we’ve been doing that for quite a while now.”

As with most media organisations, Reader’s Digest has also jumped aboard the podcast train, helped by the fact its parent company, Direct Group, also owns shopping television network TVSN giving the team access to sound engineering, talent and recording equipment.

Certainly not a hindrance, having such a long and global history is Reader’s Digest’s greatest asset. It is firmly engrained in the consciousness of generations and repeatedly springs up in pop culture. Its word power section became Homer Simpson’s obsession in a season three episode of The Simpsons:

The Reader’s Digest 1960 report linking cigarettes and cancer featured in the pilot of Mad Men when protagonist Don Draper flips the report on its head for disgruntled client Lucky Strike:

While only the ad sales team for the New Zealand edition is based in Auckland, there is a strong contingent of Kiwis working on the magazine from the Sydney office.

“We’re not in a bubble. Our art director of 10 years was from Hamilton, our finance manager is from Auckland and there’s a lot of local eyes going on to the copy as well.”

Throughout the highs and lows of its long history, as with all print publications Reader’s Digest has had to adjust to the changing times. Along with its iconic small size, another thing that has been part of the Reader’s Digest model since day one is something that will never change: interesting and informative editorial. 

“Even something that has been in the market for so many years has the potential for new readers,” Waterson says. “We know we’re doing wonderful things and upholding our editorial standards.”

About Author

Caitlin Salter is a freelance writer who contributes to various publications at ICG Media.

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