This Is Never Going to Work

Today (catching up on reading), I read the New York Times story of how Reader’s Digest is trying to re-invent itself—or stay alive.

A few highlights from the article:

Posters in the corridors of this mostly empty building trumpet something called the FACE plan, an acronym for fast, accountable, candid and engaged. One poster offers simplistic how-tos for running a meeting. (“Ensure that the right people are at the table.”) Another is headed with the words “Vision Statement” and uses lots of empty white space to underscore the point: “We will create the world’s largest multiplatform communities based on branded content.” [my emphasis]

Look at that vision statement again: “We will create the world’s largest multiplatform communities based on branded content.”

What does that really mean to the everyday reader? And what Reader’s Digest employee really cares about that kind of vision?

For a typical editor, it is meaningless, and probably (in private conversation) leads to ridicule among staff.

But more importantly, it begs the question, “Who the hell cares?”

Like many other media companies that own magazines, Reader’s Digest is private-equity owned (like Writer’s Digest’s parent company, F+W Media). There is nothing wrong with that, though it can result in the kinds of changes you now see overtaking Reader’s Digest.

(I have admit, I have a soft spot in my heart for Reader’s Digest only because it’s easily confused with Writer’s Digest—and when I tell people where I work, they often misunderstand me and think “Reader’s Digest.”)

Another excerpt from the NY Times article:

If you hear “Reader’s Digest” and think only of a cheery, waiting-room magazine — the one with the jokes, the lists, and the homespun stories like “Nobody Cares About Grandfather’s Clock but Grandma” — well, Ms. Berner would like to have a word with you.

No amount of visioning or strategizing or Ms. Berner’s arguments will change readers’ minds about Reader’s Digest. Readers determine who and what you are, and it takes time to change perceptions. That much I’ve learned in my time as publisher of Writer’s Digest.

If Reader’s Digest wants to change what it stands for, it’s not going to happen overnight, or because Ms. Berner, through sheer force of will, wants it to. Who cares what awards you’ve won? Or who in the industry respects you? Readers don’t know, don’t care.

Another excerpt:

As Ms. Berner tries to persuade the world to rethink this company, she apparently also needs to re-educate employees. Much of her time and boundless intensity is spent prodding her staff out of its entrenched, slow-motion ways — no easy task, given the eccentric and insular culture of this company, a legacy of the long stewardship of DeWitt and Lila Wallace, the Reader’s Digest founders.

Beyond agitprop, Ms. Berner’s continuing internal campaign has included some let’s-put-on-a-show enthusiasm and some merciless cost-cutting. Lines of authority have also been redrawn, integrating the print and online realms. “Silo busting” is a phrase you hear a lot.

To lead this revolution, Ms. Berner has hired an impressively credentialed group of women to the company’s top jobs, a coterie known around the building collectively as “the blondes.” Strictly speaking, they’re not all blonde, but they have brought high-heel chic to a place that resisted, or actively shunned, that style for a long time.

I would tell Ms. Berner: Maybe instead of re-educating your employees, you should listen to them. They know your readership and potential readership. They probably know what would change the company or brand for the better, and help it survive. But are you asking them? Or do they feel threatened and bitter, and unwilling to help?

Employees are NOT averse to change. Many times employees are the first to suggest change. Most employees work because their job gives them satisfaction, and they take pride in what they do.

Are employees of Reader’s Digest are any different? Of course not. They want the brand to survive as much as anyone else. Are they involved in what transformation needs to take place? Or do outsiders determine direction? Do outsiders know the target audience or community?

My prediction: Reader’s Digest isn’t long for this world. But maybe that’s not something that can be fixed, through any amount of re-envisioning, or cost-cutting, or new leadership. Sometimes, print publications are destined to die, and Reader’s Digest (the magazine) may be one of them.

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0 thoughts on “This Is Never Going to Work

  1. AndyAndersen

    Great post. I used to read every edition of RD until about 5 years ago. I found the writing was very formula, the articles were biased and slanted to a point of view, opposite to my own. Even the jokes weren’t funny anymore. I hope they can re-invent themselves. I also hope they lose the agenda that they seem to have adopted.
    I’ll be watching this with interest.

  2. daylight

    The real problem is not understanding the readership. People pay for _high quality_ writing that educates, informs, and entertains all at once. It doesn’t much matter what the subject is, as long as it includes people and interesting facts.

    So, why don’t they forget about trying to chase some trend that _will surely lead to success_ and think about what they, as readers, would want?

    Probably because the people leading the thing aren’t the true visionaries that _want the product for themselves_, instead they are placed in their positions because they have all the _right credentials_.

    This leads them to run in a circle as they chase the latest readership poll.
    Most readers know what they want, only after they see it.

    As Mark Twain said, "I can teach anybody how to get what they want out of life. The problem is I can’t find anybody who can tell me what they want."

  3. Gina

    I was a fan of Reader’s Digest for years and years. It was chock full of down home goodness and those little jokes and funny stories were always good for a chuckle. It was a light read when I didn’t have time to really think hard about anything. I have never considered it a news type of publication or even one that "ventured out" for that matter. I think that it is also perceived to be an "old person’s" publication, which is evident by the number of pharma ads that are now peppering every other page.

    I actually did not renew my subscription this year because of the pharma ads and the feeling that the magazine did not offer me much except for the occasional joke. If they are really going to save themselves then a transformation is going to have to take place. Even the "retired" generation has evolved past being content with a heartwarming story and a few witty stories.


    P.S. The first thing that they need to do is to hire me to write for them. I would shake that place up !

  4. Jane Friedman

    Thanks for commenting! I agree with the core of what you’re saying here, but I think we see RD’s efforts very differently. I don’t see any community building (based on what I read in NYT article) or active engagement with readership or potential readership. If those things are happening, I applaud the efforts.

    But there’s a lot of talk here that smells of corporate "strategery" and blaming editors who would be in the best position to help steer a transformation.

    Trying to replace Google feels like a fool’s errand — for any publication. Where pubs/media can and should excel is at serving an audience in a distinctive way. And I’d argue it matters very much what RD chooses to stand for. What they USED to stand for, though, certainly can’t survive — it’s been rendered obsolete.

    Maybe RD just hasn’t made the hard decision that feels inevitable: there is no reader demand or audience for what the print mag provides. Or if there is, they need to find out from their loyal following –quick –what continues to make RD special, unique, and worth paying for.

    It doesn’t matter if the old guard presents no competition — because as you say — it’s the companies, online-based — formed in the last decade that are the real competition. Often such companies provide a more valuable service or experience, and/or Perspective, because they better understand their audience.

  5. Bradley Robb

    I think it’s a firm step in the right direction, and it’s a bold opposite towards the current "whoa is me" cries that many publications are giving. Fostering community is one of the smartest ways for any content provider to stay relevant in an age when you’re only as good as your last story.

    That’s the reason why Murdoch is raging against Google with such venom. Google is brand agnostic, and has become the first stop for people seeking information on anything. Reader’s Digest, any publication for that matter, needs to take the steps necessary to replace Google in the minds of their readers for *something*. It doesn’t matter what that something is, but that’s the first step.

    Granted, it’s not easy as just saying "Okay, we’re going from being a content provider to an community and information destination," but saying it as a first step. It’s a much better attitude to have than crossing ones arms, biting a thumb at Google, modifying a robot.txt file and erecting a paywall.

    I really hope that Reader’s Digest has got the fortitude to go through with this, frankly they’re not facing a lot of competition from the rest of the old guard (present company obviously excluded).


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