On the Arts: Can 26 million Reader's Digest readers be wrong?


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I rarely saw my mother without her Reader's Digest. The two were inseparable. It would be in her purse to pull out in the waiting room at the doctor's office. It was by her bedside and on the table next to her place on the couch in the TV room -- always with the pages she'd read folded back.

I hadn't looked at one for years until last week, when news of the latest bankruptcy filing hit the news. According to Bloomberg, the 91-year-old publisher took the action to shed $465 million in debt as consumers shift to electronic media.

An investor group led by private-equity firm Ripplewood Holdings LLC bought Reader's Digest in 2007 for $1.6 billion. At the time it was $800 million in debt and in 2009 the company filed for bankruptcy for the first time, citing a drop in advertising and the debt.

The average reader these days is in his 50s and has a household income of $50,000 to $60,000 -- one of the "least attractive audiences for advertisers," according to Ball State journalism professor David Sumner in an interview with NPR.

Where do you find Reader's Digest these days? Home improvement, lifestyle or fitness sections of the magazine rack?

In my local grocery store, it's displayed at the checkout lane near Soap Opera Digest, another venerable publication that's surely not long for these times.

Reader's Digest is actually much like I remember it, except for the addition of social media. (If you download it on your iPad, you can get updated jokes, new word power, interactive extras.)

One of its regular columns, Laughter, the Best Medicine, now comes with Tweeter's Digest, which includes a selection of cheesy jokes tweeted from readers: "Why didn't Han Solo enjoy his steak dinner? It was Chewie."

There are household tips: Did you know you could separate egg yokes and egg whites with an empty water bottle? And if you ever wanted to dispense one Tic-Tac at a time, you can learn how here.

It still offers Drama in Real Life: "Terror on the Cliff: All that saved Larry Bishop from a 300-foot drop into a California chasm was his fingertips -- and the will to live."

The stories are separated by lots of pharmaceutical ads aimed at older people, much like Brian Williams' 6:30 p.m. national newscast on NBC.

Reader's Digest has never been highbrow, and it's no doubt disdained by most of the literary crowd. In college I had one of those notorious journalism professors who would read students' stories aloud -- with much sarcasm -- dissecting every word and every phrase to the point that the humiliated student would either flee the classroom in tears or dissolve in a puddle of disgrace. But he could write, and we learned.

He told us how he and his wife visited the home of some new neighbors to welcome them. He walked into the living room, saw a copy of Reader's Digest on the coffee table and walked right out and never spoke to them again.

Still there are stories that have stuck with me. Like the one by a man who visited a friend who had just experienced a death in the family. The man didn't want to offer the hollow "what can I do to help?" So he offered, "Could I polish your shoes for the funeral?" That modest gesture was a huge help for the grieving person. It's a good life lesson.

Mr. Sumner, the Ball State professor, predicts the latest bankruptcy filing marks the end of Reader's Digest.

"It's facing problems from two or three different levels -- from declining readership, advertising, more so than the vast majority of American magazines," he told NPR.

According to the Reader's Digest website, the magazine still is read by 26 million people. And if my mother were still alive, she'd be one of them.

books - lifestyle

Virginia Linn: vlinn@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1662.


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