Reader’s Digest Sending Mixed Signals about Its Editorial Positioning

Reader's DigestPublisher Reader’s Digest Association (RDA) hired CEO Mary Berner in late 2006 and she is now unfolding her new direction for the company and the magazine which gives it its name (although that is supposed to change, according to an early comment by Berner.)  This past week it was announced that the magazine will, in 2010, decrease its circulation to 5.5 million from 8 million and lower its frequency to 10 times a year from 12.  Moreover, it is changing its editorial positioning, but from what to what caused a bit of a fuss between the New York Times and the publisher.  This is how it played out:

New York Times: “For 87 years, Reader’s Digest, that monthly breadbasket of condensed articles, can-do tales and grandmother-approved jokes, has aimed squarely at Middle America.

Now it is aiming a little more to the right.

Mary Berner, CEO

Mary Berner, CEO

After years of trying to broaden the appeal of Reader’s Digest, the publishers are pushing it in a decidedly conservative direction.  It is cutting down on celebrity profiles and ramping up on inspiring spiritual stories.  Out are generic how-to magazine features; in are articles about military life.  ‘It’s traditional, conservative values: I love my family, I love my community, I love my church,’ said Mary Berner, the president and chief executive of Reader’s Digest Association.”

In the same article: “‘What worked was conservative values,’ Ms. Berner said” (in an interview with the paper.)

Also from the same article: “In some ways, the shift is a return to the magazine’s roots.”

Then, a few media columnists and bloggers chirped in.  This is Jeff Bercovici of dailyfinance.com: “[RDA] is hoping to reverse its waning fortunes by narrowing its focus to a particular slice of the national audience: Religious conservatives.”

Reader's DigestReader’s Digest took offense at the New York Times article and wrote a memo to employees by RDA executive Eva Dillon (the president of the Reader’s Digest Community, the division running the magazine and related books and websites) and published by Bercovici.  An excerpt: “To clarify, neither the magazine nor the company is going in any direction other than what we are doing now.  Reader’s Digest has always been about the values of home, family, community, optimism and country, and certainly our values today are more than ever in step with America, especially during these recessionary times as people focus on the ‘back to basics’ of family and home.  What we did with the relaunch and redesign of the magazine and websites was to go back to the roots that made this company great.”

Bercovici said that RDA executives “implied that the [New York Time’s] reporter, Stephanie Clifford, ‘misinterpreted’ what’s going on.  The company also says it’s asking the Times for a correction.”

So dear Reader’s Digest editors, please don’t complain that you receive off-target queries from writers and pitches from PR professionals when your executives try to spin that the magazine’s editorial positioning never changed.

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