Monday, August 24, 2009

Tough to Digest

GROWING up in the 1950s, my life revolved around Hopalong Cassidy movies, Superman comic books and Schwinn bikes.

And, believe it or not, the Reader's Digest.

The Digest was a staple in our house, rooted as we were in suburbia and living in the golden era of the Great American Middle Class.

Times were good. There was a roof over our heads, a car in the garage and chicken dinners on Sunday. Just the kind of life the Digest extolled.

Dad wore a suit and tie. Mom wore an apron. They drove us to church every Sunday in a Chevy and voted the straight Republican ticket.

I don't remember going to a lot of movies and TV didn't make an appearance in our home until I was nearly in my teens. But there was always plenty of reading material around. Most of it was rooted in the Reader's Digest.

We received the monthly magazine in the mail for as long as I could remember and there were dozens of Digest-produced condensed books in our home.

I lapped it up even as a young kid. I loved the cornball jokes - Humor in Uniform, Life in These United States - and even read Increase Your Word Power, all recurring features in the magazine. There were true-adventures stories and odd medical features written in the first person from the perspective of a body organ ("I Am Joe's Gall Bladder.")

The condensed books were just right for young men with more energy than attention span. It wasn't until I grew older that I wondered what was left out.

Nonetheless, they introduced me to such titles as "East of Eden," "The Last Hurrah," "The Ugly American" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The Digest was safe-for-the-family reading, claiming a circulation of close to 8 million worldwide and a readership of 38 million. I'm thinking those figures included several million copies in the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists.

And now this:

This past week, Reader's Digest, an American icon for almost 90 years, filed for bankruptcy, a victim of bad management, a precipitous drop in print-on-paper popularity and a disastrous economic decline that has squashed many famous American brands like so many grapes.

The Digest announced it would cut the circulation guarantee it makes to advertisers to 5.5 million and lower its frequency to 10 issues a year from 12. This doesn't mean it will soon disappear. But it may be a matter of prolonging the inevitable. The future of print isn't particularly bright.

According to an article in the New York Times, the Digest, after years of trying to broaden its appeal, is being pushed 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.

That struck me as odd. The Reader's Digest has for most of its history maintained a conservative and anti-Communist perspective on political and social issues. It extolled the virtues of motherhood and apple pie and offered its readers a cozy world view.

Democrats, ethnic minorities, non-Protestants and poor people were about as rare in its pages as Barbra Steisand at a GOP fund-raiser.

In fact, the Digest took issue with the characterization that they were being pushed in a different direction. Instead, they say they are focusing on core values.

The larger question for the Digest, and many more publications, is: where do they go from here?

"Magazines and cable channels are trying to figure out what they can add to the mix if people already have the basic facts from the Internet and elsewhere," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"A lot of them will aspire to do that around ideology, because it's the easiest way, the simplest way, to organize an audience."

Indeed, the Digest plans to introduce a new multifaceted effort produced with Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor, called the Purpose Driven Connection. For about $30, subscribers get a quarterly magazine with religious workbooks, along with DVDs featuring Warren, and membership in a social-networking Web site, including tips on what to pray for each week. It is available through churches and at Wal-Marts.

Now we will see if God Himself can save the Reader's Digest.

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