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Reader's Digest won't look back

After 1,000 issues, you'd think the magazine would be celebrating its history. Actually, it's focusing on what's ahead.

Associated Press
Published July 24, 2005

CHAPPAQUA, N.Y. - If your grandmother claims she's squirreled away every issue of Reader's Digest, there will soon be an easy way to check: Just go up to the attic and count to 1,000.

The 1,000th issue of the 83-year-old minimagazine came out this month, and the occasion is likely to prompt thoughts about the Digest's colorful history and its status as an American symbol.

But the magazine, which celebrated with a party in Manhattan, is studiously looking forward rather than back. The commemorative August issue includes a 95-page section devoted to "the big ideas that will change our lives in the next five to ten years," such as do-it-yourself doctoring, food as medicine and extreme vacations.

"History can be found anywhere these days, books or the Internet or whatever," editor in chief Jacqueline Leo said. "We have to tell people that we are not only of their present but of their future, too, and that we're looking out for them."

The cover proclaims "Special 1000th Issue," but the magazine barely mentions its own history. There's nothing about founder DeWitt Wallace, who priced the first issue in 1922 at 25 cents - it's now $2.99 on the newsstand. His magazine was a quick success, and by 1925 the Pleasantville, N.Y., post office was forced to expand to handle all the mail. The Digest moved to Chappaqua in 1939.

There's "Laughter, the Best Medicine" and "Humor in Uniform," but no mention that Reader's Digest has run more than 100,000 jokes and paid more than $25-million for them.

And there's a table of contents, of course, but no mention that until 1998, all the stories were listed on the cover. For its first three-quarters of a century, you didn't have to open up the magazine to see what was inside.

Soon you won't have to open the magazine at all. Beginning July 26, the entire issue will be available on the Reader's Digest Web site. It's free for now, but Leo said that may become a new way to subscribe. The magazine's small size means it can be seen at actual size on the computer screen, she noted.

"Reader's Digest is going to be available any way the reader wants it," she said. "We find that young people love the size. It fits in their pocket, it fits in their backpack, it fits in their glove compartment."

The Digest, which started as a collection of articles condensed from other sources, is now at least 80 percent original. It still favors gripping adventures and inspiring human interest pieces but has more consumer-oriented stories than in the past.

"We want to own this century like we owned the last one," Leo said. "We want to help our readers deal with it."

Once considered a conservative magazine, "we now present the issues instead of a strong point of view," spokeswoman Ellen Morgenstern said. She said the Digest now stresses "fairness, decency, hope and optimism."

Circulation, once as high as 17.75-million, was purposely trimmed from 11-million to 10-million in 2004 to focus on the magazine's most loyal readers. That's still enough to make the Digest the largest paid magazine in the world.

There is a Spanish-language edition, Selecciones, sold in the United States, plus 48 editions in 19 languages sold in more than 60 other countries.

Publishing director Laura McEwen said readership is 41-million, "and you can't get that even with a Desperate Housewives finale."

Leo said the age of subscribers recently showed "a slight downtick" from 51 to 50.

"It's no longer your grandma's magazine," Leo said. "Or maybe it is, but it's yours, too."

[Last modified July 21, 2005, 09:52:04]

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