Reader's Digest Files for Bankruptcy Protection

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reader's Digest -- the publication that grandmas everywhere used to love -- was the original aggregator, the first blog, the pioneer of short-attention-span reading. How ironic, then, that it has been gnawed nearly to death, like everything else in the old media, by a new media that is doing what the fusty, family-friendly Digest started 87 years ago.

In one of those periodic shocks to nostalgists that seem to come all too often during this recession, Reader's Digest's owner announced Monday that it plans to file for bankruptcy protection within the next 30 days for its U.S. operations. The Digest will continue publication, but as a wounded bird.

Chief executive Mary Berner said she didn't anticipate new layoffs, after a round of job cuts earlier this year. The financial reorganization is primarily designed to reduce the company's debt by about 75 percent.

The proximate cause of trouble was a buyout launched by an outfit with a homey, Reader's Digest-y name (Ripplewood Holdings) in 2007. Ripplewood borrowed the better part of $2.8 billion to cash out the Digest's old shareholders. And you know what happens when you're still carrying $2.2 billion of that debt in 2009, the era of ad-starved, circulation-shrunken periodicals.

Right. You end up as the subject of an article the Digest might have called "I Am Joe's Chapter 11 Reorganization Plan." Bottom line: Ripplewood will be moved aside and the banks will own the Digest.

The larger issue, however, wasn't really the Reader's Digest Association's balance sheet. It was -- the nature of the Digest. Started by DeWitt Wallace and his wife, Lila, in the years after World War I (a boom time for magazine entrepreneurs), the Digest thrived by reprinting the work of others. Well, much of the work of others. The Digest was edited -- "condensed" was the word -- for speed. Its editors might boil down a 5,000-word exegesis on the growing Soviet missile threat to 1,500 words, and pack two dozen or more such featurettes between the pages of a magazine that looked like a dime-store novel.

From the beginning, there was a stock formula to what got into the Digest: something about your health, something about dieting, a real-life adventure story, a short bio of some great man or woman. A little of it was commissioned by the Digest rather than reprinted there. The overall tone was hopeful, uplifting and generally conservative, both socially and politically (the Digest was staunchly, even rabidly, anti-communist during the Cold War years).

If the featurettes proved too daunting, there were even briefer original anecdotes and jokes, submitted by readers. "Humor in Uniform" featured Beetle Baileyesque tales of military life. The other standing departments became iconic: "Quotable Quotes," "Laughter Is the Best Medicine," "Life in These United States" and "All in a Day's Work."

Veteran comedy writer Robert Orben wrote "hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands" of lines that made their way into the Digest every month, he recalls. He became such a regular in the magazine that the editors would regularly invite him to the Digest's offices in Westchester County, N.Y., to speak about humor at an annual luncheon.

An Orben classic, circa 1990, that appeared in the Digest: "To exercise is human. Not to is divine."

"They never ran anything you couldn't tell at a Kiwanis meeting," says Orben, now retired and living in Falls Church. "There's nothing wrong with that. And they always paid" -- typically about $50 a gag -- "when they used something, whether they credited me or not. I was grateful for that. That doesn't happen on the Internet."

The raciest anecdote Orben recalls went something like this: A woman went to a dinner one evening wearing a modestly low-cut dress. Suffering from the sniffles, she hastily shoved some tissues into the bodice of her gown. At the dinner, her nose began to run and she began digging around in her dress for the tissues. As a male dinner companion looked on in fascination, the woman turned distractedly to him and said, "I know there were two of them in there when I came in."

Thing was, you could zip through an entire Digest while, um, digesting. Not for nothing was it often found stacked in a little basket or magazine rack in the upstairs bathroom. It still is, of course, but in far fewer bathrooms than before; the Digest's circulation has fallen from a peak of around 18 million a month to fewer than 6 million.

Orben, who is 83, knows the world is changing, but the bankruptcy of the Digest -- so much a part of, and a promoter of, Americana -- is still something of a shock. "It's like waking up to find out the post office has gone out of business," he says. "Which I guess could happen, too."

Aye. In a world of Googles and HuffPosts, in which everything is ripped and recycled and available in an instant, who's got time to wait a month for "Humor in Uniform"? Who can wait anymore for some good old slow cooking?


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