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Readers Digest: Overview

Overview

This note considers the Readers Digest and Wallaces as a point of reference in considering other media czars such as Hearst, Hersant, Hoiles and Annenberg.


It covers -

  • introduction
  • evolution
  • the group
  • Funk & Wagnalls
  • studies
  • landmarks

Introduction

Reader's Digest has attracted attention, favourable or otherwise, for a visceral anti-communism, enthusiasm for direct marketing (which at one time extended from chocolates to recordings and insurance) and pre-digested bestsellers.

Along with groups such as Primedia and American Media it struggled in its home market as audiences headed towards television (or even the net) and competitors fought back in its more lucrative overseas markets. That struggle was exacerbated by management complacency and increasing debt that resulted in transformation of the publisher from an ongoing memorial to its founders - exponents of a Norman Rockwell American Eden - to just another downmarket commercial publisher.

Funk & Wagnalls

The RD acquired Funk & Wagnalls, Inc (Standard Reference Works Publishing Company) in 1965.

Funk and Wagnalls was founded by Lutheran Isaac Kaufmann Funk (1839-1912) in 1876 as I K Funk & Company, initially publishing the Metropolitan Pulpit and other religious-oriented works. Adam Willis Wagnalls (1843-1924) became a partner in 1877 and the firm was renamed Funk & Wagnalls Company in 1890. In that year it released The Literary Digest, thereafter emphasising mass market dictionaries and encyclopaedias such as The Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1894) and Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia (1912).

Flagging sales and aggressive competition from Crowell in door to door selling of Collier's Encyclopedia saw Funk emphasise 'continuity marketing' of its reference works in supermarkets (ie buy a volume of a low-cost - and increasingly low quality - set with the groceries each week) from 1953 onwards. It was unloaded to Dun & Bradstreet in 1971, with the publication rights being spun off by D&B in 1983 and acquired by K-III Holdings Inc (the precursor of Primedia) in 1990. The content was licensed to Microsoft as the basis for its Encarta product.

Studies

For the Readers Digest - books, pre-digested bestsellers and direct marketing - see James Playsted Wood's self-congratulatory Of Lasting Interest: The Story of the Reader's Digest (Westport: Greeenwood 1975 [orig. 1958]), John Heidenry's soft-focus Theirs Was the Kingdom: Lila & Dewitt Wallace and the Story of the Reader's Digest (New York: Norton 1993) and Peter Canning's American Dreamers: The Wallaces and Reader's Digest: An Insider's Story (New York: Simon & Schuster 1996).

A perspective is provided in The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Durham: Uni of North Carolina Press 1992) by Joan Shelley Rubin.

The most perceptive study is still probably John Bainbridge's Little Wonder; or, The Reader's Digest & How It Grew (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock 1946).

For Encarta and Funk & Wagnalls see Fred Moody's I Sing The Body Electronic (New York: Viking 1995)