Monday, August 17, 2009

Reader's Digest: Death by Consultants

Reader's Digest plans to
file for US bankruptcy
When I was a kid, the reading fodder at our home consisted chiefly of three things:
  • The Atlanta Journal (the afternoon paper, which had then not yet fully merged with the morning Constitution);
  • The World Book Encyclopedia, which our parents bought as a Christmas gift for us kids when I was 7, and which I had read in nearly its entirety by the time I was 12; and
  • The Reader's Digest.
Most people probably don't remember what a glorious, important, exciting magazine Reader's Digest used to be. When I was 8, 9, 10 years old, Reader's Digest would have articles about the Vietnam War, great "true crime" stories, historical features, profiles of major newsmakers and entertainers, jokes, cartoons, recipes -- just everything you could imagine.

The basic idea was that each month's issue would include 30 articles -- an article a day, a diet of literacy for the ordinary person who couldn't subscribe to dozens of magazines, but who, via Reader's Digest, could keep himself informed, enlightened and, yes, entertained.

There was a true variety of content and, in my role a top Hayekian public intellectual, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Reader's Digest famously helped make The Road to Serfdom a nationwide bestseller by publishing a condensed version that went through several printings in its own right.

Just the most wonderful thing you could imagine for a kid to have in the house back in the day. There was no cable TV or Internet, and many an idle hour was spent poring over those thick little magazines. Mom kept them collected in stacks on the bottom shelves of coffee tables and end tables. Sometimes, scouring around for something to read, I'd go into the stack and read articles from five, six, seven years previous -- just fascinating stuff, really.

What a sad dessicated thing the Reader's Digest had become in recent years, a steep decline for which I blame consultants. The publishing industry -- newspapers, magazines, books -- is plagued with these overpaid "experts" who collect fat fees to give bad advice.

Whatever his advice, the one thing the publishing consultant will never tell an editor this:
"Hey, you've got a pretty good [magazine/newspaper/book company], so basically, you should just 'dance with the one that brung ya.' Circulation and sales might be a little bit slow lately, but your basic content is pretty good. Maybe you could add more photos or try some snappier cover layouts, or develop a new marketing campaign. But in terms of the basic product you're delivering to your readers, that's great. Focus on maintaining quality and high standards, and you'll be fine."

If you're ever working for a publisher and you get a memo from the executive suite telling you that they've hired a consulting company to "refocus our brand," etc., you should put in your two-week notice immediately. If the folks in the executive suite don't know how to run their own company . . .

UPDATE: Wow, strong reaction in the comments -- welcome Instapundit readers. One commenter questioned the extent of the role of consultants in the decline of Reader's Digest. We don't know the full answer, but one of our commenters who used to work in their D.C. bureau had some interesting observations about their switch to a celeb-focused lightweight approach in recent years.

One of the things I've noticed over the years is that journalists can be divided into two classes: (a) those who spend their time reading publishing-industry trade journals, trying to spot new trends, and (b) good journalists.

In every newsroom there are worthless drones who waste hours of company time sitting in their cubicles reading useless crap like Editor & Publisher or the monthly ASNE newsletter. Keeping up on "industry trends," you see -- a convenient substitute for doing actual work. Is it any wonder that the main "industry trend" is the worst gotterdammerung in publishing since Guttenberg invented moveable type?

UPDATE II: Thanks to the anonymous commenter who found at least one consultant's fingerprints on this story -- which is certainly not to say that this particular consulting firm did anything wrong or that their services are not valuable.

Rather, it merely demonstrates how the hiring of consulting firms so often serves as an indicator-light on the company dashboard, a potential signal of managerial incompetence. If your IT despartment can't do its own system upgrade and your graphics department can't handle a page redesign -- so that your bosses are always hiring outsiders to do such things -- it's not exactly a hallmark of a well-run publishing concern.

But hey, don't believe me. It's not like I have experience with the publishing industry or clueless management . . .


  1. I purchased a subscription two years ago from RD. I was thinking it was the RD that I used to read at my Grandparents back in the 70's, good solid articles, entertaining and informative. I was hoping my kids would pick it up and read it. What a mistake that was. Most of the articles were filled with PC pap and liberal crap. I stopped reading it after the eight one was delivered in the mail and subsequently let the subscription expire.

  2. RD has definitely taken a nose dive. My grandmother used to gift a subscription to me now and then. I haven't been ab;e to stand that what passes for RD now for quite some time. It has changed drastically.

  3. Yep, I was raised on RD also. I recently was at the Public Library and found boxes and boxes of RD all the way back to 1966.

    I bought the six boxes full. They now are being read by my grand daughters and the one remaining grand son I have still in the states.

    My two other grand sons are currently serving in our Military.

    Papa Ray
    West Texas

  4. The bulk of what I learned as a child came from the World Book Encyclopedia. It's amazing how useless school is for anyone with an IQ about about 105.

  5. SteveBrooklineMAMon Aug 17, 04:58:00 PM

    Your words of wisdom about giving notice when consultants are brought in surely extend beyond the publishing biz! It might apply to the whole of "management consulting." The idea here is that a handful of kids fresh out of college, with no business experience and no experience in your field, visit your firm for a couple of weeks and tell you how to run it. Why not just make a PA announcement instead: "Attention all hands.. Abandon ship!! Abandon ship!!"

  6. I can be nostalgic about Readers Digest now, but when I was a kid, I thought it was manufactured for retirement homes, and no trip to the doctors office was complete without a skim through some ragtag dog-earred RD and Highlights magazine. But as you write about it, I feel bad that I had branded it early in life as something stodgey and elderly, instead of, as you wrote so well:
    "Reader's Digest would have articles about the Vietnam War, great "true crime" stories, historical features, profiles of major newsmakers and entertainers, jokes, cartoons, recipes -- just everything you could imagine."

    I also agree with what you said about consultants.
    No single class of humankind has wreaked more disaster upon the hapless and ignorant then have MBA's. These are people who are suppposed to know everything, the fixers who come in with great big ideas. The "throw it at the wall and see if it sticks" type people.
    And you can believe this, when your company hires an MBA to come in to be the fixer; quit your job fast, cash in your pension and never look back. You won't have any regrets

  7. Sometimes McCain you scare me. I had the same reading list plus The American Legion magazine.

    I think the best accolade the RD every received was from an enemy"

    "Imagine, if you will, someone who read only Reader's Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?"

    Susan Sontag

  8. Minor quibble: It isn't "Death by Consultants", it's Suicide by Consultants.


  9. The February 2002 issue of the dead tree National Review had an excellent article on this very thing called "InDigestible: The Decline of a Great Magazine". I was only 17 at the time, but as our house had subscribed to the Digest since childhood I had already noticed the precipitous decline. Sad to see that the decline has finally ended with the inevetible crash.

  10. I too was brought up on World Book Encyclopedias and Reader's Digest. It is sad what's happened to the magazine.

  11. I used to be a staff writer for RD, back in the late 80s-early 90s. Then, it had a first-rate Washington bureau of journalists, and it boasted a "brand" of hard-hitting conservative investigative reporting, to which I was a proud contributor. Then, during the decade after I left, the company went public, imported bean-counters and consultants, and completely undermined its identity and "position" in the marketplace. These geniuses turned it into just another vacuous, celeb-oriented supermarket rag. What a betrayal of a great legacy.

  12. RD was a strongly conservative publication until Ryder and Shrier took over around 1999. The magazine took a hard left turn and replaced its traditional values with typical MSM bias.

    Gee, what could possibly go wrong with that?

  13. I Am Joe's Failed Editorial Policy.

  14. For a humorous look at fighting back at consultants, see James Thurber's short story "The Catbird's Seat" (I think it was called)

  15. "Gee, what could possibly go wrong with that?"

    Hopefully, they lost all their money making that mistake.

    [Yes, I apologize for the bad grammar.]

    Also, I had completely forgotten about the "I Am Joe's [Whatever]" series. Thanks for bringing a smile to my face.

  16. While my grandmother subscribed to RD back in the '50s, it made the rest of the family found it decidedly uncomfortable. We did get the New Yorker, which was a bit recherche, and the National Geographic (my grandfather had them back to the 1920's.... a real treasure trove along with Life from the mid-30s, especially the WWII years), and my grandfather got various wine and academic journals. My school years were made bearable by an ancient set of the Encyclpaedia Britannica that I read under the lid to my desk instead of paying attention to uninspiring teachers. A friend of my mother's kept trying to sell her an up-to-date World Book set, but my father thought I was better of with his pre-WWI 11th ed Britannica and a bunch of Britannica Yearbooks.

  17. I worked for several years as an associate with a big marine equipment company. They brought in a consulting firm that came up with this extravagant marketing and sales program that emphasized selling rather than service. It cost the company millions. I've noted that the catalog is now much thinner and quite a few stores have closed or suffered personnel cutbacks.

  18. Back in the '50s it seemed that all the cousins were collecting at Grandma's after school. She bought us a set of World Book Encyclopedias; they got a good workout over the years. Shortly before she died she told me she felt it was the best money she ever spent.

    I bought my son a set when he was 7 in 1982. I was cleaning out a storage room last year and ran across them; it was bittersweet to realize how old fashioned they seemed. I gave them to a neighbor who has a 3 yr old son. She felt they could be useful despite being supplanted by the internet.

  19. Hey, me too! As a youngster the best way to end a day was to climb into bed with a volume of the World Book and read about all kinds of stuff for the first time. My reading of the Readers Digest was at my Grandparents house where they had several years worth in the basement. A couple hot dogs, a coke and a stack of old RDs. Many well spent hours. RD is a lefty joke nowadays. In the last election I saw where they rated the candiates for intelligence. Guess who were the smartest, yup, the two that have never done anything inthe real world at all, Obama & Hillary. Romney who made a small fortune huge, reorganized olympics, more impressive than either one academically, of course was a full grade lower than the nothing burger twins.

  20. You read encyclopedias, too? My family thought this was very strange ...

    I noticed the hard-left turn in 1999. I'd attribute the implosion of RD to that rather than to consultants. Though I'm sure consultants didn't help. They almost never do.

  21. My mother subscribed to RD and it was one of my favorite magazines as a child. Loved the features and stories like "Humor in Uniform" and the vocabulary quizzes. Hadn't read it in years, though.

    I don't think consultants are a bad thing per se. Sometimes it's good to have someone on the outside take a look at things. However, at a company I used to work for, the consultants working on a new billing systems completely ignored the employees who would work day to day on the system. Naturally, the system was a mess, and the company still kept the bad, expensive consultants on. Go figure.

  22. It's sad that the magazines I read as a kid got so emaciated , PC or became left wing house organs. Gone are Scientific American, Popular Science/Mechanics, Reader's Digest and even Mad magazine are just shadows of their former selves.
    Oh well, on to the internet.

  23. Boy, does this post bring back memories. RD and World Book? Yep, that was my childhood reading fare. Every year Dad would buy the "Year in Review" edition for World Book and I'd read it cover to cover.

    When my brother and I got into high school, Dad put out for a full set of Britannica. Those sold for major coin back then - our set was more than $1,200 - that when the average new car cost not much more than twice that and the average price of a house was only four times that. In fact, inflation adjusted those Britannica cost $7,348 in 2008 dollars - a truly major purchase.

    Britannica was not nearly as much fun as WB.

    Every Christmas my wife's dad gives us an RD subscription, among other things. No, it's not the same may I grew up with. I don't have the heart to tell him not to bother. I knew something was going seriously south when, several years ago, they sharply truncated the "Humor in Uniform" section, and that after 9/11.

  24. Um just out of curiosity, it there one shred of evidence anywhere that Reader's Digest ever hired a single consultant? Funny how we've leapt from zero information to a vague suspicion to robust condemnation of an entire industry and everone who has a certain type of graduate degree. Just sayin'.

  25. I was raised on the Encyclopedia Britannica, Reader's Digest and National Geographic. Popular Mechanics and Scientific American as well.

    I've given up on magazines, even those which at one time were arguably worth reading. Now? What's the point of buying what is watered down when it isn't just leftist tripe?

  26. The World Almanac is also a good read. Good stuff! a news synopsis of the previous year, census statistics, birth and death dates of the famous, and a perpetual calendar, among other things.

  27. I've got to defend Poplar Mechanics, I have subscribed to it over a year ago and have found it to be fairly unbiased. Yes, the occassional bias does slip through but they have done some great work on debunking the truthers and have had some great articles on the comparative value of various energy sources.

  28. I was a RD editor for 12 years; left in 1992. For generations, the magazine's impact on Americans' informed loathing of totalitarianism of all stripes was incalculable. I also believe the current American ignorance of totalitarianism of all stripes can be traced to RD's decline.

  29. Epitaph: Here Lies Reader's Digest, another great American institution sacrificed on the altar of liberalism.

  30. To Shaky Barnes: It took me all of about five seconds to find this article on Google. Just sayin'...

    I was in a Sunday School class back in the '80s taught by Ralph Kinney Bennett, who was an Exec Editor for the RD Washington Bureau, I believe. Great stuff taught by a truly brilliant man (and writer). I think he left, or retired from, or maybe even got fired from, RD in the '90s. The song remains the same, Libs -- forfeit the soul and lose the standing. EVERY time. But you all hate God, and so you'll keep making that same mistake. Unbelievable.

  31. Popular Mechanics - it's not what it used to be in the '50s or so, but it's better than it was five years back. There's more info along with the pictures. Ideally, I'd love it if it took a couple of hours to read, instead of the current half-hour or so.

    Popular Science - it's not what it was in the '50s or '60s - but I think they're starting to pull out of their self-imposed emaciated information state. It got REAL thin there for a while - guess they figured that pictures could substitute for articles - but they're expanding the information now.

    Discover magazine: Sigh. Seems to be getting skinnier by the issue.

    Scientific American - I deplore their leftward green agenda over the last three or four years - but the last issue was much less green-oriented.

    Readers' Digest? They need to just go ahead and put it down, put the name on the market and give whoever wants to pick it up their blessing.

    People want VALUE for the dollar - and print magazines seem to forget that until the money crunch hits. Hopefully this will serve as a wakeup call - and RD will go back to publishing SERIOUS stuff that people will want to read.

  32. Another RD childhood here. I recall particularly John Barron's espionage reporting, which spawned a number of bestselling books, including KGB.

    My grandfather subscribed to RD Condensed Books. Four to five books per volume, tautly edited (and bowdlerized of the racy bits, if any). Novels and non-fiction, and I'd never have read many of those books otherwise, because I'd pick up the volume for the one I wanted to read and when I'd burned through it, I'd still have the volume in my hand.

    Later, someone (not sure who) gave me my own subscription to RD Best Loved Books for Young Readers. If you have a reading kid, hunt them down before the CPSC has them all burned.

    Encyclopedia... that too. Ours was Compton's -- World Book was a bit too rich, and Brittanica was right out. My friend had Britannica, which he attempted to lord over me... but he didn't read his. I suppose he wound up somewhere that didn't require much education. Like editing Reader's Digest these days.

  33. Oh, many thanks to the commenter that suggested Thurber's "The Catbird Seat." Quite entertaining. And I'm quite sure I've met Mrs Ulgine Barrows -- I forget whether with Deloitte or McKinsey or Andersen. They all kind of run together, you know.

    Some of my friends are MBAs, but they're not like all the others.

  34. RD used to be solid, but at some point not only did the content change, but the marketing as well. They seemed to target senior citizens like my father with a constant stream of sweepstakes come-ons and "renew your subscription 10 years early" ploys. If you know senior citizens, you know they are convinced they have to order something for their sweepstakes entry to not be thrown away,so he was always ordering useless books he never read. I also notice that on the gift subscription he gave me, the weasels tried to unobtrusively get me to agree to automatic renewal on a number of their mailings. When it finally expires, that's it for me and RD.

  35. I loved Reader's Digest for decades, from early teens to late adulthood, and not least for their Rockwellian cover art. I mourn its sad decline, along with a too large number of other heretofore American publications. If God is good, somewhere, sometime, someone will do a Lileks and archive all of it online.

  36. You can add Parade Magazine to this list. What was a must-read every Sunday morning is now just a bunch of leftie-celebrity bullshit.

  37. RD's First Person series drove me to write my first short story, at the tender age of 8, which was, of course, turned down, but turned down with a typewritten and hand-signed letter from an actual human being. RD, World Book, Popular Science, and NatGeo, were all on the coffee table in my childhood home.

  38. I too grew up reading our old family set of encyclopedias, and my parents subscribed to RD. I remember reading them from cover to cover, especially enjoying (since I was a child) all the assorted humor features. But I also read the condensed book features at the end.
    Their little vocabulary quiz was wonderful (what was the name of that feature, for years? Towards a Greater Word Power, or what?) As a child of high reading ability and large vocabulary, I enjoyed realizing that I knew a lot of those "grown up" words, and I really enjoyed the etymology for each word.

    Today's RD? As I hold it in my hand, the actual article content (seems to pale in comparison to 3 page drug ads.
    The "articles" are more supermarket tabloid (self help, celebs, news lite) than actual condensations of complex, substantial articles.
    The "book" section is a "Book Bonus" section featuring less than a page from 7 different books.
    And the vocabulary quiz (currently titled "Word Power") gave up etymology years ago.
    Goodbye, Reader's Digest. You are a shadow of your former self.

  39. I lost interest in RD about the time they took the table of contents off the front page.

    It was remarkably user friendly to be able to scan the article titles at a glance. But then again, it appealed to "readers". Funny that.

    I remember in the mid '80s, I had a copy on my desk. My extremly liberal coworker scoffed at the "right wing nonsense", then picked it up, skimming it derisively. He then noticed an article protesting Reagan's wire taps, was shocked, and proceeded to steal it from me to read for the rest of the day.

    He apologized for his prejudice after finishing.

  40. The reading list of my youth was pretty much the same as yours, Stacy, except of course for the newspaper.

    Our little local rag mainly represented a chance for me to hone my proofing skills. At one point (I think I was 9 or 10), my mom would give me a dime for every spelling or grammar error I found. That policy came to a screeching halt the day I found eight on the front page.

    Often when I found myself at loose ends, I'd pull a random volume of World Book off the shelf and just start reading.Reader's Digest I consumed front to rear as soon as it arrived each month.

    I also received a subscription to Book Digest as a birthday gift one year. Free to Choose and Soon to be a Major Motion Picture in the same or sequential issues probably constituted the first of my run-ins with the political cognitive dissonance that eventually made me a libertarian.

  41. "hpcc19 said...
    I am Joe's pancreas."

    Doggone it, you beat me to it. I was going to say, "I am Joe's Prostate."

  42. Papa Ray, where in West Texas? Anywhere near San Angelo?

    And yes, Thurber's Catbird Seat is a classic. Read it years ago, but I still remember the line, "I'll be coked to the gills when I bump that old buzzard off."

  43. I am an MBA and a consultant. I will disagree with nothing said in this thread. In fact, I was at a conference earlier this year for MBA school student leadership, and the topic of "building ethical managers" came up. Of course the room full of hot shots immediately suggested requiring "ethics courses", as if such a thing can be taught in a classroom.

    I objected at once, and made two suggestions. First, that grade inflation be ended as a practice at all schools. Second, that cheating and free-riding be rooted out and punished MERCILESSLY in graduate programs. My point was that both practices divorce actions from consequences, and that people learn ethics by and large from having their actions come home to roost, to borrow a phrase.

    You would have thought I suggested a cross-burning.

    - Gabriel Syme

  44. When my parents were married, they were given a lifetime subscription to the then-new magazine. That subscription was honored for over seventy years.

    I still use stuff learned from it. Whenever someone brings up the idea of a Value-Added-Tax I point out that we already have a plethora of them - an article in RD when store-bought bread was $0.22 showed that harvest-to-your-home $0.20 of that price went to various governments in taxes, fees, etc.

  45. Great chapter title from Robert Townsend's "Up the Organization:"

    "Advice to MBA's - I wouldn't hire you, but if I were you, here's what I'd do to overcome my education!"

  46. There's no such thing as "business ethics" — there's only personal ethics applied in business situations.  My fellow MBAs would do well to remember that sometime.

    Garth Wood

  47. Me too, grew up in the 1960s with RD, World Book, and Nat Geo. Also I would not underestimate the subterranean political influence of Robert Heinlein's young adult novels.

  48. I had the 1967 World Book. I loved it... especially the plastic pages where you could overlay the internal systems of the body. The internet, BAH Humbug!

    By the way, no one has made any significant comment about the role of going public and the relentless drive to grow(even if you are already HUGE).

    Also, RD used to have a huge wad of cash... which they blew in a very foolish manner (a very dumb acquisition spree). That couldn't have helped.

  49. I should say readers Digest was really a part of the History ive seen it read by my grandfather until now their Article are really senses and really truly matters...

    I should say readers Digest was really a part of the History ive seen it read by my grandfather until now their Article are really senses and really truly matters...

    Internet Marketing Consultants


  50. Scientific American ... ouch. I loved it as a kid and I still like looking at back issues. It really took a nose dive about the time I was in graduate school.

    For awhile, a few years back, it seemed to be trying to reach for its former greatness again. But that seems to have ended. A death twitch, I guess.

  51. In addition to the mags and encyclopedias mentioned by others, I was also raised on The Book of Knowledge.

    I learned as an adult that The Book of Knowledge was a slightly Americanized vesion of a children's encyclopedia from Britain. That probably explains why, until age 6 or so, I thought that the president reported to the Queen.

  52. When I was a wee tot, Mom was concerned by my consumption of the Reader's Digest. Doc said as long as I ate no more than two pages a day, I'd be fine.
    After I learned to read, it was a different story.

    When I was in the sixth grade I went "on strike" - complete work stoppage. To keep from being completely bored to death, I read the encyclopedias - both sets in the class room - straight through, A to Z. (And the Columbia One Volume Encyclopedia at home.) I've said I skated through the next six years of school on that three month data soak.


  53. Scientific American has had a leftward slant for decades in the sense that any politics in there was leftist. (You may recall their war with SDI, for example.) If anything, their politics has gotten slightly broader.