Unheard of! Astonishing! Confounded new ideas! Is no tradition safe? The Tories out on their rears in Blighty and here at home they're mucking about with the Reader's Digest? Well, happens to be true.
Strictly by coincidence (our lunch date had been set up weeks earlier), a day after The Wall Street Journal ran an item reporting trouble in paradise, I mean in Pleasantville, I had a meal with Christopher Willcox, editor in chief of Reader's Digest and editorial executive overseeing other magazines and new media in the company's vast stable of enterprises.
And, guess what: Mr. Willcox, as befits a man who works for a magazine as relentlessly cheerful about most things as the Digest, was actually upbeat and full of enthusiasm for the monthly's 75th anniversary to be celebrated this summer in, of all places, the Hamptons, the festivities to be called to order by none other than Jay Leno with assistance from Paula Poundstone. Dates are July 19-20 at the Deep Hollow Ranch and 1,000 guests are expected.
Meanwhile, WSJ was saying of the RD, "The stock is a dog" and reporting "nobody has high hopes that Mr. Schadt's team [James Schadt is the chairman] can revive flagging sales of books, magazines and videos by throwing another $400 million at the problem." For his part Mr. Willcox was talking, and on the record, about better times ahead. Business was off in several areas, he readily conceded (the weakened French and German economies are playing hob with business over there), but as the editor, and not the publisher or advertising maven, he was confident those "lagging sales" could and would be revived.
Take this extraordinary 13th issue of his. And, even more astounding, a 14th. When I asked what founders DeWitt and Lila Wallace would say, Chris reminded me that Mr. Wallace himself had in his day been a considerable pioneer. Mr. Wallace was (he said) the first major American publisher to put out a version of his magazine for an overseas market, not in English, but in the local tongue. It happened during World War II when Wallace authorized a Swedish-language version of the Digest in neutral Sweden so at least the Swedes could know who was winning the war and what was happening outside occupied Europe.
The 13th issue, celebrating 75 years of publishing the Digest, will be a single-themed issue about "The American Dream," with contributions by Steve Forbes, former Sen. Bill Bradley, Amy Tan, George Plimpton and Randy Fitzgerald. It goes on sale July 8 and will stay out there on the newsstands for three months. Subscribers will be given the opportunity to buy it at a favorable price. The 14th issue of the year, a Christmas special, has an on-sale date of Oct. 15.
Chris was quite insistent that "The American Dream" issue would look like no issue ever of the Digest I'd ever seen, and when I raised an eyebrow, he promised to send over a first off the presses copy of the unprecedented cover.
Willcox took over the magazine as senior VP and editor in chief in March of last year after spending much of the five previous years launching new editions in Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and, most recently, Thailand (that's the big boom country in Asia these days, he tells me). There are now 48 editions in 19 languages with a big expansion coming next in Latin America. Global circulation now tops 27 million and Willcox estimates that works out to 100 million readers. Most recently audited domestic circ for RD tops 15 million copies. Unlike most major magazines, revenues are heavily skewed toward the circulation side rather than the ad side, 77% vs. 23%.
The editor is a Chicagoan, 50 years old, a Notre Dame graduate. He was a police reporter in Chicago, a suburban news reporter for Tribune Co. and a writer and editor for the Detroit News. Then he fell in with former Sen. Jim Buckley (Bill's brother) and became program adviser to the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, living there for four years. Did he enjoy Germany? Well, says Chris, his wife Emily always felt the best part of Germany was Italy.
And, no, Chris assures me, despite all those Buckley and RFE connections, "I was not CIA."
In addition to running the big mag itself, he oversees American Health for Women, Walking (soon to be renamed to include the name of the Digest), New Choices and The Family Handyman.
For the Digest, ad pages through March were up slightly over the first quarter last year and, as noted, the magazine has for the first time begun running ads folded into the back cover where Lila Wallace once chose the artwork every month. Which reminded Mr. Willcox to invite me to Pleasantville one of these