'Reader's Digest': The Hot Property We Tend to Forget

A Title for the Non-YouTube User

By Published on .

I can't tell you how relieved I am that some media money guys actually think my oldest sister isn't a completely worthless human being.
Some media money guys actually care about middle-class Americans who are intent on improving their lives, but not in the trendtastic, celebrity-driven manner regurgitated by most women's magazines.
Some media money guys actually care about middle-class Americans who are intent on improving their lives, but not in the trendtastic, celebrity-driven manner regurgitated by most women's magazines.

She is, for the record, an M.D. (who married another M.D.), a professor at an Ivy League medical school and the mother of five.

She's also a Reader's Digest subscriber. As I'm sure you've heard, a group of investors led by Ripplewood Holdings recently arranged to buy the magazine's parent company for $2.4 billion (including the assumption of debt) in early 2007. The group is proposing to pay a premium given what RDA stock has been trading for lately.

Granted, my sister's surely not representative of the typical Reader's Digest subscriber -- I'm guessing, for instance, that her income and educational level are above the mag's average -- but in many ways she really is an average subscriber. She's average in that she's a 40-something woman and a mom, and the head of her household.

And get this: She seldom watches YouTube videos (unless I send her a link) and she doesn't have a MySpace page!

She's hardly a Luddite -- a noted cancer researcher, my sister regularly interacts with mind-bogglingly complex science and technology -- it's just that she has little personal interest in the content offered by much of today's hottest media properties.

But she is interested in Reader's Digest. And when I head far away from Media Guy HQ in New York, I always begin to understand why. All the RD content that seems so dopey and dated to me when I'm in Manhattan actually seems to effortlessly click when I'm in her Gawker-free household. Reading the mag is like soaking in a warm bath of gently presented information about, well, a little bit of everything. It's completely unironic and untaxing and generally informative.

The little frozen-in-amber standing departments -- "Word Power," "Only in America," "Quotable Quotes," "Life in These United States," etc. -- are hokey, yes, but they're exceedingly short and very briefly diversionary. Much of the magazine is actually tip-driven, such as the money advice and the health and nutrition pages.

This is, in large part, a lifestyle service magazine for established middle-class Americans who are intent on improving their lives, but not in the trendtastic, celebrity-driven manner regurgitated by, say, most women's magazines. Just check out some recent RD coverlines: "New Ways to Kick Foot Pain Now," "50 Great Gifts Under $50," "Crook-Proof Your Home: Tips From a Thief," "Your Money: 10 Ways to Keep More" -- and it's instantly clear what sort of lifestyle this magazine is selling.

Of course, in selling itself, the behemoth Reader's Digest company -- which has editions across the globe and very successful sibling properties, such as the new Every Day with Rachael Ray -- is capitalizing on more than meets the eye. As my colleague Nat Ives noted in these pages, the company maintains a "database in the neighborhood of 100 million active names, and probably 80% of what the company does involves direct marketing. Its books division, for example, brings in about $1 billion in revenue each year, and about 95% of that comes from direct marketing."

That's the beautiful thing about this surprising, old-school deal. It is, shockingly, about a company with real assets and quantifiable reach to a very specific demographic with a laser-like focus on, basically, home and family.

Unlike, say, certain media properties that are all about, basically, self-absorption and time-wasting.

The irony of the recent valuations of certain hot social-networking and viral-video properties is that they're being driven, largely, by youth-obsessed old guys. Dudes like Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone, who, let's be frank, are due to shuffle off this mortal coil relatively soon. Rupert and Sumner are desperate to reach young people, but do they really know what to do with all those young people once they lock up their eyeballs?

Meanwhile, the suits at Ripplewood Holdings, God bless 'em, know a good (grown) woman when they see her.

~ ~ ~
E-mail: sdumenco@crain.com
In this article:
Most Popular