Reader's Digest Is Sinking

Like most print magazines, Reader’s Digest — whose parent company is already bankrupt — is probably going to zero. And unless it can come up with a monster hit online, the Web won’t save it.

The good news is that Reader’s Digest is currently shrinking slower than the rest of the magazine business: Ad pages down 8% year-over-year in the first half, versus 26% for the overall business. And the magazine itself is still profitable, editor-in-chief Peggy Northrop tells the AP. (Read Andrew Vanacore’s lengthy AP feature on Reader’s Digest here.)

But circulation is down by almost 50% since 1995. And it’s only going down from there. The magazine has already cut its base circulation rate for advertisers to 5.5 million, down from its current 8 million.

So like many magazines, Reader’s Digest is investing in the Web. Why not? It seems a logical progression, right? Sure. But the problem is that the Web provides the fraction of the revenue that a print magazine provides.

So unless Reader’s Digest comes up with a monster hit online, it’s unlikely to find a future on the Web, on the iPhone, and on the Kindle — especially one that will support the cost structure that a print magazine is used to. (Its current reach, 1.2 million uniques, per comScore, might only support 5-6 employees, for instance.)

So what’s up their sleeves? A feature that sounds similar to what many blogs do: Take the day’s news, or information on the Web, and cut it down to a few sentences, or bullet points. Not a terrible idea, but one that is already in practice at dozens of more popular sites — Huffington Post, AOL’s blogs, Gawker Media, etc. — and one that will not be profitable unless Reader’s Digest can somehow build massive scale.

In one initiative, the magazine is looking to take advantage of its famed brevity to spread its brand online. It plans to introduce something called the “Reader’s Digest Version” in the next few months, providing a snappy, bottom-line take on a wide range of subjects. Think Wikipedia boiled down to one or two quick lines. The magazine is adding the feature on its Web site but also considering an e-mailed version, or “widgets” that could be added to other Web sites and social networking pages.

Read Andrew Vanacore’s lengthy AP feature on Reader’s Digest here >

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