An Edgy Reader's Digest? It May Be Here Already
A Q+A with Peggy Northrop.
Readerâs Digest was nominated for a National Magazine Awardâits first in 20 years. Ahead of Thursday nightâs presentation, FOLIO: spoke with Peggy Northrop, Readerâs Digestâs editor-in-chief, about the nomination, what it means, and what the future holds for the magazine.
FOLIO:: This is the first nomination for Readerâs Digest in a long time. Two questions: What took so long? And what do you attribute this to?
Northrop: I donât like to say people werenât paying attention to the magazine, but you go through cycles of popularity. We made some changes editorially, added a lot of layers. We asked ourselves, âWhat can we do with the way we package stories?âÂ And I think, suddenly, Readerâs Digest, in a revived form, captured the attention of readers and voters.
On the editorial side, Iâve learned to never get complacent. We do a lot of testing, a lot of listening to our readers. We were a pioneer in user-generated contentâgetting our jokes from readers. And weâre investing a lot (in the Web and social media). I think the key is in the execution, and weâre trying to execute with religious fervor.
FOLIO:: The first quarter was brutal for a lot of magazine publishers. What has been your approach so far this year, and what is it going into the second half?
Northrop: In the first quarter we were down only 4 percent (in ad pages). Thatâs not usually something to brag about, but itâs better than others in the industry. There is a downside, of course. My newsstand really sucks, to be honest.
FOLIO:: How do you keep editorial fresh/relevantâdare I say, even edgyâwithout alienating older readers?
Northrop: Itâs not easy. I wanted the magazineâs covers to reflect whatâs inside. Like our health coverage. When I got here, I took celebrities off the cover. It did not work. But weâve taken some calculated risks. In April, for instance, we did a (relatively) controversial about breast cancer. The cover shows a woman doing a breast exam.
FOLIO:: How do you keep your staff motivated/inspired with all the layoffs going on, both at RDA and the industry at large?
Northrop: I think it starts with communication. Iâm grateful we were able to do layoffs swiftlyâthey were done within a day. So we could go back to our staffs and say âHereâs whatâs happening, hereâs whyâitâs tough, but we all have to keep working hard.â It was like ripping a band-aid. Other publishers havenât been able to do it this way. But, since itâs happening all over the industry, itâs not like I need to do a whole lot of cheerleading. I also communicate the positivesâlaying out what success will look like in six to 12 months. Itâs kind of like âManagement 101â but getting back to the basics in a time like this is a good thing.
FOLIO::Â Will the print form of Readerâs Digest exist in five years?
Northrop: Yes. You know, you have to look at our history. TV didnât kill the radio. It made it different. The Internet did not kill print. I believe we will have a print editionâthe great thing about magazines, and the size of our magazine in particular: Itâs imminently portable. Readers tell us that all the time. I get letters from soldiers who tell me that the magazine fits âin my cargo pants in a helicopter.â