For three-quarters of a century, Reader’s Digest has been a staple in doctor’s offices, waiting rooms and – let’s be honest here – bathrooms. It was a distinct and unique publication in the magazine world, recognizable not only because of its diminutive dime-store-novel size, but its candy bowl mix of real-life features, lifestyle tips, humour and nuggets of information.
It is, in fact, a brand so iconic that “the Reader’s Digest version” would come to stand in for brevity and concision itself.
But the Canadian edition of the magazine marked its 76th – and last – birthday in November. It will shut down its operations in the new year because of “declining ad sales revenues, increased production and delivery costs and changes in consumer reading habits,” employees were told in an online meeting Tuesday.
“It’s going to be missed by a lot of readers,” said Mark Pupo, who was editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest Canada from 2019-2022. “It was a great space for Canadian storytelling. We’re losing a lot.”
In the brief online presentation to staff – portions of which were viewed by The Globe and Mail – the company said teams have “worked diligently to address these challenges and find new ways of operating,” but that “after extensive review the difficult decision was made to wind down the Canadian business.”
Employees were told Reader’s Digest Magazines Ltd. will continue to publish its five Canadian magazines until March 31, 2024, and that the websites will remain in operation “for a certain period” with “basic support” from employees in the United States.
A spokesperson from American parent company Trusted Media Brands – identified in the presentation to staff as the person to handle all media inquiries – did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
It was an unceremonious announcement for a digest that has been a venerable part of the Canadian magazine market since it began publishing in the country in 1947. It was declared the most influential magazine in Canadian publishing history in 2008.
As recently as April, a press release described Reader’s Digest as Canada’s most-read monthly magazine, boasting more than three million readers every month. Reader’s Digest Magazines Ltd. also publishes a French edition, Sélection, as well as Best Health Canada, Our Canada and More Our Canada.
On its website, Trusted Media Brands says Reader’s Digest remains the fourth-largest circulation magazine in the United States – “proof positive that print still plays an important role in storytelling.”
But the company has struggled, with the American arm filing for bankruptcy in 2009 and then again in 2013. In recent years, Mr. Pupo said, Trusted Media had been shrinking editions and cutting back on publication frequency.
“It was kind of a long time coming. The parent company had been stripping the operation for a while, but we were hopeful it would last a lot longer,” he said. “Everyone saw that this was gradually being stripped of what it was. So it’s not shock, but it’s sad for the readers.”
Staff were told Canadian subscribers will get the American edition for the duration of their subscription, unless they choose to cancel.
Founded in the U.S. in 1922, Reader’s Digest grew to be a dominant global brand with dozens of editions published all over the world in multiple languages, including braille, and sold in over 60 countries.
The magazine became known for its mix of upbeat and informative stories, health and wellness news and dramatic storytelling, often condensed and updated versions of other magazine pieces. Issues were also peppered with vocabulary quizzes, facts, jokes, comics, puzzles and lighthearted anecdotes in features such as Laughter, the Best Medicine, and Life’s Like That.
But while the blueprint of Reader’s Digest was replicated in its various editions, Mr. Pupo said the Canada magazine was uniquely of this country, with 80 per cent of the pages dedicated to Canadian content and stories.
“There aren’t that many magazines left, and a lot of the people who were hardcore, lifetime readers of Reader’s Digest Canada, it was a way for them to get a great sense of what’s going on across the country,” he said.
“To read really compelling, heartfelt stories, a lot of emotional stories, a lot of touching stories, a lot of dramatic stories, and a lot of health news, too. So it was very important and practical for a lot of people.”
In a collection of notes compiled for the magazine’s 75th anniversary in Canada, readers described being comforted, amused, and inspired by Reader’s Digest, sometimes in profound and life-changing ways.
“I think the thing that was the most exciting and surprising for me, having worked at a lot of other Canadian magazines, was how attached and passionate and how much love the readers had for that magazine,” Mr. Pupo said.
“It was passed down through generations. People kept them at their cottages, in their bedrooms. It was treasured. And it had a lot of great Canadian storytelling in it, so it’s sad to see it go.”
It was perhaps not a mix that appealed to all – author Lynn Crosbie once described Reader’s Digest in The Globe as the “Barry Manilow of magazines” – but there was, by design, something for everyone to read, in whatever amount of time they had.
As The Globe’s John Ibbitson wrote at the time of the first bankruptcy filing in 2009, in an early but prescient lament about the publication’s demise: “The Digest was among the first to warn that cigarettes caused cancer. It exposed corruption and waste in government, and laxity in the courts. It warned of the evils of inflation and government debt.
“But more than anything else, it preached a vital message: Things can and will get better if you apply yourself. You can lose that weight. You can get that job. You can save your marriage. You can overcome this tragedy.”