This month Reader's Digest is publishing its 1,000th issue. The magazine boasts a mammoth circulation of 41 million worldwide. It reaches 48 countries and is published in 19 languages. Recently, it held a gala party in New York City with a futuristic theme.
"Welcome to Reader's Digest 1,000th issue! Welcome to the future," announced a robot.
The robot greeting partygoers to Reader's Digest's celebration of the publication of its 1,000th issue is not really high tech, just an actor hiding behind a wall with a microphone. And some of the futuristic trends showcased at this party don't seem all that new. The car of the future is no ingenious hybrid running on innovative fuel, it is a gas-guzzling Mercedes SUV and some of the furniture in the home of the future has a distinctly 1960s look. But then Reader's Digest, an icon of American culture, has been around for three generations - 83 years to be exact. Its old-fashioned, feel-good formula has made it the most popular publication on the planet. As editor-in-chief Jackie Leo puts it, the magazine is everywhere.
"We're in Indonesia, India, we're in Eastern Europe, Russia, Poland, Romania is our newest," she said. "In Latin America we're in Chile, Argentina, Brazil. We don't know what's going on in China at any given minute, but absent that it's hard to avoid us."
Reader's Digest founders Dewitt Wallace and his wife Lila launched the magazine in 1922 with a mission: to help new immigrants learn how to become American citizens. They reprinted condensed articles from around the country. Articles that heralded the individual's triumph over adversity, but in as few words as possible. Professor Don Ranly, head of the magazine department at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, says brevity was Mr. Wallace's genius.
"Dewitt Wallace was clearly ahead of his time," he said. "He recognized that people did not have time to read and he came up with this concept of the Digest. He loved things like lists and little boxes and useful information that they could clip out and put on their refrigerators, all those wonderful little things that one friend of mine called chocolate turtles that you could look for and enjoy. He just had a way of getting people into that magazine and keeping them there."
Wallace had another agenda, too. After World War II when the Wallaces had Reader's Digests delivered free to soldiers on the front line, making it enormously popular, the magazine became staunchly anti-communist. Later, during the Vietnam War, it played the same patriotic note.
"There is no question Reader's Digest was known as so pro-American and so anti-communist, it is a little difficult to stomach [put up with] that kind of stance all the time. I think one could bypass those articles and still find plenty of articles full of hope and inspiration," added Professor Ranly.
One thousand issues later, Reader's Digest is not about to abandon a successful formula. Its corporate headquarters are still housed in the Wallaces' mansion in a New York town that seems named for Reader's Digest - Pleasantville. Its pages still contain little boxes full of advice and humor. This month's issue contains the heroic story of an American Green Beret who rescued an Afghan girl, and a piece by the actor Matt Dillon, about a friend who died working with Kosovo refugees. But the reporting has a bit more of a skeptical edge, as in a column about billionaire sports team owners using taxpayer money to build their stadiums. Most stories are now original, with some running as long as 5,000 words, a length practically unheard of in American magazines. But if there was a time when people could depend on Reader's Digest always taking a conservative stance, editor Leo says that's no longer the case.
"We are not ideologues. Our readership is so vast that to take a political point of view would be absolute folly. We've done abortion; we've done right to die. We do everything. But it's reported. It's not an op-piece where somebody says from the top of their head, 'I think this is wrong.' We have an investigative unit, which the magazine never had before. We have crackerjack reporters, we have a voice," she said.
But some things remain the same at Reader's Digest. Every month, the back cover illustration serves up an image of America reminiscent of Norman Rockwell, an artist known for his often sentimental portrayal of American life. Although many of the 48 foreign editions contain stories unique to the region and with their own cultural bias or slant, it is this upbeat American image that Leo believes makes Reader's Digest so popular around the globe.
"I think it's because it celebrates freedom and the individual in a way that is absolutely unique, and at the end of the experience you've been entertained, you've been informed, you've been inspired and you've been driven probably to take some action for yourself or your family or even for your country," added Ms. Leo.
That's a lot in one little package, says editor Jackie Leo. Which is why, she adds, that another name for Reader's Digest is "America in your pocket."