What's most notable about Reader's Digest is the unique nature of its content. Seven and a half decades before the dawn of the blog
, it had made a successful business model of producing almost no original output of its own. The anecdotal and joke features are mostly composed from reader submissions (solicited in return for a small fee), but aside from the editor's column, all other features are reprinted from other magazines, newspapers, or publications, often in condensed
(and simplified) form.
The idea behind the magazine, reflected in the name, is that it would act as a sieve, sifting through the collective national literary output, collecting and presenting in digest form that writing of interest and importance to the worldy, intelligent reader, who could not fairly be expected to pore over so many sources himself to find these gems. Now I don't know if I'm quite willing to call it a success in that regard - as with all commercial publications, there's a lowest common denominator element to it, arguably more here than the average - but it has been a commercial success, consistently maintaining one of the highest circulations in America (currently 12.5 million), producing good sales of spinoff publications and overseas versions, and inspiring other similar-format publications such as the "alternative" Utne Reader.
The format is really the only thing the magazine has in common with Utne, however, as Reader's Digest has since its creation consistently reflected a conservative viewpoint. From Cold War-era anticommunist screeds to modern neocon essays, some of the excerpts have always reflected a rah-rah, military booster, "God, Country, and Family", barbarians-at-the-cultural-gates rightist tilt. These selections, and the editors' letters which inevitably referenced them seemed to offer less a denouncement of leftist excesses than a sense of indignation at the simple existence of any liberals in the first place. I remember from when I regularly read it in junior high (mid-'90s) a regular feature consisting of a collection of "outrageous" actions by judges, which were occasionally matters of obvious incompetence, but more often than not instances of what the editors found to be insufficiently harsh sentencing or excessive concern for due process or the rights of the accused.
Of course, it's possible that all this curmodgeonliness is to some degree a matter of knowing their audience - the average age of a Reader's Digest reader is 49, even before factoring in the magazine's Large Print Edition, marketed towards a more elderly, vision-impaired audience, and per its capita circulation is highest in the (traditionally conservative) American midwest. The 2000 editor-in-chief installation of Eric Schrier, generally considered a moderate, and unarguably the most liberal man to ever hold the position, has changed the atmosphere a bit - reports are that the magazine is tempering its conservative stance and running fewer political articles, but in honesty I haven't read it since 1996 and can't speak from experience on this one. In any case, the Digest was never any National Review, and general interest articles, health news, travel and adventure pieces, and more neutral current-events coverage have always made up the majority of its pages.
Issues of content aside, Reader's Digest is also notable for its size - 5.5" by 7.5" and maybe half an inch thick, just large enough not to fit in a pocket (the Large Print edition is the industry-standard 7" by 10") - and the manner in which it is sold, marketed heavily through the Readers Digest Sweepstakes, a giveaway contest packaged with subscription offers for a wide variety of magazines (the purchasing of which are not, of course, necessary for entry, a fact which is mentioned only as much as is legally required). The magazine and all associated products are published by the Reader's Digest Association, maintained as a family company from founding in 1922 until 1990, when it went public with a NYSE listing ("RDA" for nonvoting stock, "RDB" for voting). For a period of time in 2000, it appeared that German media conglomerate Bertelsmann was going to buy the Association, but the deal never went through and the company remains independent.