In an improbably long and implausibly varied career in journalism, I suppose I count my coverage of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow as the high point. Tchaikovsky turned my dispatches into a long-running musical and Tolstoy borrowed unscrupulously.
But comparably exotic and adventurous in some respects was the decade I spent with Reader's Digest, from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, first as editor-in-chief of the Australian and New Zealand editions and then as one of the four issue editors of the US edition (who took turns at producing issues in an effort to avoid the excessively formulaic). Recollection of that time has come to mind with recent news that the great magazine is, in its 81st year, in tottery condition.
In Australia, many former colleagues in the newspaper business were of the opinion that I had drifted to the murky outer fringes of our profession by joining the foreign invader. This was far from the case. Any tendency I had to value clarity of expression, substance and accuracy of content and usefulness to readers was immeasurably enhanced by my experience with the Digest.
As well, the Australian and New Zealand editions of the Digest managed some enviable journalistic achievements.
An article by Alan Trengove in 1978 was the first substantial report on performance enhancing drug taking by athletes. It was the lead article in the US edition and was delivered to the 100 million readers around the world which the Digest then had. I kept from Trengove (possibly until now) the information that I had had a handwritten note of thanks from DeWitt Wallace, founder and owner of the Digest, which did not mention Trengove, and a bonus amounting to $500 more than I had paid him for the article. (This sort of thing happened, regrettably arrythmically, at the Digest. A valued American writer got as a wedding gift from the proprietor a cheque for enough money to buy a house). Since my contribution to the sports drug enterprise had been to say,"Okay, Al, give it a go," it could be said that justice had nodded. But I was too sensitive to give Trengove sleepless nights by debating metaphysical issues with him.
Maurice Shadbolt, New Zealand's leading novelist, wrote a brilliant 12,000 word piece for us that freed from a life sentence a young farmer named Arthur Thomas, unjustly jailed for the murder of a neighbour and his wife. With the magnanimous help of Pat Booth, who had campaigned against the Thomas conviction in the Auckland Star, Shadbolt established that Thomas had been fitted up for the murder by an Auckland detective whose reputation was built on doing similar things to some of Auckland's more evil crims. Concerned that he might be aggrieved by Shadbolt's destructive revelations about New Zealand's criminal justice system, I had gone to see Robert Muldoon, the then prime minister, to tell him what was coming. He said:"I've been worried about that case, too. Tell Shadbolt to call me if he needs help." Muldoon pardoned Thomas 17 days after the Digest issue appeared.
There was a lot more good stuff. Truly.
In America, I encountered some hostility from other journalists as a member, through employment as a Digest editor, of a right wing conspiracy. (A whiff of conspiracy theory about the Digest emerged before I left Australia. A Balmain-based newsletter claimed that I had been withdrawn from Australia because my cover as a CIA agent had been blown. An attractive woman of my acquaintance asked me wide-eyed if this was really so. I said of course not. It may have crossed my mind that she would think: Well, he would say that---and keep my new-won, though false, aura of glamour intact. Alas, no.) Since membership of a left-wing conspiracy was a far more nauseating idea, I was unperturbed by allocation to the right in the US. In any case, a conspiracy involving 100 million people wasn't very conspiritorial, and I was pleased to be a member of a congenial community of journalists, the best of whom were among the best in the business, and the weaker ones committed in their various ways to a worthwhile common cause. The incidence of villains was no higher than usual in journalism.
It is recollection of the pleasure of such company that makes me melancholy about the accumulating signs of the Digest's acute, possibly terminal, trouble. In June, Moody's Investor Service downgraded the company's credit rating and awarded its bonds junk status.
The circulation of the American edition, 18 million in my day (as the saying goes), is now 11 million and advertisers are sceptical about the Digest's assurance that it will keep it above 10 million next year. Yet another wave of retrenchments---of people and activities---now sweeping the international editions indicates that these once nice little earners are encountering comparable setbacks.
At the US headquarters symbols of past glories have been obliterated. An art collection of fabulous splendor that once hung, mainly in the editorial section, on corridor and office walls---I think it was a Bracque I had in my room---has been sold off. The rather disconcertingly feudal practice of giving each staff member a free turkey at Thanksgiving was stopped, in order, I think, to give the message: No more pampering, kiddos.
With a hugely depleted editorial staff, from which many of the most talented members departed because they didn't like it there any more, the magazine has become an absent-minded echo of the robust, disciplined journal it once was (although it has picked up a bit this year under the editorship of Jacqueline Leo, recruited from Time Life). Gossip, trendy consumerism and celebrity interviews were tacked on and while traditionally popular ingredients-- humorous anecdote and articles about real life adventures, medicine, health and sex, and advice on how to live fruitfully---were continued, it was in a mechanical, contrived way. A puffy softness infects the use of language in a magazine that once required every sentence to be load-bearing
My anxiety about the decline of the Digest grew in July when the Wallace Foundation, a charitable enterprise set up by the founder and his wife, announced it would sell its shares in the company. Its trustees felt obliged to seek better investments.
Wallace got his publishing start by summarising Department of Agriculture pamphlets, distributed in great quantity and full of useful information, but scantily read, and selling his summaries to Minnesota farmers.
Reader's Digest, which Wallace launched in 1922, was more of the same, a selection of "an article a day" from the multitude of magazines then in circulation, condensed and delivered monthly in a revolutionary small-size format. It was a brilliant idea and still is. The Weekend Australian's recently-launched Editor liftout and Eric Beecher's The Reader weekly magazine, summarising the week's news in an era where nobody can---or would want to---read it all, tacitly acknowledge Wallace's brilliant idea. So, on the internet, do the Drudge Report and Arts and Letters Daily.
I would not be surprised to see an UltraDigest make its appearance before long, probably a monthly, probably in both print and online, storing the things that might have lasting value in the month's information torrent.
Unfortunately, Wallace's Digest seems unlikely to participate in such a venture, which, in a way, is Wallace's fault. Childless and, as he grew old, virtually relation-less, he loved his little magazine almost beyond reason. (When financial managers urged him to close the Danish edition during the 80s because it was losing money, Wallace asked how much it had lost that year and wrote a personal cheque for the amount).
He started the Digest with 7000 subscribers, solicited by mail, and a $5000 loan from his brother-in-law.The early issues were all Wallace's own work. He went to the New York Public Liberary reading room each day and wrote out in longhand condensations of magazine articles that interested him. Wallace is said to have hoped for an income from the Digest of around $20,000 a year. When he died in 1981 at the age of 91, the company was worth at least $1.5 billion (a handy sum in those days), and, with his wife, Wallace owned it all.
When the need for helpers grew, Wallace selected them with meticulous personal care. I had to go to New York to be vetted by him before being hired as the Australian and New Zealand editor. I felt a bit like Harry Potter enrolling at Hogwarts when I arrived at the magnificent stately home set amidst hectares of parkland in Westchester County, 70-odd kilometres north of New York city, that turned out to be Digest headquarters. Wallace, then around 80, was a tall, handsome, fairly bald man, dressed in a traditional country gentleman gray suit, occupying an office that resembled a rural duke's study.
The most obviously probing question he asked me was when did I think Reader's Digest condensed books (abbreviated popular novels) would have to say fuck. The condensed books editors were then considering the best-seller Love Story, which said fuck often. I replied, somewhat adroitly but not insincerely, that any story you couldn't cut fuck out of wasn't much of a story.
John Zinnser, a condensed books editor assigned to take me to lunch after my interview with Wallace, asked me how I had got on. "He's a tricky fellow," he said. "He's likely to turn to you suddenly at a party and ask, 'Do you love your mother?' and arrange your career according to your instinctive response."
"Nothing like that," I said."We mainly talked about when condensed books would have to say fuck."
"Ah," said Zinsser."Did you blush?"
Despite, or maybe because of, Wallace's tight screening, a large magazine editorial staff assembled at the Digest's headquarters in Chappaqua, a small, sleek town on the fringe of exurbia. (Wallace had moved out of the city originally to Pleasantville and had kept that mailing address largely because the U.S. post office was unwilling to dismantle the vast structure it had set up there to handle Digest business). The editors and assistants numbered about 220 when I moved in.
This may seem rather a lot to deliver 30 articles a month in "handy condensed form." Some had more to do than others, it is true, but the the Digest's success lay in the detail. When you were conscious of serving 100 million readers, your hand (and mind) hesitated over every comma. Nearly all members of the magazine editorial staff performed with excellence, in large or small quantity, their tasks of reading and recommending articles and book extracts, recruiting and managing authors of original material, checking facts, selecting jokes, sub-editing copy, designing and illustrating pages--and, most of all, editing to reduce length and sharpen the focus of the 30 articles. Their skills were among the company's major assets.
Wallace's presence and purpose permeated every room of the stately home. His indifference to profit maddened generations of business executives the growth of the company had obliged him to engage, and whose acumen, in fact, kept the company afloat. Earnings, Wallace insisted, were to be spent on keeping the magazine price low (and the price of other products) and improving the quality of its content. He reluctantly agreed to accept advertising in 1954 because the alternative was to increase prices, including the magazine's cover price. Wallace supported for years, without claim to any of the rights, Alex Haley's research into his African ancestry that produced the best-seller Roots. The cost must have been in the millions. A million or so was spent on Clare Sterling's go-anywhere-do-what-needs-to-be-done assignment to track (as she did) a Soviet connection to the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. When a writer covering a Florida hurricane called editor-in-chief Ed Thompson to report that there were no more hire cars left in the state, Thompson replied:"Buy a goddam car."
For a journalist, the Hogwartsian aspects of this milieu are retrospectively dazzling.
Maybe the best way of illustrating Wallace's devotion to his little magazine is the story of his ruthless despatch of his most beloved protégé, Hobart Lewis. Lewis was both editor-in-chief and president of the Digest. Wallace had never ceded such power to anybody. Lewis was handsome and charming and good at his jobs. Some saw him as the son Wallace never had. He was widely accepted as Wallace's likely heir. When Lewis covered the expenses of maintaining a girl-friend in Paris by giving her a job as a researcher in the Paris bureau, it was more or less accepted as a prince's perks.
But then Lewis tried to force into the magazine a not-so-good article his girlfriend had written, Wallace fired him on the spot. According to convincing legend, Wallace then strode into the sub-editor's room, seized a proof and pencilled Lewis's name off the magazine masthead, exclaiming, "No more editor-in-chief, no more president."
Unfortunately, Wallace then lost sight of the notion of orderly succession. Asked by a friend, some years later, what was in his will, Wallace said he wasn't sure and didn't think he had a copy of it. Urged by his friend, he located a copy and found to his consternation that his sole trustee was a lawyer of Dickensian shonkiness. Although new trustees were appointed, evil (to my eye) forces, led by Laurance Rockefeller, a man aptly described by a former Digest editor, Peter Canning, in his book American Dreamers, as being easily shocked by "cruelty to money," and ably assisted by the former sole trustee, persuaded a near-senile Wallace to bequeath his vast empire to a number of charitable trusts that reflected Rockefeller's interests more than Wallace's.
A business associate of Wallace's once remarked that with the Digest's computer-profiled list of millions of customers, "you could sell shit in a sack---once." The trusts did not heed the qualification in their drive to turn Wallace's magazine-publishing enterprise into a money machine.
An exceptionally subservient chief executive, George Grune, frantic to increase earnings by cutting costs, demanded of an editorial colleague:"Why do we need to pay fancy salaries to all these editors? Why not get in a bunch of high school teachers to do the job?"
I don't know if this was actually tried. If it was, it obviously hasn't worked.