Late this spring, the editorial team at Reader’s DigestCanada (circulation 936,000, founded 1948) gathered in the magazine’s offices on Montreal’s René Lévesque Boulevard Ouest and listened to a two-hour spiel about how to bring the staid old brand up to date. The insight came courtesy of Derek Webster, founding editor of the award-winning but reader-starved Maisonneuve (circulation 5,000, founded 2002).
Webster’s suggestions—ranging from minor (choose less boring pull quotes) to major (reducing word counts, more visual pieces)—went over well. He was so impressive, in fact, that editor-in-chief Robert Goyette subsequently hired Webster away from his urbane journal of “arts, opinions, and ideas” and brought him on as the managing editor ofReader’s Digest‘s flagship English edition, the ultra-mainstream, 800-pound corporate gorilla of Canadian magazine publishing.
Thirty-nine years old, with a Master of Fine Arts in poetry and an almost non-existent profile outside the Canadian magazine intelligentsia, Webster seems an unlikely choice for RD, probably the biggest and most tradition-bound magazine in Canada. The scion of a wealthy Montreal family—his father Norman is a Rhodes scholar and a former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail and Montreal’s The Gazette—he’s been running his own show since 2002, when he founded Maisonneuve, which advertised itself as a magazine of “eclectic curiosity,” a tagline that couldn’t be less apt for Reader’s Digest. Even Webster admits that he rarely read RDbefore being hired, though he’s delicate with criticism, offering diplomatically that he “did not necessarily feel it was relevant.”
A single father with a young daughter, Webster took the job partially because he needed something a little more dependable (and profitable) after seven precarious years with a small magazine. Friends and colleagues say he relishes the new challenge, and he sounds excited, but he’s working in an alien corporate structure with a long institutional memory. And he doesn’t technically replace former editor Peter Stockland, who was laid off this March along with eight percent of the parent company’s global workforce. For now he’ll be working under Goyette, who is editor-in-chief of RD’s English and French language editions—though Webster expects to take over the English magazine eventually.
For now, he’s just hoping to update the famously fusty old brand. RD’s age-old formula is yielding diminishing returns, and the question remains whether a few nips and tucks will be enough to revitalize it. “It’s not a sexy job. But I didn’t start Maisonneuve for those reasons either,” he says from his office on the ninth floor of a sleek but characterless glass-walled office tower in downtown Montreal (a far cry from the west-end apartment that was home to Maisonneuve). “There’s some adjustment I’m going to have to make—it’s a corporate culture, not an entrepreneurial one, but it’s a team with huge resources that reaches millions of Canadians.”
True enough, but Webster and Goyette still face enormous challenges. In 2005, the magazine sold more than a million copies per issue, with a readership of 7.5 million. Since then, it’s lost 100,000 subscribers and almost one million readers, according to Print Measurement Bureau statistics. And the American parent company recently declared bankruptcy, though Webster says the Canadian outfit hasn’t been affected. More worrisome is the magazine’s relatively piddly $20 million from ads. Compare that to Chatelaine’s $50 million, achieved with a readership almost half the size.
Then there’s the small matter of the magazine’s bathroom-reading reputation. Street cred might not mean much to the bottom line, but that rep can’t help but bruise the egos of Webster and Goyette. Even John Ibbitson, The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau chief who recently penned a wistful paean to RD—arguing that most the magazine’s detractors couldn’t meet its “standards of clarity, brevity and focus if their careers depended on it”— doesn’t actually subscribe. The 54-year-old author and journalist prefers to read it while nostalgically nibbling Velveeta cheese at the home of his 80-something parents. He feels that a general interest magazine conceived in the early 20th century is a quixotic proposition in a niche-oriented, 21st century marketplace. Carmine Starnino, co-founder at Maisonneuve (and now its editor-in-chief), says, “Reader’s Digest can basically get any writer it wants to write about any topic it wants, and yet it’s stuck peddling the same shit that it does month in and month out.”
For now, Webster sounds bold but is vague on specifics. He does say he’d like to inject a little more style into the magazine’s features. He acknowledges that RD’s research department has historically re-phrased passages, in pursuit of accuracy but at the expense of literary flair. He proposes spending more time re-sprucing the prose after the research stage. And there’ll be fewer original pieces and more pick-ups (the condensed articles for which the magazine is best known), though they’ll come from a broader range of sources, possibly including literary quarterlies such as Fiddlehead and The Antigonish Review. The originals that do get commissioned will be “worked harder,” with “more resources put into them.” Webster also talks about being more hard-hitting and investigative and about wielding the editorial cudgel of a big budget and a high profile, but offers few specifics. But, as Stockland says, Webster won’t be able to “rip up the carpets and set the chesterfield on fire.”
Still, some people think that’s exactly what’s needed. Marco Ursi, former editor of Masthead, says that the magazine needs a “Maclean’s-like reinvention” to revitalize the brand. And Matthew Fox, an associate editor at Maisonneuve until 2006, suggests that the magazine needs a major re-think, noting that Webster “has a clear sense of what he wants a magazine to be. I don’t know how that’ll play at the Digest but that’s what they need right now.” Meanwhile, veteran industry watcher and consultant D.B. Scott is more cautious, though probably more realistic. “I don’t think that one hire is going to make that big a difference,” he says. “I don’t think that RD is in such perilous circumstances. I may be wrong. But I think the likelihood is that Reader’s Digest will change Derek more than Derek will change Reader’s Digest.”