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Former editors reflect on Reader's Digest distinct brand after reports of closure

Former editors at Reader's Digest Canada are reflecting on the bite-sized magazine's outsized impact in the publishing landscape, following reports that the brand would shutter operations at its Canadian edition in the new year.

The Globe and Mail first reported that employees were told Reader's Digest Magazines Ltd. will continue to publish five Canadian magazines until March 31, 2024. Its parent company cited the decline in advertising revenue, the increase in production costs and changes in reading habits during a meeting with its employees.

A source, who was not authorized to speak to media, confirmed to The Canadian Press that this announcement also includes the French publication and its employees.

A spokesperson from Trusted Media Brands, which owns the Reader's Digest brand, did not respond to requests for comment.

Carmine Starnino, interim editor-in-chief of The Walrus and a former Reader's Digest editor, said it's a sad end for the magazine that ran for more than three-quarters of a century.

"There's a certain kind of journalism that won't exist anymore," Starnino said Wednesday.

"It tried to inform and inspire.... Everything was packaged so that you were given a vision of things that somehow made you feel like everything was going to be OK.

"That became less interesting as it faced a kind of demographic death," he added.

The Canadian edition of Reader's Digest was known for its mix of profiles of influential Canadians, investigative pieces, lifestyle advice, personal essays and jokes, complemented with reprints from other magazines and foreign versions.

At the height of its influence, the magazine circulated around 800,000 copies and was the most-read magazine in the country, with a readership that clocked in around five million, Starnino said.

When he joined during the publication's "downturn" in 2010, Starnino was part of a team tasked with making the magazine relevant again and reach new audiences. At the time, it occupied two floors of a downtown office building with a large Reader's Digest sign on it.

Despite their efforts, the exercise proved fruitless, and changes they made to modernize the magazine — such as tablet editions and an embrace of social media — didn't stick with its aging readership.

"When we shifted to this whole attention economy, the business model didn't make any sense anymore. It could not offer anything new, and could not adapt appropriately and quickly enough to new conditions," he said, noting the publication tried to instead double down on its humour and adventure stories.

"It kept being exemplary bathroom reading."

Ziya Jones, a Reader's Digest editor from 2015 to 2020 before joining digital LGBTQ publication Xtra Magazine, said it was one of the few remaining Canadian outlets that paid freelancers a living wage, as well as one of the few that still employed a rigorous fact-checking process.

"They had an audience that absolutely loved what they did, like we'd get letters from people every month talking about how they've been Reader's Digest readers for 30, 40, 50 years, that they had subscriptions passed down to them," said Jones, who handled the letters page for years.

"There was always a kindness and positivity to the stories in Reader's Digest. A lot of the readership was older and I think valued that," they said, noting some even had lifetime subscriptions only offered decades ago.

By the time Jones got to Reader's Digest, the magazine was already trying to diversify both its staff and content to better reflect Canadian demographics.

"The idea that something that was so committed to paying writers reasonably well, that was committed to providing accurate and well-researched magazine journalism ... to have that disappear is scary as a journalist. It's sad as a reader," they said.

Starnino, The Walrus' editor, said Reader's Digest's end offers no better indication of the state of Canadian media. With its closure will also go "an entire economy of stringers and freelancers" who propped up the publication.

"But I also think nothing much will change, and that's really the sad part," he said.

"It was a vision of daily life and hopefulness that at a certain point made sense. At another point it stopped making sense because readers could get all that stuff online."

The Globe and Mail reported that staff were told Canadian subscribers would get the U.S. edition for the rest of their subscriptions, unless they choose to cancel. It also said the Canadian websites will remain in operation "for a certain period" with support from employees in the United States.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2023.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press