Reader's Digest courts red-state America

Mass-market print magazines are in rapid decline. Could cable news offer a model for renewed growth?

Reader's Digest Association thinks it might. The Chappaqua, N.Y.-based publisher, whose name is virtually synonymous with broad, inoffensive general-interest content, is hoping to reverse its waning fortunes by narrowing its focus to a particular slice of the national audience: religious conservatives.

The first taste of this came a few months ago when RDA introducedPurpose-Driven Connection, a quarterly magazine produced in partnership with megachurch pastor Rick Warren. Now, reports The New York Times, that tendency has become a full-fledged strategy, with the company reorganizing its editorial mission around "conservative values."

The flagship magazine, Reader's Digest, is "cutting down on celebrity profiles and ramping up on inspiring spiritual stories," and RDA is looking for other religious personalities like Warren around whom to construct new brands.

"It's traditional, conservative values: I love my family, I love my community, I love my church," explains CEO Mary Berner. RDA even experimented with pumping overt right-wing politics into Reader's Digest, although that tested badly with readers, reports the Times.

Courting conservatives is a somewhat counterintuitive tactic at a time when the country is riding its biggest wave of liberalism in 40 years, and resentment of coastal elites seems to be on the ebb. But playing to the right remains a lucrative business model for those that know how to pull it off.

Newsmax, a Florida-based conservative publication, is one of the few young magazines that's managed to sustain profit growth as the economy has turned. Fox News, meanwhile, has enjoyed some of its best ratings ever in the early months of the Obama administration.

But both of those organizations came by their leanings honestly. Although Berner denies that RDA's shift to the right is "cynical," she acknowledges that it's a business-driven pose. Will readers pick up on the inauthenticity? With RDA reportedly teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, it may be worth the gamble to find out.

Update: Reader's Digest is saying that the New York Times reporter who wrote the original story misinterpreted the changes being made at the magazine.

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