Reader's Digest Rescue Effort Seems Awfully Familiar

How much symbolism does it take to turn around a bankrupt publishing company?

If there's an answer, you can be sure that Mary Berner won't fall short of it. Berner is the CEO of Reader's Digest Association, which filed for Chapter 11 in August. A former executive at Conde Nast Publications, Berner is rummaging deep in her bag of business-school tricks for ways to galvanize a company whose name is virtually synonymous with a bygone era in media culture.Berner is uprooting RDA from its historic campus in sleepy Chappaqua, N.Y., and relocating employees to midtown Manhattan. She's barraging them with motivational posters and slogans meant to instill a new set of corporate values. She's inviting them to intimate breakfast meetings to foster a new atmosphere of openness and two-way communication. She's even changing that troublesome company name, though to what she hasn't said yet.

All this provokes more than a little deja vu in those who've worked for Berner, as I have. She was the CEO of Fairchild Publications when I was a media columnist for the trade newspaper WWD. The executives she's assembled at RDA are by and large the same ones who made up her inner circle at Fairchild. I was there for the idea-sharing breakfasts and the morale-building pep rallies, and all those acronyms. At Reader's Digest, they have FACE, which stands for Fast, Accountable, Candid and Engaged. At Fairchild we had FAR, which stood (less neatly) for Fast & aggressive, Accountable and Results-oriented. We even had our own change of venue and corporate identity, although those had less to do with Berner's five-year plan than with Fairchild's integration into Conde Nast.

That's not to say there's anything wrong with this approach. Acronyms and dialogue don't cost anything, and they may have some marginal effect on how people do their jobs. Some of the innovations Berner introduced, like an annual awards banquet with cash prizes for winners, were quite good for morale -- something that's no doubt in short supply at RDA, as it is at just about every magazine publisher these days.

But Reader's Digest is a tottering giant. The flagship magazine's circulation is down from 17 million at its peak to 8 million now, with plans to go to 5.5 million next year. This year, the company folded Spanish-language offshoot Selecciones and Purpose Driven Connection, the magazine launched in partnership with megapastor Rick Warren. These are the kinds of problems that can't be fixed just by installing a new mindset -- especially when that new mindset isn't so new.
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