Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Condensed Version of Why RD Failed

I just read that the company that publishes Reader’s Digest magazine is filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy. Citing a decline in circulation and an inability to fully finance its debt, the company will undergo a corporate reorganization and hopes to emerge from bankruptcy in a strong enough position to continue to survive.

But, the question that those of us in the publishing business should ask is, why did this venerable print product lose so much of its customer base, both subscribers and advertisers? I am sure that there are many complex business factors that got them to where they find themselves today. However, one look at their website gives a clear indication of what might be wrong.

Simply put, a paying subscriber to their magazine no longer needs to buy the print product because there is valuable and interesting content available for free from the Digest’s own website (http://www.rd.com/). In fact, there appears to be more depth and breadth of content available on their website than is found in the typical print issue of their magazine.

Those of you who follow my blog know that I am a strong believer in print media and believe that a magazine can have a strong position in a publishing company’s lineup of products. But, the publisher must take a strategic approach to the relationship its flagship print product has with its electronic and face-to-face content deliverables. Reader’s Digest is failing, perhaps, because it does not have an effective strategy which merges the print product with its online content. Their website stands alone as a source of content and information and a visitor to the site has no reason to ever purchase a subscription to the magazine as long as the company continues to provide all of the information it does at no cost.

The lesson in this is that content delivery must be an integrated process in which the content of one product drives the audience to the content of the others. There are many fine examples of publishing organizations which are successfully doing this, most notably the Wall Street Journal. I am not suggesting that Reader’s Digest charge for content on its website. What I am suggesting is that they might consider reducing the amount of free content available on the website and make more of it available as part of a paid subscription to its print product. They have a multi-generational history of providing content that has broad appeal to a clearly defined segment of the population. They should do what they do best: use that content to build their core business but deliver the content in a multi-media strategy.

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