Magazine Weekly: `Reader's Digest', `The Week' and now `Cover' - lessons in serving up bite-size journalism

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The Independent Online
It is easy to scoff at Reader's Digest. The very premise of a magazine that cuts up a writer's carefully honed work into bite-sized pieces for the timid readers of Iowa or Ohio strikes many as at best crushingly middlebrow and at worse desecration. Added to this is the long-running Cold War myth that Reader's Digest was funded by the CIA to propagate the values of middle America - complete with healthcare tips and anecdotes about religious farmers - to a worldwide audience.

Even without the CIA, the magazine wraps a right-wing credo in an irritating down-home style: "We reflect the scepticism that government can solve our problems" - code for "cut taxes" - and "We herald the unending promise of self-determination and individual enterprise" - probably code for the right to bear arms and break trade unions.

Reader's Digest, in short, has never been a cool magazine to be seen with. Yet it is one of the best-selling magazines in the UK and, with a worldwide circulation of 27 million in 19 languages, is probably the best-selling non-Chinese-language publication in the world.

It is this phenomenal success, rather than its fatal lack of cool, that is attracting imitators. In 1995, The Week, a digest of news stories from newspapers in the UK and overseas, was launched by Jon Connell, former deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph, with the backing of Felix Dennis, the computer-magazine millionaire.

Two years on, The Week has sales of between 20,000 and 30,000, some way behind Reader's Digest's UK sales of 1.6 million copies per issue. The Week survives because its costs are low. It does not pay for articles, but, much to the annoyance of a number of national newspapers, rewrites them in short form instead and that way avoids paying for the articles or their copyright.

"We are based on the premise that if you want to read the best writers you have to read all of the newspapers because they are spread right across them," says Jon Connell.

"Add to that the fact that newspapers are getting ever bigger, especially at weekends, just when people are having to work longer and have less time on their hands. So we can bring you the most interesting, funny and relevant pieces."

It is true that there has been a quantum leap in the quantity of material available to read. According to the Henley Centre, newspapers were increasing in size by as much as 16 per cent a year during the early Nineties until a rise in newsprint prices caused a slowdown in 1995. Similarly, the number of magazines has increased from around 2,500 in the mid-Eighties to more than 5,000 now.

And into this overcrowded market comes another title claiming to be able to solve the problem of too much choice - Cover. While The Week is more like a small newspaper, Cover is a glossy monthly magazine. It will reprint features from British newspapers in full - and will therefore pay for them - as well as articles from magazines such as Esquire and titles from overseas. It is less a digest of a month's writing than a choice of the best of a month's writing.

"There is so much to read, we feel we are the solution to that problem," says co-editor Danny Danziger, former columnist at The Independent and the Daily Mail. "We can point to magazines you wouldn't know about. We can bring a number of additions to your favourite magazines in one magazine."

Cover has 10 "readers" looking through everything from Playboy to the Wall Street Journal and Paris-Match, but Mr Danziger believes that British writing will predominate: "The journalism in other languages is not that good. The best writing is in Britain."

His rival at The Week agrees: "The New York Times may be balanced but you will fall asleep reading it," says Jon Connell. "But if you want balance from British newspapers you will have to read a magazine like The Week." Connell claims that with columns such as "Boring but important" and "It must be true, I read it in the tabloids", The Week has created its own humorous identity.

Nevertheless, the problem for "magpie" magazines such as The Week and Cover must be that they are competing with magazines and newspapers that have spent years honing their editorial identity and market position. Regular readers of newspapers and magazines know exactly what they are buying; even those who do not buy a newspaper have a fairly good idea of what it is likely to contain. The Week and Cover can by definition never have their own identity and are likely to suffer for it.

More paradoxically, they both claim to be the solution to the overcrowding on the newsagents' shelves, whereas of course they are just contributing to itn