This read digested: biggest magazine in the world struggles for survival in Britain

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The Independent Online

"Mayday, Mayday" screamed an item on the Reader's Digest website yesterday, above an offer for a book containing 480 "cliff-hanging, nail-biting pages" and 51 "remarkable survival stories", under the title They Lived to Tell the Tale.

The same might not be said for Reader's Digest itself, which shortly afterwards announced it had gone into administration, meaning a new buyer is desperately being sought to allow the biggest magazine in the world to continue to exist in Britain, where it arrived in 1938 carrying a price of two shillings.

Reader's Digest would be greatly missed by its British readers, who enjoy its monthly mix of real-life tales of derring-do and homely advice. The title's circulation has dropped from more than 1 million in 2001 to 465,028, nearly all of which are subscriptions that, once signed up to, are notoriously difficult to escape from. Many more people will have encountered dog-eared copies of the chunky little publication during idle moments in dentist's waiting rooms, or while visiting the lavatories of elderly relatives.

It's the pension fund that is threatening the existence of Reader's Digest. Its American parent company, the Reader's Digest Association (RDA), blamed the UK pensions regulator for rejecting a rescue plan, which would have seen an injection of £10.9m cash and a transfer of part of the equity of the UK business to the pension fund's trustees to close a £125m deficit. The pension scheme covers 1,600 past and present employees. The RDA said in a statement: "The decision by the RDA UK board to place the UK company into an orderly insolvency process follows the recent decision by the UK Pensions Regulator that it would not support an agreement already reached between RDA UK, the trustees of its pension plan and the UK Pension Protection Fund to settle a long-standing pension plan liability." It said the business did "not see a clear pathway to profitability in the UK over the next several years". The administrators Moore Stephens have been called in, and the magazine and its 117 British employees will continue to produce the title during a search for a new buyer.

Reader's Digest was founded in 1922 by the American publisher DeWitt Wallace, who had the idea while recovering from shrapnel wounds in a French hospital during the First World War. The concept was to offer a selection of the best articles from other magazines. The idea took off, and it now circulates 17 million copies in 70 countries and 21 languages. But, amid a global demise in print media, the US parent company has experienced severe financial difficulty and is itself only just emerging from the US equivalent of administration, after a successful restructure.

In Britain, Reader's Digest has faced competition from The Week, another news digest magazine but with a greater frequency of publication, as its name suggests. The Week's circulation has grown to 169,690, a rise of nearly 10 per cent in the past year. The British edition of Reader's Digest was given a radical makeover in 2008, with the appointment of Sarah Sands as editor-in-chief. The former Sunday Telegraph editor introduced a greater proportion of original journalism to the magazine, commissioning writers including Julie Burchill, A N Wilson, Stephen Fry and Ben Schott. But she left the following year to become deputy editor of the London Evening Standard. Sands was succeeded by Gill Hudson, the former editor of Radio Times.

An American executive was placed in editorial control of all international editions of the magazine, prompting speculation that there would be a greater inclusion of health tips, a staple of the US edition. A cover line for the latest British edition is "Nine health niggles you can't ignore". Hudson said in August that there was a lack of confidence in the magazine sector. "I think fear is a real problem in this industry and I don't remember it being this bad." Now Reader's Digest has another health niggle to worry about, another reason to be fearful.

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