{ America in Your Pocket }
Shannon McLaughlin

waiting roomShe was eating while we spoke. I didn't mind, just grateful to be granted the ten-minute phone interview. I wasn't sure I'd get that.
   "The New...what?" one of her public relations assistants asked. "How do you spell that?"
   I hadn't really read a copy of Reader's Digest since I was fourteen. It was an awkward summer somewhere between playing with neighborhood kids and finding a job. I found some old copies of the magazine in my parents' basement and read the funny parts—the bits where readers sent in anecdotes and jokes and made $100. Later that year, my grandmother bought me a subscription to Seventeen magazine, and there was no going back. Pretty girls and handsome boys in overpriced prom gear were more alluring than "News of Medicine." And I preferred the embarrassing revelations in Seventeen's "Sex & Body" to the Digest's "Humor in Uniform."
   So, scheduling an interview with Jacqueline Leo, Editor in Chief of Reader's Digest, I was a little nervous, a little penitent. Would she know that I wasn't a reader?
   I'd gone to the grocery story a week before, and selected a copy—still diminutive, but hefty—from the wire rack in the checkout aisle. Instead of the table of contents on the cover, as I remembered, a bald Bruce Willis stared at me. I was sure the old copies I'd read that summer couldn't have cost $2.49.
   I read it that night, and still chuckled at the readers' anecdotes and jokes. I finished the word game in the back. Was this a sign I was getting older, or a particularly interesting issue?
   Leo would probably hypothesize it's neither.
   "There's a lot more to tie the generations together [than most people think]," she says. "Good stories appeal to everyone."
   There are some forty-four million Reader's Digest readers, and the average is about forty-eight years old, according to Media Life Magazine. But Leo—who only accepted her position in October—has plans to bring that down over the next thirty-six months.
   "[We have to be] better at what we're already doing," she says. Without "pandering" to a younger audience, Leo says she will draw younger readers in with quality content, and she doesn't refer to this younger generation as "Generation X."
   " ėMillennials', I call them," she says. It sounds like a class of flowers, and she speaks so well of the generation, you'd almost think she meant it that way. "[They] take the best out of the culture," pointing out that they lack some of the prejudices of their parents. The admiration in her voice is obvious when she says from Tony Bennet to rap stars, poetry raves to mosh pits, "Millennials" extract the cream regardless of the era from which it came—a significant difference, she says, from their predecessors.
   So, by including the best generation-line-defying content, Leo reasons, younger readers will necessarily be attracted to the Digest.
   In addition to changing the cover, Leo says the language is fresher. "Medical Update" has replaced "News of Medicine." The near-dead feature is now popular again, just because of a little word changing. "Magazines are a little bit like a club or a restaurant. You know when you walk in, you either want to be there, or you want to get the hell out," attributing the success of her club to its broad appeal and varied content.
   "It's a snapshot of America in your pocket," she says, and it almost is measuring just a half-inch too wide and a half-inch too tall to fit in a five-by-seven-inch frame.
   In spite of the late lunch, or early-evening dinner, Leo is quick and easygoing with advice. Sitting astride the flagship publication of a $2 billion-plus industry, which publishes forty-eight editions in nineteen languages in more than sixty countries, she knows she has nothing to fear from a young Internet upstart like The New Yinzer.
   So, I ask her how a small Internet magazine might succeed at establishing itself.
   Despite managing a magazine that has more than three quarters of a century in print tradition, Leo describes herself as a "proponent of the digital world." But she doesn't see that world edging out inked copies anytime soon. A successful magazine or newspaper site will entertain—and inform—simultaneously, and she rejects the notion that people go to the Web strictly for news, unless they are searching for specific service information.Which is likely why www.rd.com—in addition to publishing stories from the print version—also houses links for readers to send stories and jokes to editors. The magazine now pays readers up to $300 for funny anecdotes and jokes.
   "It's a process and it takes time," she says, and an online publication must offer its readers something unique, and it doesn't hurt to break stories, either. She recommends polls and surveys—and offbeat interviews. "Quote some interesting people."

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