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Is Reader's Digest Move to the Right Putting It Outside Mainstream?

Stephanie Clifford (pictured) got in some cheap digs at Mary Berner of Reader's Digest, who is retrenching the magazine toward its conservative roots.

Reporter Stephanie Clifford, who covers media advertising and marketing, made the front page of Friday's Business section talking about the philosophical retrenchment underway at the venerable Reader's Digest:



The tone Clifford takes against Reader's Digest Association president Mary Berner is reminiscent of the Times' snotty treatment of Myrna Blyth, the former editor of Ladies' Home Journal who made waves in 2004 with "Spin Sisters," a book about liberal bias in women's magazines.



That was evidently the story's initial headline, which still appears as a phantom on the top of the page: "Reader's Digest Moves Right of Middle-America."



The current online (and print edition) headline is more sedate and doesn't portray Reader's Digest as some kind of out-of-the-mainstream publication: "Reader's Digest Searches for a Contemporary Niche." But the condescension toward conservatives remained in Clifford's text.


For 87 years, Reader's Digest, that monthly breadbasket of condensed articles, can-do tales and grandmother-approved jokes, has aimed squarely at Middle America.


Now it is aiming a little more to the right.


After years of trying to broaden the appeal of Reader's Digest, the publishers are pushing it in a decidedly conservative direction. It is cutting down on celebrity profiles and ramping up on inspiring spiritual stories. Out are generic how-to magazine features; in are articles about military life.


"It's traditional, conservative values: I love my family, I love my community, I love my church," said Mary Berner, the president and chief executive of Reader's Digest Association.


Clifford's careful choice of details suggested Berner'sfashion sense made her hypocritical, harping on media elites while trying to emulate them:


Last week, just before 10 a.m. on Wednesday, company employees began streaming from their ivy-covered brick buildings up grassy hills to an auditorium, resembling morning chapel at a prep school more than a strategy meeting.


Inside, Ms. Berner took the stage and reviewed the 94 international magazines owned by the company, including 31 American magazines like Taste of Home, Every Day With Rachael Ray and The Family Handyman, and online brands including AllRecipes.com, one of the most popular recipe sites on the Web.


"They are brands that may not be considered cool by the often elitist and self-absorbed standards of New York media," she said. She had taken a car from Manhattan that morning, and wore a pink wool shirt-dress, patent leather Manolo Blahnik heels, and diamond hoop earrings.


Later, after a few more digs at Berner, Clifford revealed her own blind spot (shared by the Times as well):


In an interview in her office, Ms. Berner addressed the change in direction. "It's not as cynical as you think," she said, adding that she does not usually dress in $600 shoes but in jeans and sweaters, a fact she had her assistant confirm. And, Ms. Berner said, Ms. Northrop had heartland roots because she was from Iowa (she's actually from Pennsylvania).


"It's an unabashed commitment to and focus on a market that's ignored but is incredibly powerful," she said.


The editorial team had even considered turning Reader's Digest into a right-wing handbook, a companion to Fox News. "It was a supposition," Ms. Berner said, that half the country is annoyed that Barack Obama is president.


As if the New York Times doesn't function as a daily left-wing handbook.